Smart rubber ducks, anyone? TMW's Marc Curtis looks at the explosion of internet of things products and asks, when did innovation stop being about solving problems?
Last night I attended the MassChallenge fundraiser and awards night, where some of the 100 MassChallenge finalists' achievements were celebrated and rewarded. Yet again I was reminded how amazing some of these young entrepreneurs are, such as startups Entocycle, which is converting food waste into protein for animal feed with insects, and Big Couch, which is enabling independent film makers to crew and fund films.
The startups are as diverse as they are energetic, but the one thing that unites most of them is a simple truth. They are trying to solve problems. Somewhere along the line, the founders of these companies have had a personal epiphany that has led them to create a product or service that makes the world ever so slightly better. I don't necessarily mean better in some lofty sense – although there's no shortage of startups operating in the social good space – I mean that they are, to some extent, making it easier for us to do things. Easier to crew up a film, to save a premature child's life (in the case of MoM incubators), to test a hardware product before you buy (Makercase) or feel the heartbeat of your loved-one no matter how far away they are (Little Riot).
Ok, so maybe these aren't problems you or I have, but they exist. They are real. And these startups are trying to fix it for us. There's a second category of startups too: these ones aren't specifically solving problems, but they are making the world slightly more wonderful.
When Apple launched the iPad, it did so with an understanding that people would want to be able to access the kind of functionality smartphones had hinted at, but with a screen large enough to feel like a computer. The media was almost universally unkind about the first iPads, and yet within months an entirely new market had been created. Apple had tapped into an unknown need. It wasn't solving a problem, but it was satisfying an unarticulated need. It had made the world a little bit easier. A little bit more beautiful.
Closer to home, I've been following a startup called Joto, which has created a beautifully designed robotic whiteboard and pen. It hangs on the wall cleverly getting on with writing out shopping lists, scribbling notes from your kids or (when it's not doing anything else), magically drawing captivating artworks. Joto doesn't solve a problem per se, but it does satisfy a human need for tangibility in a largely intangible world. There's something fundamentally more real about a handwritten note on the kitchen wall than a WhatsApp message.
And yet, as I wondered around the MassChallenge event, chatting to some truly inspirational startups (wondering how I could get them talking to some of my clients), I couldn't help but think about the technology recently showcased at CES.
If I had to pick a theme from CES this year it wouldn’t be artificial intelligence or virtual reality. Alexa was big and the TVs where thin, but the one thing I keep coming back to is the connected hairbrush from Withings – a product that typifies pointless innovation. What problem is the Withings hairbrush trying to solve? Why do we need a smart belt (Welt)? And why, for the love of all that is holy do we need Edwin the Smart Rubber Duck?
I'm calling it: we've reached peak internet of things. We're already seeing the next generation of devices with 'added AI', so the industry has moved on to the next shiny thing, and the cycle is all set to repeat the lunacy of adding x to a perfectly functional y (AI toothbrush anyone?).
Brands are not helping. Having been initially skeptical about innovation, then rapidly moving to the 'oh shit, we're about to be Ubered' stage, many large organisations are drinking the cool aid of innovation as quickly as their agencies can pour it down their throats.
There's a land grab going on in the startup and innovation space, and while there are some amazingly proactive brands investing in some incredible ideas, there are a huge number of 'hairbrush' projects getting green lighted.
Even this isn't the worst thing. The real problem, the issue that wakes me up in the small hours of the afternoon is the fact that all this investment in nonsense is simply to fit into an ad campaign.
Brands and agencies are in a position to do so much good. They have the money and the reach that many startups need. The right brand, with permission to play in a specific space could do some amazing things. Unilever, for example, has a stated aim of making sure all its brands have purpose. By viewing innovation through this lens of attaching genuine good to brand activity, it is far more likely to engage in problem solving activities. However cynical you might be about the motivation of big companies like Unilever, the results speak for themselves – 20% of Unilever’s Foundry 50 are so call social impact startups, including companies like WeFarm, which is connecting small farmers all over the world to give them access to vital farming knowledge through SMS.
Volvo & Grey's multi-award winning 'Life Paint' campaign could have saved lives. Instead it satisfied the minimal requirements demanded by the DMAs and Cannes Lions, collected the trophies and quietly went on to the next campaign. The same is true of the Nivea child safety bracelet, something that could easily have been spun out into a new product that could have helped parents as well as winning awards!
This short-term thinking has evolved into something even worse. Whereas before, innovation was abused by marketers to achieve short-term goals despite potentially being able to tap into something genuinely game changing, we're now seeing brands investing in innovation that's simply superfluous. Do we really need an automatic cocktail mixing machine from Pernod Ricard in our homes? (Ok, I know most people's reaction is going to be YES!, but think about the space it needs, the cost of the device and how often you actually consume cocktails).
We have entered a new era in the epoch of innovation. The internet of superfluous. This is a time when brands can invest money and resource into connecting shoes, pillows, chairs, underwear, tea (yes, that's a thing) and hairbrushes to the internet rather than solving real problems.
Marc Curtis is head of Labs at TMW Unlimited, a customer engagement agency with clients such as Unilever, Sony, Canon, HSBC and Vodafone. Marc also mentors startups at the MassChallenge London accelerator.