The iPad is 40 Years Old

Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the N.Y. Times Book Review, says “Every fresh idea is usually rooted in an older one.”

It has always been my conviction that to understand design or usefully talk about it one must view it not as a collection of isolated objects, but rather as a trajectory through time. We have to look not just at the individual product qua artifact but also at its social, cultural and technological meaning played out over time along a pathway of evolving inquiry; in other words, longitudinally, epistemologically and critically. I view products of design as plot points along pathways of design transformation ­– as episodes in ever-unfolding stories.

Take the iPad as an example. No serious consideration of design today can ignore the iPad, if only because the iPad has at last unlocked the long-sought mass market for tablet computers, opened a new chapter in personal mobile computing, is rapidly penetrating education and healthcare and is a platform for over 60,000 apps and counting. Beyond that, if one presumes to discuss design and innovation seriously, the iPad is a perfect case for exploring questions of how does exceptional design come into being and what does it teach us about innovation.

The iPad is surely a marvel of innovation. But it is not sui generis burst forth full-born from the brow of Zeus (or in this case, the brow of Steve Jobs.) To understand how innovation actually happens, you have to know that the iPad is over 40 years old, not just in basic concept, but in almost every detail of functionality and user experience. You have to understand the position of the iPad in the context of the history of Human-Computer Interaction and the Graphical User Interface.

Here some of the slides I use to teach the forty-year long quest of which the iPad is the latest instantiation.

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The Innovation Machine

The Innovation Machine

The Organizational Structure of Innovation: How Toyota, Procter & Gamble , GE, 3M, IBM, Google, Microsoft, Sony, Hewlett-Packard, DuPont, Honeywell, Whirlpool and other best-of-class companies manage Fast Innovation

Die Innovations-maschine Book Cover

Adapted from Die Innovations-Maschine, 2008 by Dr. Rolf-Christian Wentz, Lecturer at the University of Hamburg, Germany, in Innovation Management and Marketing.

Dr. Wentz makes the important point that the emphasis in recent years on the process organization of innovation has overshadowed the crucial importance of the organizational structure of innovation management within enterprises admired as “Innovation Machines.” His book seeks to redress this imbalance. He proposes a very useful typology of seven successful structures for management and organization of Fast Innovation:

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Expertise vs Innovation

Thoughts on Innovation & Design – Part One

Part One of DesignTaxi’s Eight-segment Interview with Arnold Wasserman


Hello Arnold. You are a strong proponent of “expertise is the killer of innovation”. What is the most effective way, in your opinion, to “unlearn” all the knowledge built up over time?


The question of expertise vis a vis innovation is much more complex than this flip statement that I made within a particular conversational context. Expertise, or mastery of a particular field of knowledge or practice, is crucial to all human endeavor. I only want to be operated on by an expert surgeon and fly next to a jet engine or cross a bridge designed and built by expert engineers.

What I was trying to point to is the idea that carried to extreme, expertise can become a mind trap, inhibiting the exploration of “crazy” paths of creative imagination.  It is all in how the expert holds his knowledge – as a provisional launch-pad for ever-further inquiry or as absolute law to be defended against any challenge.

For example, in 1714, the British Parliament offered a money prize to anybody that could solve the urgent problem of accurately finding the longitude at sea. Sir Isaac Newton, then president of the Royal Society and world-acknowledged genius of science and mathematics, said that a solution would have to be based on celestial navigation. Solutions based on time-keeping would not work because it was theoretically impossible to build a watch that would keep exact enough time. John Harrison, a modest clockmaker, after 20 years of laborious trail and error making and testing successive prototypes, produced a marine chronometer that kept time with the precision Sir Isaac Newton deemed impossible. Harrison’s innovation in navigation made possible the successful voyages that gave rise to the British Empire.

Sir Isaac Newton is not dead. He pops up in every designer’s career with dependable regularity.

Organizations are similarly blocked by “what they know to be so.” The better an organization gets at doing what made it successful, the worse it gets at seeing what is coming next. Our consultancy has developed a broad repertoire of techniques to help organizations learn how to unstick creative innovation by embedding practices that connect human insight to strategic foresight.

Perhaps the most important single practice is this: However expert one is, one must always approach each new problem with what Zen philosophers call “Beginner’s Mind.”

Arnold S. Wasserman is a pioneer in the practice of human-centered innovation, chairman of The Idea Factory and a founding partner of Collective Invention.

Read Part Two>>

Innovation Diffusion and Adoption

User Pull vs Technology Push

We are very much focused on understanding demand-pull in the work we are doing with WBCSD (World Business Council for Sustainable Development.) There are a number of models for characterizing diffusion/adoption of innovation. One potentially provocative one is Geoffrey Moore’s version of the classic technology diffusion curve. While it is applied mainly for technology innovation, it also is useful for thinking about adoption of social innovation. Continue reading “Innovation Diffusion and Adoption”