„This intelligent fridge will revolutionize every family’s life!” was what the CTO shouted into the room at my first Design Thinking workshop 13 years ago – and everyone clapped enthusiastically. Since then, I have attended countless tech conferences, co-founded one of these exciting IoT startups myself and advised about a handful DAX-noted corporates as so-called innovation consultant. And I realized bit by bit that something is off in this digital bubble of mine – but what was it?

The hype around trendy ideas – why are they so often the focus of attention?

The beginning of an investigation: There was this moment back at Mobisol, when we captivated the world with drones flying autonomously across Tanzania’s outback to deliver spare parts – while our internal channels ran hot with angry memes from employees on the ground, who still had to apply firmware patches by hand. Was this obsession with progressive technologies really more important right now? Or could it be that some CEOs deliberately misunderstand the expression “solution-oriented” to deal with the latest technical gadgets first and (maybe) find the problem these solve afterwards?

Another clue: I was advising a company building high-end solar concentrators, whose R&D team had just gotten the go-ahead to join an incubator program. They wanted to work on integrating AI in the project planning of such plants. I’ll leave out the technical details here – it got interesting when we unearthed earlier user research at one of the plants in Egypt: On cloudy days, the local plant manager’s main job looked like it was taken from a 1970s movie: he had to bounce back and forth between windows in different cardinal directions and compare that to the cloud radar on his phone’s weather app. With these cues, he manually kept the system from overheating by opening and closing the distributed valves. Could it be that in many companies, the only way to get some of that sweet innovation play money is to initiate hackathons and include at least one trending hashtag in the proposal rather than dealing with the tedious but urgent matters?

Meanwhile, I have arrived at diconium data and soak up everything to do with harvesting and applying data. Just as I am tuning in to a popular industry podcast on the way home, I register another clue: Simultaneously while I listen to the interviewee bragging about BI solutions for optimizing shelf availability on grocery stores, I observe an employee hastily trying to put the 15% stickers on the right yoghurts in the after-hours hustle and bustle. Are some of these digital, intangible innovations perhaps rising to such heights that the developers somehow forget to think about the wider context and its stakeholders?


So, just as in that popular parable of the blind men on the elephant, there seem to be different answers to my original question. For some it is an innovation fetish, for others innovation theater and yet others criticize the inside-out perspective esp. of German companies. How to continue accordingly?

Focus on the core problem instead of the hype cycle

You do not immediately have to pull out an artificial intelligence (AI) to develop innovative solutions for real problems. Or, as my favorite PM puts it, “We do gas, water, data.” And for this, we best let real data professionals take the lead, who can integrate existing business processes, desired results and new technical opportunities into a coherent solution. They are better equipped than any WIRED-author to decide, if it really needs e.g., a large language model – or linear regression might better suit the problem and existing data architecture in the company.

Human-centered data product design

Although these digital products sometimes appear like magic: There are no shortcuts in the product development process. For every product that wants to be taken seriously, key actors and the context in which it will be embedded must be understood, and the solution has to be iteratively designed and tested. For this, we not only need data analytics, scientists and engineers, but also product owners, business experts, service designers, and legal engineers working closely together. We will explain in depth what this looks like in our data studio on our brand-new landing page.

And even though we, too, are one of these digital agencies with townhalls in the Metaverse and NFTs as Christmas gifts: (Be-)Denken first, digital second.

Gas, Water, Data
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