A mayor, an architect, an engineer and a civil servant look at a problem…
“I have a dream,” says the mayor.
“I can design a solution,” says the architect.
“I can build a solution,” says the engineer.
“It can’t be done,” says the civil servant “so I’m not giving you the money to try”.
It sounds like a bad joke right?
But this was the start of what is termed ‘The Viganella Effect’. In essence the Viganella Effect is what you get when you close the digital divide and deliver technical inclusivity and engagement. By crowd-sourcing creativity we open up the innovation funnel and deliver more ideas, more change and more impact faster than ever before, but it also transforms the relationship we have with our customers.
The old way of innovating disengages customers
In the past, there was always somebody narrowing the innovation funnel – usually by restricting access to technology or finance. Innovation was something that was decided by a small group of people and delivered to everyone else as more or less a fait accompli. This results in considerable innovation waste. That is, a lot of effort and resources are put into innovation but, because of the current approach, a significant proportion of innovation doesn’t resonate with customers and is therefore wasted.
What the digital world could deliver, if we design it to, is a new way of innovating. It could provide a platform that unleashes a great tidal wave of innovation, transforming customers from passive consumers of technology to co-creators. This means a future where customers are not digitally disengaged due to alienation from technology that seems irrelevant to their lives, but are instead hugely involved in defining which problems need solving, as well as how to solve these problems.
What the light-bringers of Italy teach us
The Viganella Effect is named after a small town in Italy that had a big dream and in the process of realising this dream taught us a huge lesson.
The town had a seemingly intractable problem. For 800 winters it had been plunged into darkness for three months of the year because the sun couldn’t reach the floor of the steep-sided valley in which it was situated. The mayor of Viganella wanted to do something about this problem and co-opted a local architect and an engineer to help him. The local government authorities thought the idea was crazy and wouldn’t fund it. But eventually the town was given EUR100,000 to try.
The result was an 8×5 metre mirror set high on the valley wall which used software to track the sun’s path and reflect light into the valley. On 17 December 2006, on what came to be known as the “day of the light”, the mirror brought light to the town square during the winter for the first time – transforming the lives of the people.
Lessons Viganella taught us
There are many things ‘wrong’ with Viganella’s solution. It is far from perfect. Light can only be provided to a small part of the town. When the mirror needs maintenance it is hard to access. And in 2014 a fire in the drive unit resulted in the mirror being out of commission for three years before the town could raise the funds to fix it. But nevertheless, imperfect as it is, for the people of the town, the result is extraordinary.
Viganella teaches us huge lessons:
- Innovation isn’t the preserve of some technical elite. It isn’t concentrated in California. Many people are innovative, they’re just not given the chance to be. We are missing out on huge amounts of life-changing innovation as a result of not engaging everyone’s creative minds.
- Part of the problem with the current approach to innovation is that only a small number of people select which problems get solved. The challenge isn’t just that solutions brought to market are limited by innovation capacity, but that the definition and selection of problems is determined by a small group in the first place – reflecting their priorities rather than necessarily the wider communities’.
- Customer sourced and co-sourced innovation doesn’t just open up the innovation funnel, it also delivers engagement and prevents digital alienation.
- Solutions don’t have to be perfect. You can improve them over time as more ideas and more technology becomes available.
- Piloting a good idea – flying a kite – is great. But you also need to plan for the longer phase of maintenance and ongoing innovation thereafter.
- Lack of belief can be more of a barrier to innovation than money or technology.
- Digitalisation risks more inequality and more exclusion unless we approach it with an inclusive mindset. In the past, technological revolution was used to exclude people from the benefits – concentrating these benefits in a narrow group. We can and should plan to spread the benefits of digitalisation more widely. We can and should learn from the limitations of our previous approach.
So how does the Viganella joke end?
It ends with the mayor saying – “In the end, it was all about the people.” A salutary lesson for us all.
Teresa Cottam is the Chief Analyst of independent telecoms analysts Omnisperience. She is renowned for providing keen insights into how telecoms firms can improve the experience they deliver to their customers to build engagement and add value. Her research is currently focused on new monetisation opportunities, the future of customer service and customer communication. Teresa is a judge of the GSMA’s Global Mobile Awards, the World Communication Awards, and the UK Cloud awards. You can find out more about Omnisperience at www.omnisperience.com