As the pace of change grows ever faster, technology companies must innovate or die.
But keeping ahead of the curve is a challenge, particularly for giant companies finding ways to stay nimble. That's the aim of a new innovation effort underway at United Technologies.
One morning recently at UTC's Research Center, entrepreneur and futurist David Rose of MIT Media Lab was conjuring up some magic.
“I go back and think about what are the stories from our youth -- the stories from the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen that have these magical things,” Rose told his audience.
Rose gave a talk on what he called enchanted objects: trash cans that can give you feedback on your recycling habits; umbrellas that glow blue when it's about to rain; pill bottles that remind you to take your medication.
He was talking about the Internet of Things, and Rose's audience -- about 100 executives from United Technologies -- loved every minute.
There was a point to the fairytale entertainment. It was part of UTC’s first-ever Technology and Innovation Planning Forum.
“When you ask people about innovation, they think about companies like Apple, and they think about companies like Facebook,” said Michael McQuade, UTC’s Chief Technology Officer.
Innovation is just as important to his company, but sometimes in a totally different way.
"We innovate in situations where life is mission critical," he said. "You don’t have the opportunity to invent the jet engine today, fly it, and if it doesn’t work, fix it."
Although airlines who recently called for tweaks to Pratt and Whitney’s new PurePower engine might argue there’s at least a little bit of beta testing.
Research and development spending is a significant line item for UTC, clocking in last year at $2.3 billion -- close to four percent of total revenues.
In 2014, UTC received almost 1,000 patents, putting it at about 40th in the U.S. company ranking. But the life cycle of its innovation is on a whole different timescale to your iPhone.
"Some of the things we do inherently take a long time because of their complexity," said McQuade. "We spent 20 years maturing the technology that’s now showing up in the geared turbofan engine. That’s a 100 year product."
On the other hand, some of UTC’s other businesses -- Otis Elevator, Carrier’s Heating and Air Conditioning -- are ripe for the sort of consumer/Internet interface that’s currently all the rage in technology circles.
This day of speakers, panels, and pitch sessions was beamed live to hundreds of employees across the company’s many facilities in the U.S. and Europe.
It brings us to another controversial aspect of innovation: do you have to be in a certain place to succeed at it?
General Electric just moved its headquarters from suburban Fairfield to Boston to be at the center of what it termed a dynamic and creative ecosystem.
UTC’s McQuade, from his base at the company’s research facility in East Hartford, saw that issue differently.
"So the geography matters, but if you look at the way we do design and engineering now, it’s a much more global process than it ever was before," he told WNPR. "So I would say not so much [that] I have to be in a particular geography. I have to operate across multiple geographies."
The event’s live audience included scientists and engineers, but also business managers, supply chain professionals, and customer service reps -- all of whom have urgent business on their desks every day.
McQuade wants them to step back once in a while and think bigger about the company's mission.
"What I hope comes out of today is people simply allowing themselves to be creative," he said.
This week’s session was the first of several the company will host as it searches for a way to respond to and lead future innovation.