why abundance can be bad for creativity

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I just finished teaching a course on “digital innovation and design” at ISB. Like previous years, students worked on “re-imagining Hyderabad Public Transportation Experiences”. What surprised me this time was how homogeneous their ideas were. They all went for a combination of smart card, a GPS-installed vehicles, cloud-based analytics, optimization of route balancing, and personalized route planning. With some twists here and there, the solutions that they suggested were remarkably similar to each other. As the focus of the course was innovation, I took this as a warning sign.
In the past, students avoided such a solution, because installing GPS for every bus was prohibitably expensive. Therefore, they had to find something less obvious. They had to work hard to look for ways to change rider’s experiences without resorting to expensive technology infrastructure. Their ideas were authentic, ingenious, and fun.
Now, merely 16 months later, the cost of technology has come down enough to make such an idea more plausible. Technology resources now have become abundant. A solution with a smart card combined with cloud-based optimization together with a distributed GPS network on vehicles seems like an inevitable thing to happen in India. As a result, everyone went after “that” obvious solution. They did not have to work hard to find a solution for the problem.
The abundance of resources can inhibit creativity and innovation. While practical solutions can be easily discovered and implemented, unexpected and less-obvioius solutions become more elusive when design constraints are relaxed. This does not mean that technology advancements are bad. But with technology makes “innovations” accessible to everyone, real innovations become even more elusive, demanding us working even harder to find them. This seems apparent when we look at hundreds of thousands of apps that are essentially trying to do the same thing. How many different variants of Candy Crush, Flappy Bird or WhatsApp do we need? Probably not as many as we already have. One of my current studies on digital innovations suggests that what seems to be highly generative space of digital innovations can be in fact nothing but an illusion. Most of them are simple and minor mutations of other ideas. There were only handful real innovations that we could identify.
When we face such a problem of abundance, it might be necessary to create artificial constraints during the design process. Perhaps, I should have told the students that the integration of GPS, cloud-based analytics and smart card should be taken as a given starting point of their inquiry. Perhaps, I should have given them full access to all the reports from last two years, asking them to take those as the starting point. That might have created more stringent constraints so that they could not settle with obvious and seemingly inevitable solutions. Constraints are the best friends of designers.

Professor | Writer | Teacher Digital Innovation, Design, Organizational Genetics Case Western Reserve University

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