Innovation practices on how to envision the future

Innovative Thinking: Beyond Design Thinking

Innovative thinking manifests itself in many forms. It goes beyond the conventions of design thinking (i.e., design merged with engineering) to embrace a bigger mental network: systems thinking, business systems, intuition, and vision.

Innovators approach their creations and challenges in different ways. One way of examining the combination of discipline and imagination required by innovative thinking is to look at a given scenario through the lens of a different place and time. This often means pegging yourself into a future global system that’s based on insight, inspiration, and imagination. From there, you can explore your new scenario and look backwards to figure out how to get to that future position.

Let’s use the Reinvention of the Automobile to explore this approach to innovative thinking. This is a good example because it demonstrates a unique way of creating a viable vision for the future for transportation. Although this example uses the automotive world as a springboard, this same focus-on-the-future approach can be used in other fields and industries. (Ideation Genesis has used similar methods to create office products, beverages, and new consumer products.)


The Reinvention of the Automobile began with a request from General Motor’s CEO and senior leadership: they asked a team to create—and thereby solve—the future of transportation. (They had made this request before, but previous teams had been unable to come up with a successful concept.)

Adrian, the innovation architect and program visionary, decided to use a new “future casting” approach to tackle the problem. Instead of taking the tried-and-true, expected, typical approach of starting with today’s trends and ideas and projecting them into the future, he decided it was time to place himself in the future and then look backwards.

Future casting the GM AUTOnomy and back casting to the Chevy Volt

Future casting is achieved by discarding the known before putting yourself into an imagined future scenario. Once you’ve done that, you work to envision, define, and discover a viable solution to whatever problem you’re facing. This is not an easy thing to do—it comes with a great deal of uncertainty! But discarding established notions allows you to strategize and play in new realms of possibility. This is amply illustrated by what happened in the case of the Reinvention of the Automobile.

Automobiles are basically a collection of parts that has become amalgamated over time. Each piece is conceptualized and built on top of old assumptions and old constraints; there’s no flexibility and no chance of doing anything new. True innovation is totally impractical for those working in and outside the industry.

But even with the blockades placed upon innovation, when something new has to be developed, everyone involved with the project must also understand and accept that is okay to explore the Novel and the Untried. If no one embarks upon this journey, no one would have the new vision needed to solve the problem at hand. (In this case, reinventing the automobile.)

Starting in the future is pure blue-sky thinking in the sense that any theoretical outcomes could be made into reality…but at the same time, any potentially successful solution must also be practical. The key to truly existing and innovating in the imagined new space is to embrace imagination, which in turn facilitates creative thinking. Once in the future, dismantle the past. Question everything, because that will enable you to identify a future vision. From this far-reaching place of possibility—say, 25 years into the future—you can begin to massage and tweak ideas into life. As new ideas are born, ideas begin to build upon ideas…almost like magnets being pulled towards other magnets. The collection of ideas begins to frame a story, a lifestyle, and a viable and compelling future, a future where ideas can take hold. In the case of the automobile, this future became host to a new, advanced level of transportation, and the proposed solutions became living, breathing creations.

The Reinvention of the Automobile led to a vision wherein future transportation is based on clean energy and is carbon-neutral. Vehicles will have been optimized for intelligent and adaptable manufacturing even as customers have more options/experiences and more ways to grow and adapt as their needs change. Once Adrian and his team had established that vision, the team backcast, projecting backwards in time, expanding on how to create and target successive vehicle iterations to reach that future vision. That meant integrating and devising how business, design, and technology could be embraced. The team knew that each stage had to utilize holistic strategic thinking while also considering manufacturing processes, anticipated customer needs and behaviors, business systems, branding, and technology development.

Thus, by beginning in with future, the constraints and legacies from the previous 100 years of automobile history were eliminated. And although the anticipated vision is 25 years in the future and may well take longer than that to become a reality, the impact of that vision will write the history for the next 100 years of transportation.

