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A Barrier To Innovation

Does nostalgia inhibit innovation?

Innovation is generally seen as a good thing. It’s future looking, it’s progressive, it’s improving what has gone before. It has the potential to break new ground in whatever market, challenge, or product that it is being applied too. However, it can hit a few obstacles along the way. One such obstacle, that may not often be considered, is nostalgia.

We all know what nostalgia is, that warm feeling that is invoked when thinking about the past. We allow our mind to play tricks on us by convincing our modern-day selves that the past was a calmer, more productive and all round happier time. The products that complimented our lives back then were proven, robust and well made. The services we utilised were delivered professionally, with an old-school charm and a complete understanding for our personal needs.

…We allow our mind to play tricks on us by convincing our modern-day selves that the past was a calmer, more productive and all round happier time…

Nostalgia is a strong emotion to overcome when an innovative new product is all about the future. When we get our hands on a new product or service, irrespective of its innovative new functionality, we naturally tend to initially ‘test’ its validity by doing something that is tried and tested in our own minds. We almost tell ourselves “Well if it can do this…(whatever our nostalgic minds tell us)…then it may be worth considering”. How many of us, when given the immense and bewildering freedom of exploration that Google Maps and its Street View functionality provided us, immediately looked at our own homes, or those of friends and family? As opposed to looking at some far-off land that is alien in its culture and built environment to that of our own. We prefer to look at what we are already overly familiar with.

Streaming music services are another good example. Their innovative qualities are such that we have the worlds music at our finger tips. All manner of genres, styles, moods and interpretations can quench our creative thirst, but we prefer to build playlists of songs and albums that we already own. Songs that evoke memories from the past, nostalgic moments. We know that on that tired commute home on the train, we can listen to a song that reminds us of the golden summers of our youth, when the days were longer, the sun was brighter and we didn’t have a care in the world.

When interviewed for the BBC Radio 4 show, The Digital Human, the team behind Spotify stated that according to their statistics listening to familiar music is far more popular than listening to, and discovering new music.

…listening to familiar music is far more popular than listening to, and discovering new music…

In a land, where we like ‘old world’, ‘heritage’ and ‘proven’, anything new and innovative is going to have a difficult time displacing the nostalgic memories of the past and be accepted into our modern digital world.

There are many examples of ground breaking and innovative products that were just ‘too much’ for the public to adopt. Take the technically advanced Google Glass, which were essentially smart glasses and the natural upgrade to the glasses that millions of us wear without thinking twice about it. Regardless of their technical prowess and their ability to display information directly in your sight line, they failed. Anybody who tried them, myself included, were amazed by them, but just couldn’t envisage using them in our daily lives. Our more nostalgic analogue glasses were too embedded in our lives to have them displaced by something that futuristic.

All is not lost with Google Glass though, and its technology has been moved to more niche markets, such as within the helmets worn in sports, such as skiing. Here a user is happy, in fact enthused, to have information about their location, speed and direction in their sight line. With it they can also take a photo, via voice command, as they hurtle down the mountain. This is ‘must have functionality’.

Nostalgia doesn’t have its own way all the time though and innovators are aware of this. They can use it to their advantage. For example, have you ever asked why a digital camera, even the one on your smart phone makes the sound of an old camera shutter when you take a photo? or why icons to depict notepads, or calendars, or phone functions, or music players often resemble their historical non-digital predecessors. It’s to coax the user into not being scared to use them, to embrace and adopt them. They knew how to use those older products in the past, so the transition to a digital one that looks like the tried and tested historical ones is an easier process.

…It’s to coax the user into not being scared to use them, to embrace and adopt them…

The current crop of innovators working on the next generation of evolving products and services would be wise to consider the powerful force of nostalgia, it can be easily overlooked and stop the adoption of a new innovation in its tracks, with no warning and no explanation. However, if understood, if respected and embraced it can take the most innovative product imaginable and make it a world beater.

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WINN brings innovators together, acting as a catalyst to create connections and collaborations across the diverse business landscape of Worcestershire.

Our belief is that great things can happen when people get together.

WINN is a Worcestershire Innovation Programme formed by Worcestershire County Council and the Worcestershire LEP

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