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The Great Debate! Product Innovation for the Win

Which is the better driver of innovation: technology or research?! We asked a member from each team on either side of the The Great Innovation Debate to answer some questions about tech- versus research-driven product innovation.


Renee Kakareka, Team Technology

If a technology hasn’t been created, there’s no way for customers to know that they want it or need it.”

Industrial designer and entrepreneur Renee Kakareka, pictured below, is the founder of Olive Devices, an Assistive Device startup developing an Internet of Things system for the deaf and hard of hearing. In just six months Renee has led Olive Devices to pilot funding; collected awards from the worldwide Publicis 90 and JAZ (Jefferson Accelerator Zone) Tank competitions; and been recognized by Billy Penn in its “Who’s Next” list of leaders under 40. Renee founded Olive Devices while she was still a senior at Philadelphia University.


Q: What’s your background in innovation and product design? Have you had a particular leaning toward either research or tech?

I graduated from Philadelphia University with a Bachelor of Science in Industrial Design. While I was there I concentrated a lot of my education around engineering. I took an interactive design course, general engineering courses, and a biomaterial technology course. I’ve always been most intrigued with how things work and the mechanisms behind them. My mind thinks in very technical terms, but my design process starts with a lot of research.

This research usually begins broadly with customer insights, and then hones in on researching technology and how new technology can provide solutions to the challenges and take the customers’ insights to a whole new level of innovation. That technology could be a matter of a material change, or developing a new electronic configuration within a product. But I think customer insights and research ultimately are innovated through developing a technology or technical process.

Q: Name three technology-first innovations that have had a significant impact on your life — and explain their impact.

  1. Cell phones: In general, being able to make a call from anywhere has changed the way I interact with my family. Throughout college I would not have been able to maintain the relationships and closeness with my family and friends who are 800 miles away without the technology in phones. Having my phone in easy reach also makes me feel safe while I’m walking home in the dark. I know I can call for help at the press of a button.
  2. Boeing 787: Being able to fly easily from city to city has been a wonderful part of my life since I was young and is turning out to be even more integral as I progress in my career.
  3. 3D printing: Learning about 3D-printed prosthetics sparked my passion for developing assistive technology. Reading Graham Pullin’s book, Design Meets Disability, and seeing all the beautiful things created by technology that make life easier for people with different abilities has inspired me along my career path.

Q: What’s an example from your own career of an innovative, technology-first product?

Our product at Olive Devices — smart glasses — is rooted in customer research but the technological aspects are what make it innovative. If a technology hasn’t been created, there’s no way for customers to know that they want it or need it. As designers we’re using our creativity to combine different existing technologies in innovative ways that will meet customers’ needs.


Q: Allison Arieff wrote in the New York Times that we’re solving all the wrong problems. Our obsession with disruption is generating products no one really needs. Is this a consequence of technology-driven innovation for the sake of innovation?

I believe that technology-driven innovation for the sake of innovation is what allows us to develop products that will effectively solve customer problems. Google Glass is an example that’s directly related to my own experience. Google started using this new, exciting technology to be the first to market. They tried to do too much with their product and I would say that, yes, it may have been innovation for the sake of innovation.

But if Google didn’t come out with this product that proved the technology was possible, would you have people like me trying to harness the technology to solve real problems?



Sarah Rottenberg, Team Research

Technology by itself knows how, but it doesn’t know why.”

Sarah Rottenberg is Associate Director of the Integrated Product Design Program at the University of Pennsylvania, a Master’s Program that brings together design, business, and engineering. She also works as a consultant to innovation strategy consultancies and corporate clients, training teams in design research methodologies and facilitating strategic product and business design sessions. Sarah began her career as a design researcher at Doblin and was formerly a Directing Associate at Jump Associates.


Sarah is 2nd from left in the front row, surrounded by IPD students holding their final projects.

Q: Name three research-first innovations that have made an impact – and explain why they’re innovative.

  1. Starbucks: Even if you hate Starbucks, if you love coffee and coffee shops, as I do, you have to thank Howard Schultz for having the innovative idea of bringing the Italian cafe to the United States to become a meeting place. At the time Starbucks started, Americans were not sophisticated coffee drinkers. And we weren’t used to spending a lot of money on our morning Joe — but Starbucks helped change all of that through insights about what kinds of experiences could be valuable for people, and not through new technologies.
  2. Amazon: I’ll admit — my household wouldn’t function without Amazon Prime. Amazon is a tech company that uses a ton of research and analytics to determine what new offerings to develop and how to execute them.
  3. Method Cleaning Products: Cleaning products are so integral to managing and maintaining a home — but not much care had been given to the experience of the cleaner until Method came along. The founding team did a ton of research into the category and then used their chemistry and design skills to develop a product that both works and smells and feels great.  They’re such simple products, but they still make me happy.

Q: Why do you think research is a better driver of great innovation?

A new technology is just a potential to do something, a mechanism. But it doesn’t become an innovation until it’s put into the service of someone and can create value. Research helps us understand how best to deploy new technologies so that they create value in the world.

Technology by itself knows how, but it doesn’t know why. It’s a tool that needs to be deployed correctly in order to create value. Think of all the technologies got a lot of hype for their novelty but weren’t quite able to live up to their promise: the Segway, Google Glass, the Zune.

Q: What’s an example from your own career of an innovative, research-first product?

The startup I’m working on right now, Lia Diagnostics, was founded because we saw a real need in the marketplace for a flushable pregnancy test. The need came first and the technology is following.inline_pregtest

Q: What do you think of this statement by Don Norman: “Design research is great when it comes to improving existing product categories but essentially useless when it comes to new, innovative breakthroughs”?

That’s just a very narrow view of design research. In my experience, it’s possible to look broadly at people’s lives to start to see how cultural norms are changing and identify opportunities for entirely new businesses and products. Those norms lead people to develop products and services like Uber that leverage new technologies, but it’s in how they leverage the technology that makes them such valuable innovations, not the tech itself.

The Great Innovation Debate was a dmiNightOut during DesignPhiladelphia that Bresslergroup co-presented with DMI and Penn IPD. Check out photos from the event — and see who won! — on our Facebook page.