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The trouble with innovation

A group of QR codes, phtogrpahed by Hugh Wallace
Blog posts

Hugh Wallace

06 Apr 2023

Chief Information Officer, Hugh Wallace, talks about how trends can divert attention from strategic priorities.

When I think about innovation, I often cast my mind back to the rise and fall and rise again of the humble QR Code. First invented in Japan in 1994, QR Codes had a bit of a moment in the UK in the early 2010s and then pretty much vanished without trace towards the middle of the decade.  

Suddenly, little chequered squares adorned posters the length and breadth of the land, a technologist’s dream-come-true where the physical and digital worlds connected as one.  

The reality, sadly, was a lot of clunky and disappointing experiences. As it turned out, very few people knew what QR Codes were, let alone how to scan them, and lots of campaigns didn’t even bother tailoring content for mobile devices.  

I reflected on them in a blog post I wrote in 2012, where we’d stitched together a solution for a few hundred quid and at least tried to adhere to best practice. But as it turned out, usage and interest peaked around that time, and QR Codes petered out, never to be seen again...

A group of QR codes, phtogrpahed by Hugh Wallace
A collage of QR codes, photographed by me in 2012.

I jest, of course, and this article in Quartz neatly surmises what happened when Covid took hold in 2020. And while it’s not obvious how much gas is left in the QR Code tank, it at least proves that sometimes the new and shiny tech discovery is worthy of its initial brouhaha.

This offers a useful segue into the problematic world of innovation and what we’re trying to achieve at RDS.

It’s fascinating to look back at the Gartner Hype Cycle from 2011, where QR Codes were supposedly en route to mainstream adoption, and see a number of familiar phrases that – 12 years later – still haven’t really lived up to their early promise, such as Virtual Worlds, Augmented Reality, and Internet of Things. And despite leaps and bounds in terms of technological developments, it’s hard to argue that any of them are firmly established, and instead find themselves caught in some sort of infinite loop, never quite living up to their initial fanfare.

FOMO, futurists and funding

Stepping back through the various roles I’ve occupied, I’ve had plenty experience where those sort of hype cycles can have a real impact on delivery – on occasion distracting from critical projects, but at worst diverting money, resource and attention away from strategic priorities and unexciting-but-vital things like core infrastructure.

There are a variety of reasons of why this happens within organisations, but from my own experience I’d list the most significant of these as FOMO, futurists and funding.

FOMO, or the fear of missing out, can be the most irrational of these, and plays to some basic human frailties: others are doing it so why aren’t we? Unpick this a little and you tend to find the grass isn’t always greener on the other side, but if the PR and hype have already taken hold (particularly at the top of organisations) it can become an unstoppable force.

Futurists – those who pertain to know where things are heading and are often very good at influencing – can shape and spin narratives in a way that isn’t always beneficial A futurist with the ear of a budget holder may fan the FOMO fire, resulting in incoherent product decisions.

Funding overlaps lots of the points stated above: it’s often more attractive, newsworthy or (seemingly) finger-on-the-pulse to fund initiatives that are perceived as stretching boundaries, but that can be at the expense of adding actual value.

For public or third sector organisations like our own, it’s critical that there is a clear-eyed view of how to effect demonstrable change, and to make strategic decisions that aren’t driven purely by technology trends.

There was an interesting panel discussion at the Health and Care Transformation conference I presented at last month. Amongst an array of excellent questions from audience members, an important point was made about the consistent application of data standards, and how this could make a tangible difference in terms of impact – making it easier to catalogue, search and utilise data. Yet this is the kind of low-level initiative that’s perceived as an administrative headache, rather than something worthy of funding.

The same conference threw up multiple references to Artificial Intelligence, certifying that the hype cycle is well and truly alive with AI. AI throws up many tricky issues that aren’t necessarily getting the critical analysis they deserve, and one of the current problems is the sheer volume of airtime it’s eating up, smothering everything in its wake.

For digital old timers like myself, we’ve been here before. NFTs last year, blockchain and crypto the year before, and then a long list of things like big data, robotic process automation, VR headsets and countless mobile apps all blending into one another.

And the risk here is that important stuff gets left behind. I’m not denying that some of these developments have had valuable and game-changing impact, but the emphasis on innovation shouldn’t always be skewed by the newest shiniest thing.

“For public or third sector organisations like our own, it’s critical that there is a clear-eyed view of how to effect demonstrable change, and to make strategic decisions that aren’t driven purely by technology trends.”

Hugh Wallace, Chief Information Officer

Innovation with a small i

We’re endeavouring to put some boundaries around innovation within Research Data Scotland, and making sure our focus is on delivering things that fix real-world problems and don’t distract from our mission at large.

In my previous post I talked about getting the plumbing right, but just as important is the need to ask difficult questions. Does a similar solution already exist? Will it scale? Is the technology futureproof? What are the ethical implications? Have a diverse range of users been consulted?

As we mature our thinking and plans, these questions will help us put a framework in place to make good decisions about the products and processes we lead with.

Until then we’ll continue to bring new, improved and (hopefully) ground-breaking services to the research community in Scotland. Just don’t call it innovation.

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