Associating: making new with old
Many skills and steps are essential, dare I say vital, in the process of generating an idea and turning it into an innovation. Just like a seed will not be created without the pollination step and will not germinate and grow into a plant without the proper soil and conditions, so we cannot say that the step where the idea sparks is more important than the preceding steps (eg observing) or the following (eg experimenting). But the creation moment is certainly the most mysterious and most definitely the least likely to happen by command & control.
However, there are steps we can take to facilitate idea creation. Recognising that, just like a new life sparks from the association of the male and female cells, a new idea will often spark through associating. A powerful technique is the systematic association of old technologies with old unrelated objects to create new applications. Just consider two examples:
- Robert Fulton’s association of James Watt’s steam engine with the boat. Steam engines had been used only in stationary applications (eg mines, water works) until Fulton’s associating sparked the idea of what will become the steam boat.
- More recently, Mars’ creation of customisable M&Ms printed with the word or image of the customer’s choosing, associating the concept of customisable printing already common in stationary, promotional give-aways, golf balls, etc. with their M&Ms product.
Making new with old is in itself not new! But examples above show it works. At a cultural level, philosopher Remi Brague proposed in his book Europe, la voie romaine (Europe, the roman way) the idea that having built itself on the foundation of Christianism (as a re-interpreation of Judaism) and Roman culture (as a re-interpretation of the Greek culture), the European civilisation could be characterised by the concept of making new with old. This is obviously not meant to say that the technique cannot be applied in other parts of the world, but maybe those with a European cultural heritage will find it unconsciously familiar.