Using Story in Innovation

I spread my arms wide to scoop in the pristine air.

This is a talk that I gave with Panasonic at the 2016 Fujitsu North America Technology Forum. I received many warm responses and am always amazed at the emotional connection that story brings.

The theme of the conference was “Enabling Digital: Business Transformation through Human-Centric Innovation In the Hyper-Connected World.”

Here’s the video.

And here’s the transcript:

Today I want to talk about using story to remember the “human” in “human-centric innovation,” because so often we forget about it when we start focusing on the important questions of business and technology.

It’s 1987. I’m hiking in Jiuzhaigou, the panda country in western China, with a guide from the native Qiang tribe. We break out of the woods into a sparkling blue sky reflected down into an aquamarine snow melt lake. I breathe this pristine air, feeling my lungs expand with the freshness. My guide laughs at me because I spread my arms wide to scoop it in.

Fast forward to 2012. I’m flying into Shanghai on a mission for Panasonic. The plane lands, and we’re shrouded in a brown mist. I get off the plane and my eyes begin to sting. The people around me are putting on white masks, because the air is so bad.

My heart aches, because I can see that blue sky from 1987 overlaid on this brown mist, and I wish I could bring it back.

This is an example of using story to share personal and cultural meaning as part of business transformation. (And I’d like, just today, to take us back to a blue sky.)

In 2012, I’m located in Osaka, and one of my missions is to create collaborative innovation in China for groups in Japan who are trying to create new business abroad. I’ve already found a wonderful collaborative design factory program at Tongji University in Shanghai (Doosai Daigaku in Japanese), and when I hear that the Housing group in Japan has plans to develop new indoor air quality products for China, I jump at the chance to bring these two groups together.

What I learned from this project was

  1. to use your own and your collaborators’ stories to guide the questions that you ask in innovation,
  2. to listen to and understand many stories of real people to guide your ideas and solutions, and
  3. to weave all of these stories together into a new story of hope that is the innovation.

What do I mean by a story? A story is a narrative account of people’s real experiences, of what they do and what they feel, that demonstrates the meaning underlying all of the products and services that we design. It has a beginning, a middle, an end, and a learning. Stories are about transformation.

It was a trilingual project, so we posed the question in three languages.

  • In Chinese we asked, “我们如何为中国城市里的人们创造健康的室内空气?” (Women ruhe wei zhongguo chengshi li de renmen chuangzao jiankang de shinei kongqi?).
  • In Japanese we asked, “我々はどのように中国の都市の人々のために健康的な室内空気を作るのでしょうか?” (Wareware wa dono you ni chuugogku no toshi no hitobito no tame ni kenkouteki na shitsunai kuuki wo tsukuru no deshou ka?).
  • And in English we asked, “How might we create healthy indoor air for people in Chinese cities?”

We framed the question this way, because we wanted it to be focused not on the products or services that we were designing, but on the experience that we wanted for people, which was to be able to breathe clean air inside their own homes.

The students went out and talked to many people in cities all over China and gathered a lot of stories. One woman in Beijing would not put her baby in a stroller when she went outside. She would hold her baby, because the car exhaust fumes and the PM2.5 particulate matter hover right at the height of a baby stroller. In Shanghai, a man had lost his son to leukemia soon after renovating his home, and he believed that the toxins in the construction glues and new furniture were to blame. And many people had a cultural norm of opening the window first thing in the morning to refresh the oxygen, and they continued to do this, even though they suspected that the air outside was worse than the air inside.

The students were inspired to hear these stories. When you show up and listen to people’s stories, you create an emotional connection. You create trust and understanding. People become transparent, and you learn all that you need to know.

As the students learned this, they began to generate hundreds of ideas. At the end of the ideation phase, I brought the Panasonic team members in from Osaka and Beijing. We met with the students all day, and we boiled it down to two ideas. One of the ideas that several of the students really wanted to pursue was an enclosed baby carriage that would provide air filtering. But every single one of the Panasonic members refused to even consider this idea. They had logical, strategic reasons for this that made sense, but I believe the underlying emotional reason was that this baby stroller told a story of despair. It was a dark, apocalyptic image that might be an art project, but Panasonic was not going to tell that story.

The students finally agreed to continue with the other concept, which was a smart connected window. This window would have sensoring and filtering, and it would automatically open at appropriate times when the air outside was better than the air inside. It was also a transparent, connected screen that integrated its own data with publically available data from the government and the American embassy, as well as social networking data. At that time, a lot of people were using Arduinos to create their own personal sensors, putting them outside their windows, and sharing the data with online communities.

This window was a story of hope and connection. We have to leave people with hope. That’s why people buy products, because they’re looking for healing and transformation. I would argue that the same is true of business customers, who want to become heroes when they add products to their work.

At the end of the project, I brought the students to Osaka to present their prototype to Panasonic’s Housing group. The Housing group really enjoyed listening to the stories and incorporated some of the ideas into their product roadmap.

After the meeting, I took the students on a sightseeing outing to the mountains in Kobe. One of the students was an 18-year-old who had never been outside of eastern Chinese cities. He said that he had never in his life seen a completely unpolluted sky. I watched him looking up at that pastel blue sky dotted with puffy white clouds that hangs over Kobe. I thought, “Well, I didn’t bring blue skies back to Chinese cities, but I did bring one young man from Chinese cites to blue skies, and I hope he’ll be inspired to continue this work.”

In closing, I know that we want to create an Internet of Things, but as Jim was talking about, every one of those things is connected to a human story, so for me this means it’s an Internet of Stories. I invite you to use stories explicitly when you innovate. Because for one thing, remember that the human story is never boring. And for another, telling good stories creates good value for both customers and business.

Thank you.

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