Micro Innovations as the way Forward at Atal Tinkering Lab

Air Force School, Hebbal, Bangalore
Author : Kiran Kumar H S


In this blog, we will look at how we can tap our creative skills to forge ahead as an innovator in this rapidly changing world.

Types of Innovation

Before we put away innovation as something that is only for the few, let us consider the different types of innovation. There are three types of innovation that we can consider:

  1. Transformative innovations – innovations that address a big societal need or challenge
  2. Business innovations – innovations that address a customer or market need
  3. Micro innovations – innovations that address a personal or need of a small group of people
When we think of innovation, we almost always think of whether the innovation can address a market need, a business need or one that addresses a specific customer’s requirement. We even think of it as something that is transformative one that addresses some big societal challenge like world hunger or poverty. While all these are good, and needed, innovations don’t always have to start with the needs of the customer, the market, or that of the world. The best innovators start with a personal, burning need that they have felt strongly. When we start with a personal need, we are our own customers. Since we are our own customers, we understand our needs well. The pain-point is clear to us. We know what will satisfy our pain-point. So, it becomes easier to come up with a solution to our own needs first.

When Google founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin started out with the Google search engine, they didn’t think of solving the world’s problem of finding information on the internet. They felt that search engine of the day, Alta Vista, was not effective in finding the right information that they needed on the internet. So, they set out to address this need, and came up with a better algorithm that searches and presents desired information from across the internet. This became popular over time, and today it is the most widely used search engine across the world.

On a snowy Paris evening in 2008, Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp had trouble hailing a cab. So, they came up with a simple idea—tap a button, get a ride. What started as an app to request premium black cars in a few metropolitan areas is now changing the logistical fabric of cities around the world. This cab hailing service is called Uber.

For Orkut’s founder, Orkut Büyükkökten, people and technology were his two passions. He dedicated his career to connecting people through technology. That is how Orkut was born, the original social networking site that once boasted 300 million users world-wide, and was very popular in India till a few years ago.

According to Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, way back in 2004, Google was great for searching for news and Wikipedia was great for searching for reference material, but there was a gap. There was no tool where you could go and learn about other people. So, he started building one, which became the most popular and largest social networking platform we know as Facebook.

The Next Big Thing is a Series of Small Things

Thinking of big ideas is tempting. It is an unbeatable addiction to imagine a magic pill or silver bullet — finding that one thing we are doing wrong but can correct with a single change and consequently improve circumstances drastically. And everyone loves big ideas: They are flashy; they grab attention. The task of changing the world, the present would have us believe, is one of high stakes, requiring massive ambition and offering large rewards. And there is no room for those who cannot dream big.

While game-changing breakthrough ideas and innovations are glamorous, the vast majority of human progress is crafted differently. In fact, it's the little creative shifts - what I refer to as micro-innovations - that most often carry the day. These mini innovations can be subtle, but add up to significant results en-masse. However, we often forget about or ignore these types of innovations. These are the hundreds or thousands of small innovations that, when taken together, can bring major improvements and change to our lives. It is the small acts of 'everyday innovation' that are the stuff of greatness.

In reality, macro innovation success stories are few and far between. They are risky, hard to accomplish, and not always sustainable. It is not for everyone, at least not yet for those who are still learning the ropes.

Micro Innovations

Unlike macro-innovations, micro-innovations are accessible to us all. Each of us - regardless of role, tenure, age, or title - has the ability to develop creative solutions that lead to real progress. In this sense, innovation becomes a daily habit rather than a big, scary, overwhelming phenomenon. We all can be innovators, not just those in lab coats, entrepreneurs, those with fancy degrees or ones with big pockets.

Micro-innovation is all about tapping the creative energy one has and bringing out something new and better to improve our life on a daily basis. It can be a small improvement or customization to an existing product or service, and may satisfy the need of the innovator alone. Or, it could be a micro-product, or a micro-service for personal use, for a single customer or for a small group of users or friends. It may or may not scale up to satisfy the needs of large customer base. It may not necessarily be one that creates a big impact.

So, look to innovate for a local need, say, at your home, in your neighbourhood or community, in your school or college, at your work place, etc. For e.g., you could build a micro-product such as a mobile app for a neighbourhood doctor, using which his patients can book prior appointments for clinical consultation, or you could create an Excel spread-sheet for your uncle to keep track of his investments. It could be about building a website for your friend’s new business. It could be building a science experiment kit for school children in your neighbourhood, or offering the service of teaching mathematics to the next-door kid. The list could go on…

We normally don’t think of the above examples as innovations. However, they are because - we are creating something in response to a need we have identified. It could be a personal need, or the need of another. We need to celebrate every small improvement, every small creative challenge that brings something new into the world. These small things bring great joy. They help us learn, connect with people, empathize with their needs, and address them with whatever skills we have at our disposal.

If we keep micro-innovating, over time, we will be ready for macro-innovations, and our innovations can even have a transformative effect on the world. WhatsApp is an example of a micro-innovation that started small in a crowded mobile ‘messaging’ application space. However, it disrupted traditional telco messaging services, thanks to its principles of “no ads, no games and no gimmicks”. This micro-innovation has grown big and has more than 1 billion daily users today.