The Sweet Spot.

Navigating borderlines in technological innovation.

Sophie Kleber
June 29, 2015
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At its core, borderlines separate one thing from another. They are the discernible applications of the human idea of order, giving us a means of understanding our surroundings. We draw lines on maps to define nations; we split up target audiences; we retrospectively identify transition points between trends, eras and periods. 

As part of Huge’s European pop-up studio series, we examined borderlines, and studied the roles they play in how we understand shifts in technological practice. They mark the constantly moving divide between what a new technology can do, and what people really want and need. As technology evolves, one question stays relevant: How do we strike a balance between technological innovation and human desire?

Innovators sway across borderlines like a pendulum as they develop new products and services. Push a technology too far and you will alienate users by falling far from their comfort zone. But play it too safe and your product won’t be seen in a crowded space—or worse, it will be picked up and improved on by someone else. New markets emerge when borderlines move; the best innovators are able to identify the constantly moving sweet spot between what’s possible and what’s accepted.Pendulum

A blurry line.

The problem with identifying borderlines in technology is that we don't know where they are until we bump into them. When the Stockton-Darlington train line opened in the early 19th century, many people worried that traveling at a speed of 30 miles per hour would be too much for humans to physically handle. Yet in early 2015, people cheered for a Japanese magnetic levitation train that set a new speed world record by hitting 374 miles per hour in a test run.

Google has a long history of being first-to-market with products that push borderlines. Google Glass is an example of a product that crossed this line before people were ready to accept it, but the line will inevitably move. GoPro has established a new, socially acceptable way to wear a camera on your head and stream what you see when associated with an explicit activity. It's only a matter of time before Glass-like products and wearables for a broader purpose will feel normal. 

Borderlines are pushed by use cases.

It usually takes some time for us to adapt to any new technology, and Amara’s law argues that we usually overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run. Some societies move faster than others, but ultimately borderlines start shifting further when use cases are established. 

Use cases define how a new technology can become beneficial—or disadvantageous—to our daily lives. The way we collectively perceive those use cases forms a cultural sentiment. It’s a continuous circle: Borderlines are shaped by our cultural sentiment. Our cultural sentiment changes with the arrival of new use cases. New use cases create new markets. Markets get legitimized when mass adoption pushes or eliminates existing borderlines, and new lines are created. 

BorderlinesWith the recent mass market commercialization of drones, we can see a new borderline in the making. DJI, a company at the forefront of civilian drone technology, recently launched their latest consumer product, Phantom 3, a highly advanced quadcopter with a professional camera system. Its marketing team has used its capability for aerial photography as its main selling point, and drone enthusiasts welcome the product with raving reviews. 

Meanwhile, the father of an eight-year-old daughter who wanted to walk to school by herself used the technology to make sure she got there safe. When the story spread, he quickly got dubbed by Time Magazine as “world’s most embarassing dad” and grounded the drone. Just a few days later, the very same product was used for the first recorded act of drone vandalism on a gigantic Calvin Klein poster. Use cases are being defined as technology evolves. 

Rules are also being defined while the technology evolves: Most commercial drone manufacturers have a built-in no-fly zone feature because of widespread security concerns, making it impossible for a drone to take off around airports and other sensitive locations. At the same time, ambulance drones that deliver defibrillators quickly in emergency situations are currently tested and prototyped. This leads to questions: Would a drone called to help a cardiac arrest near an airport get overruled by existing security concerns? And who can request and establish no-fly zones? There are already services available to help citizens prevent drones from flying over their property. Such swings of the pendulum are actively defining and pressure-testing the value proposition and use cases of drone technology and constantly force companies like DJI to further iterate their products and technology use cases. 

Need for speed.

When rules are being defined while technology evolves, innovators need to lead the discussion by quickly prototyping compelling use cases and setting the agenda. But this race for cultural acceptance and search for use cases sometimes starts to turn the problem-solution process on its head. While society traditionally encounters a problem and creates a tool to solve the problem, technology with myriad potential often reaches the marketplace before a problem is defined. 

For example, the Apple Watch is an exciting new platform that may revolutionize the way we interact with technology, ourselves and each other. But because the watch is more a product of what design and technology can achieve together than a response to consumer demand for a smarter way to tell the time, the real use cases have yet to be determined. Instead, developers will use this exciting new platform to identify and solve problems and create the use cases that will drive the success of the product.

And quickly, this touches on a fundamental question: When there is a technology without a clear use case, how can we steer the technology in a desirable direction? Google Deepmind for example is likely one of tomorrow’s most powerful algorithms. As an example of genuine artificial intelligence, the algorithm has already learned to interpret the pixels of an old Atari computer game and develop a strategy to crush all records. After only a few hours of “training”, the algorithm makes better choices than any human could. But as we are rapidly approaching a point where technology will be powerful enough to make better decisions than we can, we will need to figure out which choices we still want to “own” as humans and how we can align any new technology with our ultimate borderline: human self-determination. 

Moving beyond the use case.

When innovators are out there constantly testing borderlines in search of meaningful use cases and problems to solve, it means that innovation has started racing behind technology, a rather new phenomenon. 

Traditionally, innovation is produced by finding a good problem and solving it at the right time in order to create a successful product. 

However, if we recognize that the speed of what’s possible through technology is much faster than what we can digest, we might need a new model to replace today's innovation principles. Technology that evolves faster than its use cases means that borderlines between what's acceptable and what's not will become even more blurry, and markets might change faster than they can be legitimized. 

This blur will challenge us to answer questions that touch on the essence of our humanity, and it will ask us to decide how technology contributes to our growth. We will have to become more comfortable with ambiguity, and with that we’ll have to attribute greater value to products and services that don’t answer but ask, that make us aware of new problems instead of solving yesterday’s pain points, and that offer a starting point rather than the ultimate destination.