One of the core principles of Judo is seiryoku zen’yō , or maximum efficiency, minimum effort One way that this plays out is an acceptance that directly resisting a more powerful opponent will typically result in defeat, but evading their attack, and redirecting their momentum and power to serve your own ends can make it possible for weaker opponents to beat significantly stronger ones.
Often, innovation also requires us to overcome an ‘opponent’. Whether it is gravity in aerospace, disease in pharmaceuticals, or dirt in some consumer goods products., often that opponent can also be quite powerful. Like a judo master, we also want to overcome these opponents with maximum efficiency, and minimum effort. So can we employ ‘innovation judo’ as an innovation strategy?
One way to do this is to harness resources that already exist in our system. The more we can borrow from our surroundings, the less we have to add, and hence the more efficient we are likely to be. In the case of pharmaceuticals, this might mean activating existing immune systems, rather than attacking a disease directly, which is of course the basis of immunization. However, using the momentum of an opponent against him in judo is even more elegant and efficient than this. It is literally turning a problem into its own solution. So can we use this as an innovation strategy?
In at least some cases, the answer is a resounding yes. This is exactly what we do with immunization. We take a diluted, or dead sample of the disease we want to prevent, and use it to activate our natural immune system. This is beautifully elegant, as we are both turning an enemy into a friend, by using the disease to create a defense against itself, and tapping into preexisting resources by activating the natural immune system.
We may not be able to do this in every case, but it is a strategy that can work more often than we may intuitively think. As an example, cement production produces very high levels of CO2 emissions, with each ton of cement creating approximately the same weight in CO2 pollution. However, a technology inspired by coral reefs, and developed by the Blue Planet Cement Company can capture this CO2, and convert it into concrete. This turns an emissions problem that is a side effect of creating building material into a resource that creates additional building material. The problem becomes a solution.
Another of my favorite examples is Qualcom’s MEMS technology, which was inspired by the structured, iridescent color that gives the morpho butterfly its distinct blue color. Unlike dyes or pigments, this color is created by tiny microstructures that diffract and scatter light at specific wavelengths. Because it uses light to create color, it gets brighter in bright light. So incorporating this technology into the screen of a tablet or phone means bright sunlight makes the screen easier, rather than harder to read.
Other, more nascent examples and ideas include farms using excess manure to power machinery or transport, the use of heat exchangers to control temperatures in buildings, the use of solar powered AC for houses, cars or aeroplanes. Or solar power can be used to reduce the power needed to cool computers. Soil and dirt often contain both water and fatty acids (which are effectively surfactants), both of which are common ingredients in cleaning products, so it may be possible to use dirt to clean dirt. The study of whale fins by Frank Fish has shown that the passage of air over a wing can be adapted and harnessed to create vortices that reduce friction.
Like Judo, the approach that leads to this kind of innovation requires some skill and practice. It is not intuitive to look at problems as potential resources, rather than something that needs to be eradicated. Furthermore, not all of these are easy resources to harvest. It may be some time before we harness gravity to improve the efficiency of aerospace. We can harvest solar energy today, but efficiency is often borderline for many of these kinds of ideas. But it is getting better everyday, and it, and the concept of turning problems into solutions in general is an opportunity for smart, highly efficient innovation.
So this may not always be the best answer to a problem, but it can be, and when it is, it tends to be elegant and efficient. Many of the examples I’ve shared are inspired by nature, in part because nature is extraordinarily efficient at utilizing resources. Nature is therefore an great place to start, but simply looking at everything in our system as a potential resource, including the cause of the problem itself, can be very powerful.
To close, I want to share an example of exactly this kind of thinking that I came across in a blog by Tyler Hagey just as I was finishing this article. We have a big problem with plastic waste in our oceans. Gyres are tidal vortices that collect garbage in all of the major oceans, of which Great Pacific Garbage Patch, estimated to be twice the size of Texas is the biggest. These can have a huge negative impact on the local environment, and are growing at an alarming rate. Of course, the core problem is the empty plastic bottles, containers, caps and bags that comprise a majority of the garbage. But the vortices compound the problem, by concentrating the garbage to a point where its environmental impact can become huge. Tyler’s post (1) shares a solution devised by19 year old Boyan Slat. Conventional thinking has been to use ships with huge tow nets to collect the garbage, but this comes with considerable collateral damage, as nets also trap aquatic life, and high fuels costs. Slat’s solution is to simply place floating barriers at the Gyres, and rely on the currents to bring the garbage to the collection points. Aquatic life flows under the floating barriers unmolested, and fuel costs are cut because ships collect instead of trawl for garbage. In this way, the currents that contribute to the problem also contribute to the solution. Obviously the long-term solution is to find alternatives to the plastic pollutants, and/or stop them reaching the ocean, but at least in the short term, Slat’s approach helps to reduce the environment impact, and mediate, if not solve the problem.
image credit: Republic of Korea
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A twenty-five year Procter & Gamble veteran, Pete has spent the last 8+ years applying insights from psychology and behavioral science to innovation, product design, and brand communication. He spent 17 years as a serial innovator, creating novel products, perfume delivery systems, cleaning technologies, devices and many other consumer-centric innovations, resulting in well over 100 granted or published patents. Follow him on twitter at @foley_pete.