How to shop smarter this Christmas – tips from our innovation expert
Record smartphone sales on Black Friday suggest this Christmas is set to be another festival of innovative gadgets for consumers worldwide. Christmas stockings will be overflowing with phones, tablets, laptops, VR headsets, digital assistants, robots, drones and a lot more.
But innovation doesn’t just have to be in the technology you receive. It can also help guide you to make smarter present choices. The study of innovation has highlighted some key concepts that be very useful when you’re deciding what to buy for your friends and loved ones. Here are a few of those concepts applied to your upcoming last-minute Christmas shopping.
Some innovations are welcomed because they are radical, introducing huge change into our lives and exciting people about the prospect of a brighter future. Mobile phones were a radical step forward from landlines, just as landlines were a revolution compared to handwritten letters or Morse code. You can delight someone with a gift that is a radical innovation from what they have experienced before.
But sometimes radical innovation can be overwhelming. Upgrading your elderly grandparent’s old-school feature phone to a new smartphone could bamboozle and stress them out. The author Alvin Tofler called this confused reaction to new technology “future shock”. We can become paralysed, worried and even go into meltdown over significant change.
Ask yourself: is trying to bring someone up to date with the latest technology a step too far? Do they they really need or want this radical present?
Perhaps what mum or dad really need is more incremental innovation. Maybe a slightly better camera, or a TV with a bigger screen, not a new 3D, 4K, HD display with built-in digital assistant to answer their every request. Sometimes a present representing smaller change that builds on what is already there is what your loved one will value most. There’s research to suggest that smaller steps are often more needed and effective than going for radical innovation as a default choice.
Ask yourself: is it a case of less is more?
Sometimes it is not the size or scope of a new gadget that is the key issue, but how it will be used in daily life. What’s particularly critical is whether the gift is going to enhance what we already do with a different way of doing it, something we call substitution innovation.
A robot vacuum cleaner may save hours of chore time and bad backs. Or it might kill off a ritual we enjoy, or turn us into a couch potato when we were seeking a bit of exercise. It might even add to our woes, with higher maintenance costs and more complexity and the stress that comes with it. Or it might just not do as good a job at vacuuming.
Ask yourself: will this substitute improve life on all levels, psychological, emotional and physical? Or is this gift a solution looking for a problem?
Parallel and Big Bang introduction of innovation
Some innovations serve as a bridge between two ways of doing things, helping move people along when a rapid transition is too radical. An old-fashioned music lover might in theory benefit from a streaming subscription but still value their physical CD collection. A laptop could be a way to encourage them to try the new format while still being able to play their old favourites. The old system runs in parallel with the new, allowing the innovation to fade in gradually at the user’s pace. This type of innovation is sometimes known as parallel implementation or parallel running.
Ask Yourself: will this present run alongside what it might eventually replace so it can be introduced gradually by the recipient?
The opposite to this is a Big Bang introduction of an innovation, which happens when we suddenly stop using the old technology and try to switch to the new at the same time. It’s a risk and it can be a disaster. If you throw your old camera away in anticipation of receiving a new one on Christmas day, then you may find when you go to capture the family meal in high definition that the new one needs charging or, worse, you can’t get it to work at all.
Ask yourself: is it right to switch suddenly in one dramatic, releasing and refreshing act, or would a parallel approach be wiser?
Whatever kind of innovation you go for this Christmas, it’s worth looking at whether there’s a way to make your presents more sustainable. Certainly buying someone a gift they will never use or throw away within a week isn’t going to help the planet. But there might also be a more energy efficient, more easily recylable or less packaged version of whatever you’re buying.
You might even be able to give something that helps cut the recipient’s carbon footprint. For example, it might run on solar energy, be made from recycled materials and wrapped in carbon-neutral packaging, or manufactured and bought locally rather than flown halfway across the world.
Ask yourself: will this just add to the amount of Christmas waste we generate?
Innovation is different from pure invention. It adds value to the new things we buy and give to others. Often we make poor choices about what presents we buy and give to others, and then the value diminishes or even disappears. Think like a wise innovator and you might just rescue your Yuletide from disaster.