Finding innovation at the intersection

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“…the act or process of introducing new ideas, devices, or methods,” Merriam-Webster dictionary. 

When I think about innovation, I always try to start by remembering what the definition of the word actually is. By using this definition as the starting point of any conversation or project, we can begin to evaluate whether we are actually being innovative or simply refreshing a tried and tested idea with a new coat of paint. And the majority of the time, it is the latter.

About the author

Andrea Dona, Chief Network Officer, Vodafone UK.

This is not to say there is any fault in not always being innovative (another common phrase is “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it”), but it does ask the question of whether we are doing as much as we can to take advantage of the opportunities that have been presented to us.

The digital world

In the world of digital, this can present itself in several different ways, and it might be tough to gain consensus as to whether the term ‘innovation’ is being used in an appropriate manner. 5G is a technology that dramatically evolves the way we move data from one place to another, introducing significant improvements in bandwidth, capacity, latency and efficiency. 

Again, this has the potential for innovation – but transporting bits and bytes is not new. The Internet of Things (IoT) allows you to collect information from new sources, gaining insight into everything from the pressure of a bus tire, through to water retention variances in cliff faces. Depending on how this data is actioned, there is certainly scope for innovation.

The introduction of cloud technologies has transformed how data is stored and accessed by consumers and employees. But, is storing information in a massive data center as opposed to a server rack in your basement innovative? It could be, but not by default. These three technologies – 5G, IoT and cloud – are what we consider to be the building blocks of future technology, but the greatest rewards come when we bring to life ideas that blend all three together. 

Innovation can be achieved through investment and exploration in each technology in isolation, but together they act as a catalyst on each complementary technology. To use another common phrase, “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts”.

That is when real innovation can be achieved. We call this ‘Innovation at the Intersection’.

Innovation at the Intersection

‘Innovation at the Intersection’ is the understanding that to be truly innovative, we have to look beyond the technology; we have to be different, be creative and, above all else, be novel. Coming back to the dictionary definition, building something which is genuinely novel means using tools, techniques and processes that weren’t available to us in the past. We are currently at a critical moment in the digital journey to be able to do this.

Not only do we have 4G networks available to us, we also have 5G Non-standalone networks to offer speed upgrades, and soon enough we have 5G Standalone networks to deliver speed upgrades as well as greater spectrum efficiency, lower latency, greater reliability, increased security features and much more flexibility. Looking at IoT, not only can we deliver IoT solutions over 4G and 5G connectivity, we can also build solutions using Narrowband IoT and CAT-M IoT. These specialized networks open up possibilities for use cases that would not have been feasible otherwise.

Finally, in the cloud. There are options for public and private deployment, a wealth of new services which can be consumed in different ways, and also new Multi-access Edge Compute (MEC) technology to take compute power closer to the end-user.

Potential technology investments

The point of this long-list of potential technology investments is to demonstrate the different variables that are now available. If you compare the tools that are available to blue-sky thinkers today in comparison to just two years ago, it’s like chalk and cheese. The wealth of opportunities to explore different combinations of how technology can be layered on-top, beside or intertwined presents an unthinkable number of outcomes.

In 2009, an idea was presented to the world. It seemed harmless and uninteresting, niche and largely irrelevant. It relied on the mass adoption of more interactive devices (smartphones), location-based algorithms and a more universally available mobile connectivity experience (4G), to create an on-demand service, addressing a specific painpoint. A couple of years later, it started to catch-on, being launched in new markets. And today, it is recognized as one of the companies that redefined how we depend on our smartphones.

I’m of course talking about Uber, but the point is, without smartphones, intelligent software engineering and 4G networks reducing the cost of mobile data, it wouldn’t have been possible. A few smart people recognized how new technologies could be blended together in a way that had not been done before. This blending of technologies inspired an avalanche of cloud-native companies that now dominate the digital era.

Coming next

You now have to wonder what will be the next Uber? The idea that takes advantage of tools that were not available a few years earlier, to bring to life an idea that reimagines how connectivity, data and the cloud interact.

With 4G and 5G, a whole host of different IoT ecosystems, new cloud services to analyze and action data insights like never before, as well as intelligent, intuitive and agile telecommunications networks to underpin this cornucopia of experimentation, you have to wonder what wonderful and weird ideas will weave their way into the fabric of tomorrow’s digital economy.

Our job is not to try and second guess on what will be the next big thing– it is much more exciting than that. It is to work with these innovators, the people who think a little bit different from the rest of us, to make these empowering technologies accessible for any eventuality.

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Andrea Dona, Chief Network Officer, Vodafone UK.