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The 6 Questions That Lead To New Innovations

Autodesk’s Innovation Genome Project tried to quantify what worked about the 1,000 greatest innovations of all time. With that data in hand, the company then turned to what needs innovation today: building with sustainable materials.

It is often said that innovation is at the core of sustainability, but turning that abstract idea into action isn’t always easy. How do true innovators actually make the leap from status quo to full-on disruption?

First, a definition. Innovation doesn’t necessarily entail creating something new. It’s not the same as invention. Rather, innovation usually involves a fresh perspective on something that already exists—taking an idea, a technology, or a material (or aggregating several) and then considering how their use can create a positive impact in a new and better way. The process of making this leap is often scary, and requires a certain amount of gumption, as well as copious amounts of leadership, entrepreneurialism, and good design.

Autodesk’s interest in discovering how history’s greatest innovators worked their magic is obvious (the company develops design, engineering, and entertainment software), and the application of innovation to sustainability is even more critical for us. That’s why my colleague Bill O’Connor began researching the 1,000 greatest innovations of all time last spring. O’Connor called the investigation the Innovation Genome Project. The goal was to discover and codify patterns and practices that people could apply to their day-to-day work to be truly innovative.

As O’Connor worked with a team of MBAs from Hult International Business School to review the first 100 innovations, they quickly identified six questions that famous innovators have consistently asked and answered to generate ideas that can lead to new innovations.

These six innovation questions are:

  • What could I look at in a new way? (Steve Jobs looked at the computer in a new way, leading to the Mac and the personal computer revolution.)
  • What could I use in a new way? (Paleolithic humans turned fire from a scourge into a means of cooking, heat, light, and protection.)
  • What could I recontextualize in space or time? (The Sumerians moved language from spoken to written form, expanding its power and reach.)
  • What could I connect in a new way? (Thomas Edison connected the light bulb to the electrical grid, leading to electrified cities.)
  • What could I change, in terms of design or performance? (Nearly 3 million years ago, the world’s first "innovator" transformed a simple rock into a stone hand-axe.)
  • What could I create that is truly new? (In 1776, American colonists created the first "intentional" nation, based on specific abstract principles.)

So my team and I tried it. We used these six questions to come up with software that would solve a problem we had heard over and over again—that of customers telling us that they’d like to design using sustainable materials, but they couldn’t justify the extra expense. Because the materials were more "sustainable," they assumed that they were more expensive.

The third question was our catalyst. What could we recontextualize in space or time? That question led us to two more that put us on the right track: Why do all the existing design tools look at environmental impact but not cost? Whom can we bring in to create a tool that understands both?

The perfect partner to help us solve this problem was Granta Design, a materials information and technology company. They helped us develop the Eco Materials Advisor feature which we released last spring. With Granta’s materials expertise and their access to the best raw materials cost and availability data, we created a tool that illuminates both the environmental and financial costs of various materials, which can have surprising results. A silicone grip, for example, might actually make more environmental sense than a natural latex grip that requires almost 100 gallons of water to form and manufacture.

Sustainability problem-solving doesn’t need to be about paying for more responsible products; it just takes a few innovative questions to make it work.

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