One of my favourite quotes, and one that I like to drop into any discussion about innovation and forecasting future trends, comes from William Gibson, a science-fiction author (who, somewhat ironically, until very recently still used a typewriter for preparing manuscripts):
The future is already here – it is just unevenly distributed.
What Gibson was getting at is that you can actually get glimpses of tomorrow by observing what people are doing today. This fringe behaviour – borne of a group of people with needs that are not yet met by products or services available in the marketplace – mainly goes unnoticed, yet is often destined to move over into mainstream society.
Identifying people engaged in so called ‘unusual behaviour’ (a group collectively known as ‘lead users’) is one of the least-risky paths to true innovation.
Whirlpool’s recent innovations in appliances provides a classic example of this.
As part of their internal R&D program, they placed webcams in college student residences to observe how students (the consumers of tomorrow) were using kitchen appliances. In addition to cataloging the rather bizarre cooking habits of students, they noticed something very odd: students were using microwave ovens to dry their clothes.
This behaviour, which would clearly horrify their mothers, pointed to a future opportunity in an entirely untapped market: small, dependable, low volume (i.e. several items only) dryers for consumers who wash infrequently but who required faster drying times.
This led to a whole new class of appliances – the microwave clothes dryer. Whirlpool filed and was granted a patent to the underlying technology in 1995.