Technology Is Not Innovation.

[The following is a version of a talk I delivered to HQN members on 17th May 2023 on the subject of blending old and new approaches to create meaningful improvement and change]

Digital evangelists often imply that technology will solve all our problems. By slavishly following this advice we risk embarking on the worst kind of technological solutionism that ignores the richness of skills, assets and sheer talent that exist already in our organisations and communities.

We can focus on technology as a solution when at best it is an enabler.

Technology is not innovation. Innovation is not technology.

Innovation is only a small piece of what happens with technology. Innovation is often what comes after technology. Today you will use your smartphone in ways never dreamt of by its inventor.

Of course the technology is important, because we will come to rely on it more and more in order for our communities and organisations to continue to thrive in the future.

The UK has a declining birth rate, exacerbated by the housing crisis.

The average age at first marriage is now 31, compared with a 20th century low of 23 in 1970.

There are currently around four working-age people for every pensioner in the UK.  But based on current projections, in just one generation’s time – in 2053 – there will be fewer than three working-age people for every pensioner. 

If you want to imagine where this could be heading look at Japan where the median age is 48 and by 2050 over half the population will be over the age of 53.  In Japan the newest technologies have inspired public and private sectors in the fields of health policies and innovation, to provide older people with a better quality of life. They have had to, there simply aren’t enough people to go around otherwise.

So we are going to see a continued acceleration of attempted technology solutions to all sorts of problems, and we risk being swamped by them. The challenge as always will be how we integrate successful new technologies with legacy business models.


AI is nothing new and we all use it everyday without ever thinking about it. Tools like ChatGPT, that can increase efficiency and reduce costs for businesses, are now available free to everyone. Getting new technologies into the hands of those best placed to make a difference with it was always a barrier to bottom up innovation – it was high cost and hard to use. That has all changed.

So what would a digital counterpart of our organisations look like? What would it tell us about how we work? How it could be improved?

A digital twin is a digital representation of a physical object, process, service or environment that behaves and looks like its counterpart in the real-world. Tesla creates a digital simulation of every one of its cars, using data collected from sensors on the vehicles. In Singapore they’ve made an alternate copy of Changi Airport that updates in real time.

However, whilst every car that rolls off the Tesla production line has a twin tracking its lifecycle from birth to death almost every house constructed in the UK has none of this technology built in. An investment that will last between 70-100 years is being handed over to the resident in the same way it was in the 1960’s.

Digital twin technology has now been democratised to the point where just about any organisation can tap into the benefits. So why aren’t we doing it?

It’s almost ten years since comments I made about the potential use of drones in the housing sector nearly caused the sky to fall in. However, my assertions have proved to be correct albeit a little premature: drones working together can create large 3D-printed structures made of foam or cement. The experiments are paving the way for a future where swarms of drones could help construct extremely tall or intricate buildings.

As a minimum every building surveyor should be a trained drone pilot. Sending a surveyor out without a drone in 2023 is a missed opportunity.

The blending of reality with artificial intelligence and offline and online social networks is genuinely exciting. In Amsterdam they are a creating a city selfie that brings existing policies, projects, initiatives and
start-ups together with stories, histories and images from diverse neighbourhoods. Overlaying this with visions, proposals and new initiatives for transforming the city creates a genuinely participatory economy accessible to all citizens.

The young woman in the photo has never existed. The pane of glass she is looking through was never created. The lighting never switched on. None of it is real, it’s an image created in Midjourney – a text-to-picture artificial intelligence (AI) service developed by an independent research lab of the same name. It is putting huge creative capacity into the hands of non-creatives. I love the idea that generative AI could help non-experts visualise unusual social and housing projects, in such a realistic way that they seem buildable.

For all the talk of technology, let’s remember we are human businesses and we exist to help other humans do better in life. It’s our only real purpose. So let’s think how we can use technology to leverage the huge talents and skills lying within our communities. Putting it directly in their hands will yield far better results than putting a firewall around your organisation or outsourcing to consultants.

Finally, let’s go back to Japan. We are often implored to be more like Google, or Amazon or Apple. For the social sector a far more relevant north-star exists in Nintendo. They are a legacy organisation that were formed in 1889.

One hundred years after their birth a video game designer called Gunpei Yokoi changed the world with the launch of the original Nintendo Game Boy. It took gaming out of the hands of geeks and paved the way for the industry to become the most profitable and popular form of entertainment.

However the Game Boy was far from best in class. Its black and white display was made up from old technologies well past their sell by date. Gunpei called his philosophy Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology. 

Withered: mature technology which is cheap and well understood.

Lateral thinking: combining these ideas and technologies in creative new ways

Innovation doesn’t actually need to be cutting edge. Rather it needs to be simple, useful and to make someone’s day that little bit easier.  Our sector has loads of withered technology, it just needs a little more lateral thinking.

Be more Nintendo.


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