3 tiers of innovation: feature, typology, application

There are three levels of innovation in the lighting industry.  Two are common, one is incredibly rare.

The first level is where the market, application and topology is defined and the expected feature set is also tightly defined.  Here, small “innovations” such as incremental refinements in functionality or new accessories are expected.  For example, a new, easier way to attach track fixtures to track.

Market  X  Application  X  Topology  X  New Features!

The second level is where the application is defined, but someone wants to do it “better”…just not necessarily differently.  New types of products may be created, but they achieve the same end result.  For example, recessed multi-head systems as an innovation over plain old surface mount track systems: In the end, they all still spotlight merchandize.

Market  X  Application  X  Topology New!  X  New Features!

The third level is where someone says “The retail experience is all wrong, and the lighting is a chief culprit.  I want to rethink the entire retail experience and I will use light in radically different methods.”  For example, using daylight or proximity-based interactive lighting controls.

Market  X  Application New!  X  Topology Radical! Revolutionary New Features!

I’m not sure there is a fourth tier:  I think the addressable market group always has to been known in order to innovate to actual need.

The challenge in the lighting industry is that these levels of application, topology and feature become multiple compounded risks once they are engaged, not just single levels of risk.

On top of that, I would suggest two more risks that even further compound the risks of radical new products:  Certification Compliance and Managerial Experience.

The farther you get away from established product norms, it becomes almost impossible to work with UL, CE or other “norms” bodies.  They demand proven consistency.  That is there entire reason for being.  They purposely try to slow down, test, thwart, test again, question, test once more…any innovation.  It’s a daunting, if not impossible hurdle for small entrepreneurial companies to overcome.

For example, if I remember my history correctly, UL originally classified Color Kinetics’ first products as “IT infrastructure”, because they more closely resembled Ethernet switches then any lighting product that UL had seen before.  CK was forced to pay a dear price educating UL on what the future of lighting fixtures would become, and what standards were necessary.

And just as debilitating to launching novel application or typological innovations can be corporate managerial agents with little-to-no experience in the actual lighting or design professions.  Without an innate sense of market trends, they tend to choose safe, established, self-preserving norms.  How many of the industry’s most radical leaders had long, diverse histories working in various areas of the industry?  These are the people who, paradoxically, are ultimately the most disruptive to the industry itself.