Innovation bonfire

Although it has taken me a little more than expected, I am back with a new chapter of my series about the Physics of Innovation. Today I am going to speak about something as basic and even primordial as “Fire”. Since the early days of humankind, we are attracted to that dancing show of light and heat that allowed us to comfort ourselves, cook our food, make tools, etc.

But allow me to depart from this romatic mental state and ask what is actually fire? Well, fire is just the external manifestation of a specific type of reaction, a combustion reaction (as usual, please experts, allow me the simplification). Combustion is an oxidation reaction that happens between some kind of fuel and oxigen; If the conditions of temperature and pressure are adequate, the fuel vapours react with oxigen producing a large amount of energy. Some kinds of fuel (in normal conditions) would react instantly with oxigen, producing a spontaneous combustion (for example molecular Hydrogen H2). However, in other cases, it is necessary to have an ignition process, for example rising the temperature of the fuel with a pilot flame, in order for the combustion to start and maintain itself while there is fuel and oxigen remaining. The flame we see is the visible light (also infrared but we cannot see it) emmited by the different heated gases product of the combustion.

Well, what does this have to do with innovation? Because fire was certainly a great innovation many centuries ago, but now? Let me explain how I relate fire with innovation.

A few weeks ago, during my last week of the Deusto Master in Business Innovation, we were talking about what was necessary for innovation to occur. I remember an article I read some time ago comparing ideas with sparks and innovation with fire ( Using my scientific background as well as my innovation expertise, I would like to carry on this idea a little further.

If you didn’t skip the initial paragraph with the physical explanation of fire, you would probably have realised that something so familiar is not that easy to accomplish. Several ingredients and conditions need to be present for fire to happen (they call it the “fire tetrahedron”), not forgetting that most of the times we need something to ignite or start the process. If we apply this to innovation, we can represent an idea by a wooden stick. On its own, there is not much innovation we can do with a lonesome idea. If we take another stick, another idea, and start rubbing them toghether, friction would increase the temperature and get us close to ignition. We can also use the spark from a “lighter”, the great idea of a genius or something we take from other industry. However, in both cases, fire will not catch unless there is some straw or “easy burning material” (our early adopters) to start building the chain reaction. In order for innovation to become a large bonfire, we need more fuel (the customer base) that will catch on fire easier each time to make our innovation finally a success. But remember, your bonfire will eventually die out if you run out of fuel, if you run out of oxigen or if starts to rain (market exhaustion, competing products, etc).

I think a bonfire can be a very interesting metaphor for innovation. It looks easy to do when you see it done by others, but it is a complex process requiring many constituents and specific conditions, not always controllable.

Next time you are watching the flames in a fireplace or in a camp fire, remember that you have the secret recipe to innovate: fuel, oxigen, temperature and a spark!


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