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Adjacent innovation - unlikely connections that move our world

Christina Van Houten Profile picture for user Christina Van Houten October 4, 2016
Adjacent innovation explains how unlikely connections are helping to unearth unprecedented discoveries and inventions, writes Infor's Christina Van Houten

Working glass in Murano, Italy © Gabriele Bignoli -
In the late 13th century, the city of Venice had a problem to solve. Glassmakers who had moved to what was the center of world commerce at the time required a key ingredient that was essential to their craft – extreme heat.  In a bustling city constructed of wood, big furnaces raging to power glass blowing were impractical and downright dangerous. After one fire too many, city officials insisted that the artisans move to the nearby island of Murano, resulting in the inadvertent creation of a colony of highly-skilled glassmakers. The world has much to be thankful for as a result – beautiful Venetian glass for a start, but even more significantly, the ideas and innovations that this concentration of skilled craftsmen helped build, such as eyeglasses and eventually the microscope.

This evolution of glassmaking is a classic illustration of a concept known as adjacent innovation. The dynamic tends to take place when a critical mass of similarly skilled people are concentrated in a relatively small place, causing cross-pollination to occur more rapidly than would otherwise be possible. Glassmakers developed the skills and foresight needed to expand their craft, allowing people in seemingly unrelated industries to achieve far more than they would have without the dynamic made possible by organic, serendipitous collaboration.

Unintended ecosystems

Examples of adjacent innovation abound in modern times. NASA’s concentration of scientists resulted not only in breakthroughs for the US space program but also in ideas that evolved into memory foam, firefighting equipment, cochlear implants, Velcro, Teflon, and more. Innovations in the military established the groundwork for everything from GPS navigation systems and cell phones to medicines, air travel, and synthetic materials like nylon.

Beyond these examples, the concept is perhaps most resonant in the technology industry. With the critical mass of great minds drawn to this arena, it has become a center of breakthrough ideas. Think Silicon Valley, Manhattan’s Silicon Alley, Durham’s Research Triangle Park, or the Kendall Square area around MIT in Boston, to name just four US examples. The crucial spark for rapid innovation dates back to the development of the personal computer, which led in turn to the popular growth of the Internet and now the advent of cloud computing. The ecosystems that have resulted (intentionally or unintentionally) from the accelerated advancement of this industry allow connections to be made between ideas, inventions, and industries that on the surface may seem entirely unrelated.

From retail to healthcare

Let’s take a look at an example from my own company, Infor, a developer of cloud-based enterprise software solutions. One of our areas of specialization is retail, and a key customer asked us to find a more effective method for managing assortment planning, which is the process of selecting and deciding how to show goods for sale. Infor’s team of data scientists, housed down the street from MIT, built a series of algorithms that analyze large volumes of data, factoring in everything from seasonality and weather to price elasticity and supply chain constraints like pack configurations.  With this approach, our PhDs in math, physics, and operations research, none of whom are necessarily experts in retail, have been able to predict with a high degree of accuracy what products customers will buy and when, down to the specific day of the year or even the time of day.

This initiative could easily have stopped there, but those same data scientists were also working with Infor’s healthcare team. The challenge in this case was to solve a perennial hospital inventory management quandary – how to optimize supply storerooms, given the awkward physical requirements and extremely constrained space that result from having them tucked into patient floors all over a medical facility. As they dug into the problem, Infor’s data scientists quickly realized that what enabled them to help retailers ensure they had the right products in the right place at the right time could also help healthcare providers have the right supplies for their patients exactly when they needed them.

At first thought, you might assume that people get sick or hurt in random ways.  But consider factors like emergency room traffic on holidays or on a Friday night versus a Tuesday morning.  Or how there might be a spike in discretionary procedures when the annual deadline for Flexible Spending Accounts is looming, or even how flu season sends a lot of people to the hospital in winter months.

Capitalizing on adjacency

By applying their retail concepts to a hospital environment, Infor’s data scientists helped one of our healthcare customers reduce its inventory by 13%. That reduction not only contributes to this hospital’s ability to improve patient outcomes, but also helps achieve the operational efficiency desperately needed to bring down the exploding cost of healthcare.  And it’s just the beginning. This same thinking is also being applied to hone how staff is scheduled, achieving the right mix of doctors, nurses, and technicians for the portfolio of procedures and activities most likely to occur at a given point in time. The ultimate goal is an increased level of predictability in the life and death dynamics of medical facilities and accelerated progress toward the vision of a healthcare system that cost-effectively delivers the highest quality care without compromising choice.

The future holds many more opportunities for this type of adjacent innovation, ready to be capitalized on by those who have the specialized knowledge to tackle complex problems and the diversity of experience to make connections others do not see. This ability to create a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts holds virtually unlimited potential, both for the technology visionaries who can make it part of the way they think, strategize, and execute and for the larger world that stands to benefit from discoveries waiting to be uncovered. What will technology’s next generation of Venetian glass look like? Our company is excited and proud to be part of finding the answer.

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