Are you an unnovator?

Microsoft recently revealed new software which allows users to get clear cut outs of items within pictures from photographs or off the web.  They proudly illustrated its capabilities using a Llama.

As you know, Microsoft is one of the world’s biggest companies with access to significant resources and many of the world’s best brains. But is this the best they can do around innovation? And is this really innovation at all?

If imagination is the ultimate renewable resource and the single most important human attribute that will allow us to innovate out of the global challenges facing the species – wouldn’t it be good to focus imagination on things that really matter?

Recently, for a 6heads webinar, we defined innovation as ‘new and creating value for society’.

While I’m sure society has a range of interpretations of value, we set-out a number of things that we called ‘unnovations’. We defined them as offering no real value to people or the planet.  This list included a toupee for babies, a self-rotating ice-cream cone and, controversially, bottled water.

The demand for bottle water has grown exponentially in the last few decades to more than 200 billion bottles of water consumed globally, per annum. The bottled water market is expected to reach $65.9 billion this year*. But in a world facing extreme survival challenges, popularity or commercial return shouldn’t be enough to make something ‘valuable’.  There are a few reasons why bottled water falls on our list of ‘unnovations’:

  • It deflects water from rivers required to maintain natural environments (which serve people in numerous ways – from agriculture to purification to aesthetics).
  • It incorporates valuable resources in the machines, people and packaging used, which could perhaps be used to create other more necessary items or, in the case of the oil used for packaging – not used at all.
  • It adds to carbon challenges through transportation all around the world.
  • Bottled water, unlike tap water, is not necessarily monitored by authorities or treated and may contain chemicals, hormonal disruptors or other contaminants that could impact health of consumers over time.
  • Once consumed bottles are discarded, primarily for landfill.

But this blog is not intended to stop you ordering bottled water (although that would be a good unintended consequence). It’s to encourage you to take all your creativity and apply it to developing solutions that really matter.  Imagine if, instead of kick-starting a micro-finance industry that has transformed the lives of billions of people, Yunnus had chosen to waste his talents designing a new flavour yoghurt. Delicious yoghurt, I’m sure, but it’s like asking Einstein to rather count pennies or Michelangelo to paint houses.

Maybe you don’t feel like you could be a Yunnus or a Einstein or a Michelangelo, however, any of us can be more useful and thereby impactful in the world through making the conscious shift from unnovation to innovation. Here are a few ideas** –

  1. Don’t encourage unnovators. Don’t get taken in but the next “new new” thing. Ask yourself ‘so what’ before you buy. Realise that its about trade-offs – do you want a great big fuel-consuming vehicle so much you’re prepared to sacrifice the beautiful Canadian wilderness or pristine Antarctic to oil-seekers?
  2. Do what matters.  You spend most of your life at work. Why not work on something worthwhile?  Your life is your legacy – make it count.
  3. Do what you can. To quote Kermit “it’s not easy being green”. But, even a small decision can make a big difference.  This could include:
    • Innovating around your ‘inputs’ to incorporate products that are positively impactful on the planet (e.g. as a builder using carbon positive cement, as a home owner using Method washing liquid, or buying organic and local ingredients for food production). A major American airline recently started using Eleather on its seats.  This is not only an environmental win as it uses discarded leather in its production, but also a commercial win as the seats last longer than those covered in conventional leather.
    • Innovating around your process to rethink the way you do things. This could be as simple as using less water and energy or creating less waste.  However, you could also consider renting instead of buying  (e.g. Christmas trees – see the Little Christmas Tree company), looking for modular solutions (e.g. removable in parts, carpet from Interface, Xerox copiers) or looking for collective solutions (e.g. Zipcar).
    • Innovating around your business model to incorporate the new thinking around shared value and inclusivity and environmental care. Whether it’s as simple as reviewing your suppliers to understand environmental risk or as complex as launching a shared value emerging market new product.

We are facing multiple challenges that threaten our future – climate change, water scarcity, food scarcity and population growth.  We have sufficient human ingenuity to develop truly innovative solutions, to identify game-changing opportunities and to create a sensible future.

We need less cut-out llamas and more real innovators.

*Sources: BBC, PR Web, Wikipedia

** These are my ideas – what are yours?  Sharing is caring…

***Companies mentioned:



Little Christmas Tree:




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