Some insightful comments from my advisor have got me thinking about innovation tools. His thought was that many more kids would want to go into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields if we separated out the creation parts from the grungy math and/or fabrication parts. I’d bet that any engineer (or really anybody who creates things) shares in the experience of having to slog through grungy, parts of the process driven only by the vision of the final product.

This ties right back to thinking about the question ‘what are people good at? vs. what are computers good at?’ Two relevant answers (among many): ‘people are really good at making (sometimes bizarrely) abstract connections and new ideas’ and ‘computers are really good at grungy, known processes.’

Basically, the ideal goal is that the shorter the effort-distance between brain-flash and real-world implementation, the more brain-flashes can be tried. This in turn increases the rate of innovation iteration, accelerating new technology.

Technically, anything you didn’t have to create from raw materials technically fulfills this role. The computer of course, is the shining star in this area and the 3-D printer holds promise for applying similar iterative power to the physical world. Both still require a lot of grunge work in order to translate an idea into reality – programming languages, CAD programs along with considerations of physical and processor restrictions all constitute the bog of grunge that must be waded through.

Of course, there are tradeoffs associated with tools that shorten the idea-implementation distance. Anything that automatically abstracts the problem makes it that much harder to fix or tweak if it’s not to your liking. Here’s our modern technology black-boxification problem again – the grunge reducing tool does exactly what you want 99% of the time, and is nigh impossible to manipulate the other 1%.

The example that comes to mind is Microsoft Word vs. LaTEX - I won’t wade into the treacherous waters and voice an opinion, but I think everybody can agree that for someone who, say, only knows how to use a typewriter, the barrier to entry for MS Word is far lower. As long as you want to do what it was designed to let you do, it’s great – until you hit a corner case, at which point the ability of LaTEX to dive into the guts of formatting shines.

Some things I’m thinking about:

How small do the corner cases need to be for a tool to be more useful than annoying?   The problem is that innovation is all about exploring corner cases, so what corner cases are even acceptable in innovation tools? Could these tools perhaps be made in multiple layers?