This article is the fourth in a series about commoditization, after Product complexity’s focus on service.

4.2.3 Creativity in the art of assemblyA lot of value can be created by finding original ways of assembling bricks. Two young architects, Fabio Gramazio and Matthias Kohler (see photo at upper left), from Zurich are masters of brick assembly. In addition to designing creative buildings from their firm’s office, they lead a research team at ETH Zürich’s architectural school. That research team creates elegant structures by assembling bricks (see photo at lower left). The team is also skilled at assembling knowledge, thanks to their relationships with ETH Zürich’s computer design and robotics departments. They have developed processes for assembling bricks very accurately by use of a robot (see photo at upper right). They are exploring extension of the concept, currently working on steel-mesh welding by robots and high-rise assembly of foam bricks by swarms of small quadricopter drones (see photo at lower right). This team, melding art and engineering, stands at the forefront of modern architecture. 

Products and services are becoming increasingly complex assemblies. Low-tech products, high-tech products, and services are combined and blended to create the most attractive package. The objective of the game is to find the best compromise between customers’ aversion to effort and cost and customers’ desire for personalization. Although customers appreciate the performance and breadth of service resulting from complexity, they do not want to have to struggle with complexity when using the product.

Finally, designing a new product is a combinatorial problem of how to select the appropriate technology “bricks” and combine them to provide an innovative service package that addresses customers’ needs and desires. In this combinatorial exercise, the most critical step is not a technical one, because the bricks are in the grand catalog and come with the required technology. The most critical step is selecting, from the countless combinations, the best offering from the perspective of a customer so that the offering addresses the customer’s basic and ancillary needs and desires while being simple to use. The creativity is in the act of selecting the right bricks and binding them to perform the desired service.

We believe that, surprisingly, in the current world of complexity, the brightest act of creative innovation is much closer to artistic skill than to technological engineering. Let’s consider poetry, for example. Poetry is simply the assembly of words in order to convey emotion. Words are just small bricks of knowledge with definitions; the value of a poem is in the combination of words.

In this art of performing innovation, there are rules and guidelines to be respected, the most important ones related to customer satisfaction and profitability. The winning innovation offers the most elegant combination of bricks, seemingly simple, almost obvious (after you have seen it), and as elegant as flowers arranged according to Ikebana. Steve Jobs can be described as an art designer, and, according to many Apple customers, it showed in his products.


Innovation Intelligence book

This article was initially published in the book Innovation Intelligence (2015). It is the second section of the fourth chapter.