Where does innovation come from?

I don’t know if it’s shaped by our experiences, or just the way our brains are wired, but it seems to me most humans have a preference for a thing that’s been labelled ‘tunnelling’ – looking in greater and greater depth into an ever-narrowing field of enquiry.  Becoming a ‘specialist’ is something that we can respect, someone who has superior depth of knowledge.  If you’re curious enough about a subject to make it your job, then you’ve got objectives and you’ve got people who want and need your specialism. You are rewarded for an ever-increasing depth of knowledge. Now I reckon that this is generally the path of incremental improvements and refinement, rather than innovation.

So, what about breadth of knowledge?  In a world where the natural tendency of most curious people is to become a specialist, is it more useful to be a generalist? At what point do you step back, look at the context, fit new knowledge into your jigsaw, and then wonder about the pieces that are missing?  How do you intuit a gap between concepts?

It’s easy to gravitate towards things, it’s less common to be drawn to the gaps between things.

Here be dragons. Or rather, here be opportunities!

But there’s a caveat here – before you can identify the gaps, you need to be plenty knowledgeable of the things that the gaps go between.  Or to put it another way, without enough knowledge to critically evaluate, a person with ideas is just a person that gets distracted and explores pointless tangents. Unsurprisingly, large organisations don’t tend to value people with this ability. Is this one of the reasons why large organisations are less likely to innovate?

Since I’ve got surplus disruptive creativity disorder (not actually a thing, yet), I naturally made a bike that was as unlike the current standard as possible.  There are only so many ways in which swing-arms and drivetrains can be attached to a bicycle. I’m still shocked that I found a variation that hadn’t been explored.

So I dreamed up the most extreme version of my bonkers design knowing it would definitely be awful, but which could still be ridden. Just to see what happened. To learn the maximum number of lessons in one go. If there was any potential to find something new, it could only exist in the places that nobody else had looked. Looking back, this seems simple and obvious. I’ve made two bikes that fill a gap. Two years ago it wasn’t obvious if this really was a gap or just a cul-de-sac of frustration and told-you-so’s.

Many of my engineering friends were happy to point out the reasons why my initial ideas wouldn’t work, trying to do me the favour of saving me from wasted time and money, but I had incompletely formed questions in my mind and needed a process that I could interact with, so that I could both find out what the questions should be and then get answers.  I knew from my first prototypes that the question of braking anti-rise needed to be rewritten, and once I started playing with the Lego Technic I had the chance to think through the questions about how a very non-linear axle-path changes what is required from the leverage curve.  Modelling this suspension concept in CAD would have come up with many reasons to abandon the project.  I can’t help but wonder whether the complexity of CAD (people with a predisposition for tunnelling like complicated tools) actively restricts designers’ ability to engage with this stuff.

There’s something amazing and beautiful and outwardly simple, but inherently complicated about bicycles.  We blather on about elegant simplicity, yet the maths to explain how a bicycle remains stable and stays upright is horrendously complicated.  With rear suspension you’ve got braking forces, pedalling forces, bump-absorbing forces, and then you’ve got to consider that it’s powered by an unpredictably oscillating power source (the rider) that wants to thrutch and hump their way up/along/down a trail and expects the bike to do this with a minimum of fuss, minimum moveable parts, which reacts favourably to their every movement, and which assemble into a structure which pleases the eye.

Of course, the modern world needs CAD to make anything ready for even the smallest scale of production, and Auckland CycleWorks has got a talented CADmaster doing some proper-fancy magic, but I’m super-proud that my suspension design is entirely the result of an analogue process.  Plenty of people have asked if I know why nobody else has ever come up with this same system.  All I can think of, is that everyone out there in suspension-designy-land is just too focused on using computers, and therefore overlooked this opportunity.  There’s something about this outwardly-simple-but-actually-horrendously-mathematically-complex nature of the bicycle, that I love because it will always deliver opportunity to the one-person inventor/experimenter/tinkerer.

Or maybe I’m just romanticising ‘cos I didn’t have a spare decade to get my CAD skills up to scratch, but fortunately I already had several decades of Lego Technic experience!

So I embarked upon a long and perilous journey, not knowing my destination. Maybe this is why large organisations don’t innovate as effectively as small organisations and lone inventors?  Have they got too many specialists and too many reasons to stick to their existing formulas?  Or is it because in this whole world there are only a handful of large successful companies, yet there are thousands of eccentric hobbyist inventors with crazy ideas – it’s a statistical certainty that at least one of them will dream up something worthwhile!

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