Philadelphia’s economic success lies in making technological innovation work for people

     (<a href=''>Innovagtion image</a> courtesy of

    (Innovagtion image courtesy of

    We’re living in a truly globally integrated world — one that affords consumers more choices as technology and shifting economic trends disturb the status quo.

    Can we wait for these changes to slow down? Not if you believe in history.

    Change is ever accelerating, because technology is forcing the changes in our workplaces, homes and environments. First came the industrial revolution with steam, coal and oil. Then came computers, information, Internet and mobile technologies. Do we really think this pace is going to slow in the foreseeable future?

    This complexity, uncertainty and change may sound confusing and even scary. But it also carries with it the seeds of opportunity.

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    One lesson to be learned is that we cannot eliminate any of these factors. We can, however, learn to manage them.

    Alternatives for moving forward

    One alternative is to introduce more innovations from within our existing public, private or academic organizations. Some dramatic changes within these organizations have been developed through “intrapreneurial” ventures, like Skunk Works, through which our military developed the stealth technologies.

    Historically, during periods of accelerated change, entrepreneurial values were highly prized. Think of Edison’s harnessing electricity, or Jobs’ and Gates’ efforts to build not only computer technologies, but quintessential American businesses as well. Who will take us to the next level achievement? I’d like to think that there are clues of these revolutionaries already among us, furiously creating value and not looking back.

    To me, the most compelling avenue is, ironically, the simplest: to encourage innovations through investment of our own assets or time to give back to the community and promote work done by the more creative members of our society.

    In short, we need to develop empathy to balance out the breakneck pace of our technological innovations.

    In too many cases, technologies are hampered by designers who simply don’t have a good feel for the average end user and who lack the empathy to make their inventions usable, let alone pleasurable and fun.

    Local examples of innovative approaches

    How should we recognize good innovations? At a recent discussion hosted by the Greater Philadelphia Senior Executive Group‘s (GPSEG) Innovation Leadership Forum, Dr. Stephen Spinelli, the president of Philadelphia University and co-founder of Jiffy Lube, argued that we should be striving to identify the desirable, then check for the feasible, and ultimately develop the valuable.

    This combination of problem-discovery and experimental value-creation is the focus of the methodology used by a local success story, Electronic Ink, the Philadelphia-based, global design consultancy led by CEO and founder Harold Hambrose.

    Electronic Ink is in the business of injecting empathy into the way we do business or accomplish anything of value. Hambrose maintains that previous design attempts, when applying our eve-changing technologies, lack this human factor. The firm can be easily mistaken for one that will help you design furniture, exercise equipment, buildings or websites. In fact, it is focused on designing — or redesigning — people’s experiences with the world’s innovations.

    Electronic Ink’s well-established methodology, developed over many years, comes down to empathy — how can we make modern advancement work for people (and not the other way around)? Hambrose will address his company’s unique approach to “design” at Temple University on May 29, where he’ll headline a GPSEG Innovation Leadership Forum event.

    Similarly, GPSEG is a networking and professional development association through which members put their considerable contacts and experience to work for the benefit of others. Our members — business leaders, entrepreneurs and non-profit directors — aren’t just looking for their grip on a higher rung of the ladder. We aspire to empathy — for ways to help our fellow members achieve new success, solve a problem or identify a new opportunity.

    The most prolific successes in the public, private or academic community have come through collaborations that cut across functional, political and linguistic boundaries. As an example, GPSEG’s innovation community has recently formed an alliance with Temple’s Innovation & Entrepreneurship Institute (IEI) in a program called TechConnect. This is geared to accelerating the growth of promising technologies buried in our local universities and turning them into jobs and economic opportunity.

    These are local examples of managing uncertainty and change with empathy and personal connections. The goal is to promote others’ creativity through mentorship and facilitating conversations across the various sectors of our community. Our collective experience is important fuel for entrepreneurial, organizational and personal innovation and growth.

    Joel Vardy is the chair and founder of the Greater Philadelphia Senior Executive Group’s Innovation Leadership Forum (ILF). He is president and founder of Vardy & Associates, an innovation, strategy and change consultancy.

    WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal