There was a great story on the radio the other morning about the Serendipity Awards. These are given to researchers who have spotted and seized unexpected opportunities for economic and/or societal impact arising from research.
The story went as follows. It was an open day at the University of Nottingham and a group of researchers in body representation were showcasing their latest MIRAGE technology which creates body distortion illusions. Apparently the technology takes a real-time video capture image of a hand and then fools the brain into believing the hand is stretching or shrinking.
One of the people visiting the University that day was the grandmother of a prospective student. She suffered from osteoarthritis in her finger. Being inquisitive and open to new ideas, she requested a demonstration of the technology.
Amazingly, during the demonstration the grandmother realised that her finger didn’t hurt anymore. The illusion of her finger being distorted triggered something in her brain that meant she no longer felt the pain.
This led the researchers to contact experts in arthristis to notify them of their discovery. They then tested this technology on a number of volunteers diagnosed with arthritic pain in their hands. The results showed a notable reduction in pain, on average halving the discomfort for 85% of volunteers. This obviously has huge potential and further research is now being conducted by both the Nottingham team and by specialists in arthritis.
Independent of anything else, I just love this story.
However, it does also make me think a little bit about what we do.
Most clients are now doing some form of ‘buzz monitoring’ either in-house or with an agency. I wonder, however, how many are actually doing it in a way that would allow them to uncover unexpected opportunities like the above. My suspicion from the conversations I have had is that too many are being too prescriptive or metrics led with what they are looking at – they are looking to prove what they already know, rather than allowing room for surprising discoveries that might disrupt the status quo.
What isn’t happening? Where else is interesting stuff going on? What are the anomalies, the bits that don’t fit?
For me, as opposed to focusing too hard on the what, the how much and the who, we should all be using conversations to uncover the what ifs.
That’s what will drive great insights, and lead to true progress.