Innovation in an Uncertain World

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“Innovation aims to shape the future with the tools of the present” is just one of the many insightful quotes that guest speaker Maja Kuzmanovic delivered in her candid take on innovation and its place in our world today.

On March 27th, the XGrant and YGrant programs of EPFL hosted an exciting event at the Polydôme on the EPFL campus titled “Innovation: Taking Risks or Making Risks?” where Kuzmanovic gave her brutally honest opinion on how innovation will affect our lives now, and in the future. Standing before a dynamic background of slowly revolving pictures ranging from solar farms to child mercenaries, Kuzmanovic provided strong points and real-world examples to depict a world where innovation is essential, although volatile. Finally, Kuzmanovic posed the paramount question: “How can engineers, entrepreneurs, and techno-entrepreneurs embrace complexity and uncertainty in order to act in meaningful ways, whatever the future may bring?” Frankly, this question has no easy answer and Kuzmanovic would be the first to admit that. Nevertheless, she illustrated nine principles that can guide an aspiring entrepreneur on their journey into this turbulent future:

1. Challenge your assumptions

The first principle is meant to help give your ideas a solid foundation for meaningful change. Kuzmanovic went on to explain that this can be done by translating those assumptions and manipulating them into hypotheses that can then be tested in real life. Hence, it is important to observe from numerous perspectives so that you may understand the situation before interfering.

2. Improve your collaborative skills

One of the most important principles is to understand that creativity comes in many shapes and forms. What may seem obvious to you, could be a breakthrough idea for someone else. Sharing and collaborating is astonishingly valuable, as it turns multi-faceted, complex problems into digestible pieces that can be tackled by multiple individuals and later combined into one large solution.

3. Contextualize your innovation

The third principle is another important factor when building your foundation of understanding. When taking externalities into context, you will be able to tackle unforeseen risks and benefit from unforeseen opportunities. Theorizing the impacts of an innovation, both big and small, can give the entrepreneur control on all the uncertainties that lie ahead.

4. Experiment with future-proofing

Once an innovation has been contextualized for the real world, it is important to adapt accordingly. Kuzmanovic suggested doing this by building tight feedback loops between vision and reality. Furthermore, question where your ideas about the future come from. What presumptions do you hold that may be influencing what you forecast? Identifying these will allow you to design without any bias. Plan with contingencies for multiple possible futures as there is no way to tell where we’re going, or how we’re going to get there.

5. Embrace serendipity

“Acknowledge that seemingly aimless exploration can lead to surprisingly irregular results.” Experimenting and researching ideas that seem inconsequential can shine light on opportunities previously masked by ignorance. Embracing the chaos of uncertainty can yield unexpected benefits, if you so choose to seek them out.

6. Design for failure

While certainly the most pessimistic principle, designing for failure is paramount for any entrepreneur who wants to thrive in the long-term. Thinking about the unintended consequences that can arise from your idea will not just minimize risk of abuse, but may shed light on a rarely recognized perspective. It is uncommon for the entrepreneur to imagine the ways their idea can be corrupted and abused so designing with worst case scenarios in mind is often an overseen process. Kuzmanovic reminded the audience “failure is important, but only if you learn from your mistakes.”

7. Prototype and iterate

The seventh principle is prototyping. “Think about what would be the simplest way to test your idea with minimal resources and in the shortest time possible.” Once an innovation has been theorized in the real world, it is time to begin testing in the real world. Changing the scale or scope of the idea may not perfectly translate the issues of a final product, but it will provide critical feedback at a basic level.

8. Build antifragile systems

In a global society of such uncertain conditions, building around an idea that thrives with adversity will guarantee a certain level of security. Utilize tactics such as decentralization, redundancy, and overcompensation to avoid catastrophic failure. When it comes to back up plans, too many is always better than not enough.

9. Cultivate interconnective approaches

“To reap the intangible long-term benefits for everyone involved, engaging with complex problems requires a change of mindset from reductionist to relation.” In other words, to maximize well-being for all stakeholders, you must open your findings, sources, and successes to your peers. Although concealing key information to retain a competitive advantage is tempting, it spits in the face of all things progress. “In order to act in meaningful ways in our complex and uncertain times, the most important thing to remember is that we are all in this together.”

Kuzomnic heavily implied the need for collaboration and preparation when outlining what she believes is the best way to make meaningful impacts today but it may seem daunting to take on these principles with no guarantee of success. Nevertheless, with humanity facing so many threats in the near and distant future we do not have time to question “Is it worth it?”, all we can ask is “What next?”.

Justin Noble

Last modified: 1 May 2019

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