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Insects, six-hour commutes and ASOS junkies: welcome to extreme innovation

29th Apr '16

People in earthquake zones shop differently. Brian Millar, director of strategy at Sense Worldwide, describes the opportunities for innovation in Asia

Company: Sense Worldwide Trading in: Indonesia, The Philippines, Japan, India Sector: Innovation consultancy

Jeremy Brown

Jeremy Brown, Founder

Extreme weather. Extreme overcrowding. Extreme traffic. The things most people hate about Asia are the things I get excited about. Because extreme experiences inspire extreme inventiveness.

In the past year, I’ve helped shanty-town dwellers to battle mosquitos more effectively, helped Jakarta’s super-commuters to drive in more comfort and brought some of the world’s smartest shoe designers face-to-face with Seoul’s most inventive hipsters.

I’m a partner in an innovation consultancy that works with companies such as Nike, Samsung, PepsiCo and Sonos. We travel the world looking for fresh ideas that will become the big, disruptive products and services of the future. Often we look to people who have extreme needs. Every month, that brings us to Asia.

The science-fiction writer William Gibson once said that: “The future is already here; it’s just unevenly distributed.” We find that innovative companies are less interested in what mainstream consumers think: mainstream consumers, after all, were completely happy with their Nokia mobiles in 1999, or their BlackBerries in 2007.

“The future is already here; it’s just unevenly distributed”

However, there are always a few consumers who are dissatisfied, often because their needs are more extreme. Sometimes they’re hacking their own products, like entrepreneurs we’ve found in shanty towns in Calcutta making burglar alarms from old mobile phones.

Many Chinese consumers have been frightened by toxic chemicals in food – with good reason. ‘Clean eating’ – growing your own food so you can be sure of its provenance and purity – is only starting to become a trend in the West; it’s already well established among the Chinese middle classes. Even people in Hong Kong cultivate their own organic vegetables, despite living in one of the most crowded cities in the world.

Asia has the densest cities in the world. Jakarta’s residents may hate traffic jams: we love speaking to commuters who spend six hours a day in their cars. When you spend half your life in the driving seat, you’re much more opinionated about how to improve auto interiors than a Brit who does a 20-minute school run every day.

People who live in earthquake zones shop for things differently: we recently advised an American client to lower the centre of gravity of its merchandise. In much of Asia, women judge every product as to how easily it will fall off a shelf in a quake, and how much it will hurt if it lands on their head.

Brian Millar

Trend spotter: Brian Millar of Sense Worldwide travels the globe looking for disruptive ideas

Shanty-town dwellers often face challenges that westerners find hard to imagine. Take insects: in developed countries, mosquitos might irritate you at a barbecue. In Manilla, they can give you dengue and malaria. So insect repellent is a daily fact of life for its poorest citizens.

They’re quite happy to sit for three hours and work with us to make products that are more effective and better value. We pay them for their time, of course, but crucially, when we’ve done our work, we hope they will benefit from a better version of a life-saving product.

Seoul is fascinating to help understand fashion. It was there that we first saw kids hacking their high-top sneakers to fit wedges into them, a trend you can now see in every shoe store in the world.

South Korea’s young adults have spent longer with high-bandwidth mobile than those in the West, so their shopping behaviour has evolved far beyond ours – disturbingly so. We’ve met shopping addicts there who sit up all night putting hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of goods into an ASOS.com shopping basket, then deleting the app, appalled at what they’ve almost ordered.

The future of recycling is happening in Japan. When you test your packaging in Tokyo, it’s like you’re testing it with Europeans from 2025. If Mrs Watanabe can’t immediately work out how to recycle a packaging material, she’ll reject your product. Make your packaging material obvious, we tell our clients, and make it easy to fold flat.

I promise you I can show you the future in Asia. When Western companies come to us asking how they can understand the size and needs of their future markets in Europe and America, we often adapt William Gibson’s saying: The future’s already here. It’s happening in Asia.


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