Barometer: innovation

With a twist

1. Saya Mobile

Messaging apps such as Whatsapp and BBM are hugely popular on smartphones, thanks to unlimited texting and group chat, but billions of regular mobiles are stuck with SMS. Ghana’s Saya Mobile hopes to fix that with a chat app for these “feature phones”, aimed at the African market. The app cuts the cost of texts, integrates Facebook and offers geo-location for devices without GPS. The year-old startup was a finalist at the TechCrunch Disrupt event last month.

2. LIFX: light-bulb moment

LIFX went to a crowdfunding site to raise $100,000 and two weeks later received $1.3m. The winning idea: an LED light bulb with WiFi that can be controlled from a smartphone – an app acts as dimmer, filter and timer. The $69 smartbulb is expected to ship next March.

3. Lytro: new field of vision

The “light-field” technology in Lytro’s cameras captures all the visual information from a scene, allowing pictures to be focused after they’ve been taken. Soon, hologram-style effects will allow the viewer to shift the centre of perspective or render the image in 3D. The camera, from $399, goes on sale in selected countries this month.

4. Minecraft: urban games

In Minecraft, players can digitally craft cities. Now UN Habitat is working with developers Mojang to create digital urban environments, starting in Nairobi, to help residents get involved in development. Block by Block will allow people to show planners exactly what they want by building it in the game.

5. Paper

Another iPad app attempting to make paper irrelevant, Paper by FiftyThree won a design award from Apple. The app allows you to sketch, write and watercolour straight on to the screen. An “ink engine” smooths your touchstrokes, so they flow naturally on to the page, and it’s blissfully free of cluttered menus and buttons. Stream your ideas to Tumblr or share via Facebook, Twitter and email.

Meet the innovators

Tom Hulme

“In the past, innovation felt a lot like the scientific method,” says Tom Hulme, an angel investor, entrepreneur and designer. “You have a hypothesis, test it, get feedback, then iterate. It’s fundamentally quite linear.”

Hulme, a director at design consultancy Ideo in London and long-standing champion of crowdsourcing, believes there can be a better way to develop ideas than this traditional approach. Hulme’s idea for ideas is “parallel evolution” – creating a system that allows many people to work to improve a concept all at the same time.

Open-source software, in which anyone who uses the technology can download the source code and tinker with it, is a prime example. Volunteer developers’ best improvements are incorporated by the project’s owners into the next generation of the software. “It’s survival of the fittest – it emulates nature rather than linear development,” Hulme says. “Thousands of people scratch their own itches and needs.”

The web facilitates this kind of accelerated evolution through sites such as Hulme’s own OpenIdeo, which allows people to post socially minded challenges for others to solve, and Quirky, in which inventors invite a community to help develop their ideas.

Hulme recommends setting constraints to steer ideas in the right direction, and for companies to find out how customers are using their product, and be guided by that spontaneous behaviour.

But he acknowledges that such a system only works if the participants receive something in return – whether that’s the synthesised benefits of their collective wisdom, as with open-source software, or by allowing ongoing access to the platform and its data, as Google Maps does for example, to permit people to build new products on top. “This distributed and parallel evolution of products and services is really interesting and inspiring,” he says. “It’s one of the first times ever that we are able to do this.”

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