Concepts of Innovation: The Vacuum Approach

May 3, 2016


You don’t need a blank slate to change the world. Entirely new or novel ideas are often rare, exhausting, and costly. By its definition however, innovation requires only that we alter or change what already exists. We tend to mentally avoid this type of innovation. Faced with the thought of standing on the shoulders of giants, we find this interpretation lazy or opportunistic or worse, parasitic. In actuality, this type of innovation has provided some of most critical and successful innovations in the world today. A simple form of this type of innovation is to simplify an existing idea. Maybe the process is too long, or the technology of the time has limited its potential. Either way, by plucking out pieces of an existing work that are unnecessary and making it ever-so subtly better, you cause a vacuous force brought on by the collapse of that now negative space. When you consider the demands and needs that are addressed by your innovation (where innovation draws purpose), you can visualize this collapse as a literal force which draws in those who will now use your creation over its predecessor. This can be due either because of time, money, or even a desire for its simpler convenience. This is the basis of the vacuum approach.

A modern day vacuum

You probably find yourself waking up every morning, at an hour too early for your tastes and likely made a daily pilgrimage (or two) to coffee as a source of early-hour relief. If you do this at home, you probably own a Keurig brewer, as well as a collection of tastefully strong brands of K-Cup coffee pods. On one such morning myself, I was casually attempting to juggle K-Cups. Inevitably, I managed to drop one in such a way, that I was able to see the light from the ceiling pass through it, and for the first time observe its internal anatomy. What I saw was two internal compartments; one of the compartments contained coffee grounds and the other, empty. These two compartments were separated by a thin net.

Somehow, Keurig had managed to become a front-running company to a billion dollar coffee industry, and yet had not changed anything about coffee, its nature nor its method. Pouring hot water through beans, a filter, and then a cup is as old as the drink itself, and was preserved in its entirety. Keurig created their vacuum instead, by modifying the way in which consumers approached the process of making it. Rather than the comparably arduous task of laying a filter, and adding the appropriate portion of coffee, (all of which needed to be obtained individually in the first place) Keurig had simply draw a box around this part of the process and compacted it to a one-step solution. Immediately, the old way of making coffee was obsolete, and consumers were pulled in to the idea of a K-Cup; compelled by its novel simplicity.

As an added benefit, K-Cups also made the process more efficient through its inherent regulation of portions. Personalizing coffee on a cup-by-cup basis eliminated the waste often associated with brewing pots or carafes, and gave coffee a fresher, more on-demand experience. Making the pull of the vacuum all the stronger.

A military grade vacuum

Since its creation, firearms have seen many changes in both size, shape, and portability. As weapons of war, having the superior firearms, or even firearms at all meant the difference between a successful campaign, and crushing defeat at the expense of your men.

Firearms were not without their drawbacks, as most new technology is. The costly preparation time needed to load gun powder in to the weapon, compact the powder, load the round, fire, and begin anew left the wielder vulnerable to enemies who were all too aware of this debilitation. This process was subtlety changed here and there, but real substantial change wouldn’t come until 1808 with the work of gun smith Jean Samuel Pauly and Francois Prelat.

Pauly, with the help of Francios, created the predecessor to what would become the modern cartridge. A fully contained cartridge would place this preparation task back to manufacturing; far behind enemy lines. Bullets were instead designed to store their own source of ignition within each individual cartridge. This invention would come to revolutionize the art of gun making for all types of firearm. The vacuum made by Pauly had implications which transcended mere mechanical process and effected human lives.

An oreo delivering trebuchet

You’ve likely never heard of Jean Samuel Pauly nor could you name the inventor of the K-Cup. More so, you probably wouldn’t consider them to be “great” innovators. The names we tend to gravitate to when identifying greatness: Leonardo Da Vinci, Nickola Tesla, Steve Jobs, Einstein, are indeed great, but we make a dangerously limiting mistake by considering them sole bastions of the art. Mired by the shadow of their greatness, we dismiss the simple ideas as somehow less and cheaper. After all, your oreo trebuchet isn’t exactly the tesla coil (see what I mean). However, I am of the conviction that innovation –no matter how seemingly insignificant, is worth exploring.

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