While visiting the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Rhode Island, I happened to take this photo of genetically modified pumpkins displaying a wide range of advertising materials, apparently for the corporate sponsors of zoo activities.
Well, obviously the pumpkins aren’t actually genetically modified – they were just painted or sculpted by human artists – but in the rate genetic engineering is progressing, it’s quite possible that in a few decades we will have genetically modified fruits and vegetables that actually display readable advertisement on them as they grow up.
Now wouldn’t that be interesting?
I decided to take this chance and consider innovative ways in which future GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) could be used to promote and advertise products, ideas and corporates. In order to do that I utilized a fascinating systemic thinking system for innovation around which an entire consulting company called SIT (Systematic Inventive Thinking) was founded.
The principles of the SIT system have been described in a 2003 article in Harvard Business Review. In short, the main idea is to limit your creativity instead of trying to stretch it sky-high. Why is that so important? Consider that you’re on a first date, and the girl (or boy) is leaning forward across the table and is asking you that ages-old question: “Tell me about yourself!”
If you’re like most human beings, you probably freeze in complete bewilderment, unsure where to begin or to end, and what you should actually talk about. You’re lost in the chaos of your own mind, sinking below the waves of many thoughts and impulses: should you tell her about your trip to India? Or maybe about your ambitions for the future? Or maybe she really wants to hear about your bar-mitzvah?
Coming up with creative and innovative ideas is similar to dating, at least in this view. Many executives tell their staff to find and implement creative ideas in their product, leaving them floundering and resentful. Many (too many) creativity workshops look that way too: with round tables of employees and executives who are told to be creative and just to “think up a new innovative product for the company!”
Such exercises rarely lead to good results. At best, the participants fall back on whatever ideas they’ve read or thought about before, and almost no new or innovative notions are being produced at those meetings.
Now consider the alternative dating scene: your date asks you a very simple question – “What did you eat this morning?” In this case, the answer is clear. You have a starting point that is safe and sound, and while admittedly it is not very interesting, the conversation and the jokes can start flowing from that point onwards. It works the same way with creativity: by putting constraints on your thinking process in a systematic fashion, you’re actually capable of analyzing the situation in an orderly way, and develop each innovative case fully at a time.
The SIT method places constraints over the innovation process by forcing the thinkers to consider innovative changes to the current product in only five different directions: subtraction, multiplication, division, task unification, and attribute dependency. Let’s go over each one to think up innovative ways GE plants could be used for advertisement.
SIT Thinking Tools
Subtraction means that instead of our natural tendency to add features to an existing product, we remove existing features, particularly the kind that seem vital and necessary.
How does this thinking tool relate to GMO? Well, what would happen if we were to engineer a fruit without its skin or outer covering? The skin of the fruit obviously serves to protect the soft and squishy interior, so it’s definitely an important part of the product. However, maybe we could make the skin thinner and translucent, so that the consumer would see what they’re getting inside the fruit: they’ll see whether the banana has dark stains on its edible part, and if the tomato is rotten or has worms. That would certainly be an interesting advertisement maneuver: “We don’t have anything to hide!”
By applying the multiplication thinking tool, we multiply – add more copies of – certain existing components of the product, but then alter them in a significant way. Gillette’s double-bladed razor is a well-known example: they added an extra blade, and then found a different use for it on the other side of the razor.
How about, then, that we engineer the fruit to contain more seeds – but ones that are actually viable, and grow into some interesting and different kinds of fruit? The fruit’s manufacturer could bring the fruit to market as a tool for teaching children about the natural world, and even create a competition to find that “one golden seed” hiding in every one fruit out of a hundred, and out of which a truly extraordinary fruit will grow.
The division tool makes us divide the product into its separate components – and then recombine them in some new way. In the case of genetically modified fruit, we can roughly separate the ‘product’ into seeds, edible flesh, skin and a stem. How can we mix the three to make the final product more valuable for advertisers? Here’s an idea: make the seeds grow on the surface of the fruit, but make them as small as speckles, adding a shine to the fruit. Or maybe make the stem go through the entire fruit, like a skewer, and promote the fruit as one that can be easily roasted over a grill.
Which two tasks can be unified into a single component of the fruit? This one is easy: make the stem tasty, so that it can be eaten as a snack next to the fleshy fruit. One can also imagine fruits that contain therapeutic materials, so that eating them serves a double purpose: get thin, and get healthy.
Attribute Dependency Change
The components and attributes of every product depend, in part, on its environment. Shoes for girls, for example, often come in pink (attribute: color). Watermelons are often sold in summertime, which is another relation between an attribute (time of sale) and the product.
Using this thinking tool, we can really go wild. If we only focus on color as an attribute, we can engineer fruit that changes its color visibly when it’s infected by certain bacteria, or that its color can tell when the fruit was picked up from the field, assuring the consumer that they’re getting fresh produce. And this is just the beginning, since we can also play with the smell, touch, and even weight and size of the fruit. So many opportunities here!
You may or may not like the ideas I gave for genetic engineering of plants. Regardless, this post was primarily an exercise in innovative thinking meant to provide a sneak peek at a wonderful methodology for innovation. You are warmly invited to suggest more ideas for genetic engineering of plants in the comments section, using the SIT methodology as a guide. And of course, you can use the principles of the SIT Methodology to innovate your own ideas for a product, service or company.
I’m sure you’ll make good use of the methodology, and will discover that innovating under constraints is as useful as it is fun.