Karlheinz Brandenburg
You probably haven’t heard of the German computer scientist, Karlheinz Brandenburg, but most of us use his invention everyday. Brandenburg is the inventor of the MP3 algorithm that compresses audio files without losing the sound quality to untrained ears. It is one of the most fundamental technologies for the digital music revolution. It introduced the era of iPod and completely changed the music record industry landscape. 

MPMan MP-f60, CC BY-SA 2.0
How about MPMan, the world’s first portable music player, invented by a now-gone start-up firm, MPMan.com, from South Korea? Haven’t heard of that either?

Don’t feel bad. Most people don’t know MPMan or Brandenburg, and yet we all recognize the name Steve Jobs and his product, the iPod. After all, Steve Jobs is… Steve. 

That is precisely the problem when it comes to innovation.

For every Steve Jobs and iPod, we have hundreds, if not thousands, of Karlheinz Brandenburgs and MPMans. My research deals with this problem. A recent beyond article by Jennifer Keirn, “Innovation Nation,” suggests that innovation is not about creating the next mousetrap but solving real problems. 

Design is playing an increasingly important role in our efforts to build an Innovation Nation. 


Where is the solution? It’s centered in the problem.

Innovation is different from creativity and invention. While creativity and inventions are often solution-centric, successful innovations are inherently problem-centric. In fact, great innovators are indifferent to solutions as long as they solve the problem they are obsessed with. 

Steve Jobs was obsessed with the problems users experienced when they tried to take their music library on the road. In order to solve that problem, he sought solutions that already existed and mixed and matched them to deliver his own solutions. What was new in the iPod (or iPhone or iPad for that matter) was not individual technologies but the way the whole ecosystem was assembled in order to solve users’ ongoing pain points. 

While innovators are obsessed with the problem, most creative inventors are obsessed with their own solutions. They cannot let go of their own ideas, even with a clear signal from the market that the world may not need their particular solutions… at least not yet. While grit and perseverance are important characteristics of successful entrepreneurs, an obsession with their own solutions is never a good sign.


The evolution of the solution-centric mindset

Painting to Hammer a Nail in 
© Yoko Ono, Courtesy Walker Art Center
The solution-centric attitude developed out of defense and healthcare, where much of our big innovations in the past originated. In both cases, the problems were evident: Cold War. Death. Disease. These problems needed solutions, so corporate R&D centers and university labs sought out the next big solutions. They believed that “if we build a solution, the problem will come.”

However, many of our recent innovations, particularly digital innovations, don’t work that way. No one builds a hammer first, then finds a nail to hit, then locates a spot to put the nail on a wall, and then chooses a picture to frame. It’s exactly the opposite. I want to decorate my wall—it’s bland—so I choose artwork and a frame. Only then do I think about how to affix the frame on the wall. Do I choose a hammer and a nail, or maybe some double-sided tape, or maybe a tack, or maybe there’s another solution out there to this problem that won’t ruin my drywall. The problem isn’t the hammer. The problem is my boring wall. 

Innovators must start with a clear articulation of a problem. The problem must be real and compelling. Only then can one size up the value of the solutions that are designed to solve it. 


How design figures into the problem of the solution problem

When I teach design as a tool for innovation, this is the very first lesson I emphasize. I ask students, “What do you see? What inspires you, good or bad?” I then ask, “To whom is it a problem, who are they, and why does the problem matter to them and others?” Only after these steps can they address, “What can you do about the problem? And what are the resources you need to create and sustain your solution?” 


A great design begins with a compelling problem.

Who are the innovators, then? Innovators are those who are unhappy with the current situation that everyone accepts as given. They are the ones who keep asking, “Why not?”They are the ones who wonder, “Can an alternative reality exist?” Innovators are never satisfied but are always optimistic about the future.


Knock: the door of innovation is open

Innovation cannot and should not be reserved for the few victorious ones in our society. It should be viewed as an opportunity for everyone. In fact, those who suffer the most have the most to offer. They are the ones who see and experience the challenges in our society.

Over the last five years, I had the privilege of working with hundreds of inner-city minority youth who often live under extremely challenging economic and social conditions. When they were awakened to the fact that the problems are also opportunities to design new solutions, they rose up to the challenge by finding new solutions that the world had never seen. Over five years, these students, who had no formal training on design or technology, were able to produce over 30 creative solutions that are all grounded in the reality of big American cities.


Will all the Steve Jobs and Karlheinz Brandenburgs please stand up?

Innovation Nation is not built by self-claimed entrepreneurs, tech gurus or millionaires and billionaires; rather, it is created and sustained when we awaken the “design consciousness” in every one of us. No matter how tough the problem is, the current situation can get better if we work to see it through a different lens.

What then should organizations do in order to nurture a problem-centric culture of innovators? They should develop a platform for broadcasting problems and reward those who raise real and compelling problems that mobilize collective imaginative intelligence. When such a problem platform is matched with a reservoir of solutions, we will see wakes of innovations that create real value.