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Idealog—in the ideas business

The Black Room: Why you need one and how to set it up

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Illustration by David Follett

Some companies have a secret place, hidden from day-to-day business, where adventurous staff plan a radical makeover. sheds light on the Black Room

Here’s a proposal.

Take your company’s very best people, give them as much money as they need and as long as they want to create whatever they fancy. You won’t know what it is, how much it will cost or when it’ll be finished—but it’ll need your cash and your commitment, because otherwise your business is toast. Sign here please.

In most boardrooms, that’s a hard sell. But these are strange times and they call for special measures. We may not know what the products and services of tomorrow will be, but the biggest change will be in environmentally-minded design and technology.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a climate change denier or a true believer in a flax kaftan, environmental considerations are set to become the most important factor in design, production and distribution. That’s because a substantial minority of consumers will demand it, but also because environmental efficiency leads neatly to other efficiencies: in cost, performance, size and utility. The companies that create the most environmentally friendly products, technologies and services will gain a huge advantage over their rivals.

But they have a challenge ahead of them. Today’s ‘eco-products’ are temporary half-solutions, and often they create new problems of their own. Long-life light bulbs are laden with mercury. The batteries powering hybrid cars—made from nickel metal hydride—are still long way from being environmentally friendly and are clogging our landfills with a new form of toxic nasty. And when we buy those hybrids, our cast-off gas-guzzlers are sold and kept on the road anyway. Even the Energy Star sticker on your new fridge is a symbol of failure: while we find small ways of conserving power, our overall electricity consumption continues to climb and so we’re still planning to dam more rivers and mine more coal. China alone is opening a new coal-fuelled power station every week.

The truth is that incremental innovation—a few kilowatt/hours saved here, a bit less packaging there—is not going to develop the products and systems we want. What’s needed is radical innovation, a complete departure from the familiar. And—if you can convince your boss—the best tool to do that is the Black Room.

Historically, a Black Room is a kind of Star Chamber: a secret place created for doing clandestine work. Today’s Black Room, though still secret, probably won’t be an actual room or even an R&D lab, but rather a diverse collection of the most talented staff with some key traits: intuition, open-mindedness and a spirit of adventure.

Members of a Black Room use confidential forums or portals to work as a virtual team, uninhibited by existing structures. Their mission is to work out not what the next iteration of a product will be, but what the eco-tastic products of the future will look like.

But how?

The first step is to circumvent the company’s existing mindset. Comprising small quasi-independent groups of people, Black Room innovation combines internal and external ideas by adding new people from outside the existing business with fresh insight who aren’t constrained by the way things have always been done.

Black Rooms must be feverishly shielded—almost hidden—from the rest of the business and operate entirely independently of the business’s current activities. With no interference from the rest of the business machine, total anonymity ensures that their distinctive culture, processes and structures are not plagued by unsustainable business-as-usual forces and red tape.

Incremental innovation—a few kilowatt/hours saved here, a bit less packaging there—won’t develop the products and systems we want. What’s needed is radical innovation, a complete departure from the familiar. And—if you can convince your boss—the best tool to do that is the Black Room

Then, residents of a Black Room dream up the successor to the product of today. It will be dramatically different. Start with what it won’t do. It won’t require power or water; it won’t create a polluting byproduct; and it definitely won’t need to be thrown in a landfill at the end of its life.

If you’re designing the automobile of the future, think of one that uses free solar energy harnessed from the sun to fuel it, or that releases environmentally positive emissions into the atmosphere such as clean water. At the end of its life, orphaned vehicle components no longer needed—yet still with a lot of life in them—will be designed to be traded on an open market and reused for a second, third or fourth time in the form of a more recent model or even a completely different product.

Clearly, we’re not talking about tweaking current products. Knowing that incremental innovation isn’t the answer, the denizens of the Black Room use a different approach. Black Room thinking starts by going out into the future to identify the disruptive product they’re looking for—its features, characteristics and advantages, without considering the difficulty of creating it—and then works backwards towards the present. Think of it as perfect foresight.

Consider a fridge that has been made from toxic metals and components made to last up to ten years, and that uses power every day just to keep a nominal amount of food fresh and crispy. A disruptive product looks at ways to mitigate the need for energy and built in obsolescence while still delivering the same function—keeping your food cool.

Here’s a real-world example of Black Room thinking in action: a consortium of researchers and experts from around the UK is developing a new technology that will completely displace the lighting sector as we currently know it. The idea calls for every house, building or structure requiring lighting to be equipped with a box-type device that captures photons from the atmosphere and disperses them throughout the building in the form of light. Having come up with the idea, Black Room thinking is now working backwards from this vision, chewing off bite-sized chunks one at a time to make this happen. Milestone one—the capture of photons—has already been achieved and photon storage is next on the agenda. If the Brits can do that, this novel new technology will completely eliminate the need for energy from the grid to power the world’s thirsty need for light.

In New Zealand, of course, we have standard responses to ambitious ideas like Black Rooms: we can’t afford it, we don’t have the time, we’re too small, and we’re too busy just doing the day job, thank you very much. But just as we can solve our problems of scale with collaboration, we can work together in Black Rooms. If your business is in roofing insulation, say, you can collaborate with other companies in the construction industry to come up with new, sustainable methods of building. Everyone gets to share in success. Under the Black Room model, competitors of small firms are now viewed as potential partners where both parties can profit from the other’s expertise.

Sound all too Star Wars-like for you? Think you can just adapt as new technology arrives? Perhaps so, but the winners in the carbon economy will be those who invest in new ideas.

And you may be surprised to hear that at least one Kiwi company has already set up a Black Room. Perhaps it’s your company, but if you’re at all interested in your future, consider this: perhaps it’s your competitor.

Originally published in Idealog #19, page 56

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