09/18/2013 11:16 am ET Updated Nov 18, 2013

Dematerialization - A Pathway for Innovation

INNOVATIONDematerialization is a key strategy for innovation and one I discuss in my book, Flash Foresight. What is dematerialization? Quite simply, it's the ability to make things smaller.

As technology improves, we can reduce the amount of material it takes to build the things we use, subtracting atoms from them even as we improve their capacity and performance. The computer--which soars in speed and memory even as it shrinks in size--is itself a microcosm of modern technology. Computers, among other devices, are getting smaller, lighter, more portable, more economical (in terms of the materials it takes to produce them), and softer in environmental impact. Laptops used to be several inches thick and weigh six or seven pounds; today they use a fraction of the material and accomplish far more than their ancestors--and cost far less. And let's face it, your main personal computer--the computer you use the most--is also your smart phone and it is far smaller than any computer you have used in the past.

Here's another example: A couple of years ago I went into a hospital and they had a surgical tool that was the size of a trunk. It was huge! Two years later, I saw that the same tool was dematerialized down to the size of a cigarette pack. It had the exact same functionality yet it was a fraction of the size. By the way, it was also a fraction of the cost to manufacture and to ship. And now, because the price was way down on making it, they could lower the price down far enough so that clinics could afford it, thus expanding the market and expanding the availability of a powerful tool.

Whatever your company has, you can make it smaller--that is, if you want to. On the other hand, we don't necessarily want to make everything smaller, and dematerialization doesn't necessarily mean miniaturization. For example, we have the capacity to make our cars much, much smaller, but we may not necessarily want that for all models. However, we do want them to be lighter, because then they use less fuel. How do you make something lighter? Dematerialize components of it.

Ask yourself, "What would we want to make smaller? What would add value by making it smaller?" Take a look at just about everything you have related to your products and your services. I think you'll find something you could make smaller.