Innovation from the Future

Creating and reaching a possible (and probable) future required a two-pronged approach. First, the team analyzed and researched leading trends in transportation technologies and innovations. (In other words, “know what you know.”) Drawing from this kind of acquired knowledge and insight, a handful of technologies were identified as possible differentiators if displaced from the here and now.

The second part of the approach was the flip side of the first: know what you don’t know. This is when all assumptions need to be set aside and everything needs to be questioned.

When the team adopted this let’s-start-over mentality, the remaining constraints were simply four wheels, a propulsion system, and a vehicle structure that would house and protect its occupants. The team also rethought how people do/would drive, how consumers’ needs change over time and life phases, how the vehicle could be made “green,” how it could be manufactured to last longer, how newer models could be introduced faster….basically, the team utilized a systems approach combined with systems thinking.

By drawing upon both methods and viewing them through the lens of sustainable mobility, life-cycle design, engineering efficiencies, and design enablers, several solutions presented themselves. So did anticipated customer needs and behaviors. Those solutions in turn led to certain features and functionalities becoming obvious. However, for those features and functionalities to have added value (and therefore be selected), the team knew they would have to meet certain requirements. Some fundamental requirements were established:

•An eco-friendly vehicle would preferably have zero emissions
•Such a vehicle should last longer (sustainability) and require less maintenance
•The vehicle must be able to travel long distances on a single fill-up or charge
•The vehicle would optimally be designed (i.e., having fewer components for the sake of streamlining production)
•The vehicle must be visually compelling and technically intelligent

After the wish list was created, the team thought out of the box in terms of technologies, constraints, and opportunities for creating the desired future in the present. Then some time was allowed to pass for those thoughts to incubate and merge with the future vision.

The Big Idea

In innovation, there’s always a cataclysmic clash as the mind synchs with possibilities, imposed constraints, and a future vision. The mind reels, a spark surges…and those lucky enough to have a visioneering epiphany experience a jolt of mental lightning. It’s the “Ah-ha!” moment, and it occurs when you look at the overall problem using a systems approach rather than a component approach.

To be effective, a systems approach warrants a division of content. In the automotive scenario, current vehicle hardware includes gas tanks, braking systems, engines, transmissions, an electrical system, etc. They’re all packaged throughout a vehicle like lights on a Christmas tree. It’s an architectural nightmare to deal with space-grabbing functionality that’s hidden and packaged under metallic skin, carpet, and aesthetic styling.

But if the design of the interior space could be divorced from the engineering space for the sake of component packaging, the team wondered, could vehicles be designed and engineered in fresh ways? Could there be a way for vehicles to be optimized for functional intelligence and structural competence?

Yes, the team realized. By using technologies like an advanced propulsion system (i.e., a hydrogen-powered fuel cell) consisting of electric fuel, the zero-emissions requirement would be met. Electronic controls for steering, braking, and accelerating would decouple the mechanical linkages that were dictating the occupant’s relationship to the vehicle architecture.

It was obvious: if the architectures of the past were eliminated, a future of sustainable mobility could be created, one where vehicles would last longer, be built faster, and be simultaneously designed for local and global markets.

Building the Vision

This is the part where innovators make their creations real. Ideas are processed and innovation is broken down into actionable items, consumer benefits, and corporate gains in profits, market share, and differentiation.

Idea Czars take their concepts to a personal level, too. Building a story to convey the power of ideas isn’t enough—the heart and ultimate sales pitch of innovative thinking lies in connecting with the consumer. Innovators have to think past themselves and listen to the customer of the future in order to respond to and deliver what the consumers’ anticipated needs are. Innovators have to constantly explore, absorb, and learn. Once the innovator’s mind is firmly in the future, he or she has to backcast and integrate the solution set. Today’s customers may not fully grasp how to get there, but as innovative systems evolve and become more and more apparent in our daily lives, the solutions will meet the future needs and expectations of tomorrow’s customers.

This is the key to visioneering and innovation thinking: future ideas must meet future opportunities and future needs. This harmonious relationship of possibility and what the market will want lays down the foundation for future opportunities. When businesses and corporations reach this intersection, they create innovations and deliver top-line future growth.

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