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Product, Service & Design Innovation
How to Factor in Exponential Technologies and Deep-Future Trends in the Innovation Process

Technology is exponentially accelerating, creating a future that is difficult to imagine and one that impacts communities on a systems level. It is Robert Suarez’s job to think way, way outside of the box and design for that exponential future. Whether helping to put a 3D printer and recycler in space or creating a virtual holographic room with Lowe’s, Suarez dreams big and designs for exponential impact. As the Managing Director of Innovation and Design for Singularity University, he tackles large social and environmental issues. Its mission is “to educate, inspire and empower leaders to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges.” Suarez received his masters in Biomimicry, and pushes beyond human-centered design.

Digital photography is a great illustration of an exponential technology. In 1975, Steve Sasson created a 100-pixel digital camera, the size of a small toaster. Fast-forward to today where smartphone users can have a 15-megapixel camera in the palm of their hand - exponential growth that has had a profound impact on the photography industry. The market is dematerialized, demonetized (pictures are free now), and democratized (350 million photos are posted to Facebook every day).

To further illustrate the impact of exponentials, today Kenya has a smartphone penetration of 7 percent. However, in three years, that number is expected to jump to 90 percent. That kind of exponential growth will not only impact telecommunications but business, commerce, education, etc.

While exponentials are exciting and open the door for innovation, applying a linear way of thinking to exponentials is, as Suarez states, a “path to doom.”

Businesses that are planning for linear smartphone penetration in Kenya will be designing solutions that no longer apply to that future.

So how do we design for exponentials?

Suarez and the team at Singularity University provide programs that push organizations and individuals to think exponentially, and design for an unknown future. Through discovery, ideation and projection, and rapid prototyping, participants are challenged to create a solution that will impact 1 billion lives. One of their current projects is to tackle water scarcity and drought. Suarez presented a design model that includes four parts: discover, project, make, and share. Within “Discover,” Suarez encourages us to embark on Behavioral Understanding, Technology Immersion, and Looking Out. By experiencing a different perspective, you can “change empathy for the earth.”

Suarez closed his presentation with two design principles:

  • Big shallow. Big deep. As you learn more about something, the experience you have is richer: “Every step of the process, there’s more to learn. If you look at great experiences, they should have this.”
  • Go Zen. If you are hitting a mental block, unplug and permit yourself to step away. Some of the greatest breakthroughs can happen when you give yourself permission to make space within your mind.

The work and design thinking that Suarez, Singularity University, and their partners are undertaking are critical to creating the large-scale impact that we, as the Sustainable Brands community, would be smart to embrace as necessary for our collective future.


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