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Innovation and emerging technologies

Choosing a case study

One of the purposes of the study of innovation is to enable you to develop knowledge and understanding of examples of innovation and emerging technologies. This will help you develop background knowledge for possible comparisons of industrial and commercial applications to your major design project (MDP). It is also crucial for completing questions in the HSC examination.

The Design and technology syllabus states that students will complete a case study of an innovation that includes reference to:

Source: Board of Studies NSW, Stage 6 Design and Technology Syllabus, Preliminary and HSC Courses (1999)

How to choose an innovation for your case study

Consider the following issues when selecting an innovation for your case study.

Will the information you find on the innovation be of enough depth to fulfil the requirements of your case study?

Is the innovation truly innovative? The more clear cut the innovation, the easier it is to understand and analyse the factors that led to its development.

Choose an innovation that will allow you to identify the components of innovation and talk about the relationship between them, that is, an analysis of innovation and emerging technologies. You need to understand:

To learn more about the nature of innovation and the factors impacting innnovation see the tutorial: What is innovation?

To learn more about the source of creative ideas work through this tutorial. By understanding what makes a product, system or environment innovative you should develop an eye for innovation, both as a consumer and designer.

How do designers come up with creative ideas?

If you are to understand the nature of innovation then it is crucial to understand how designers come up with creative ideas.

There are some common themes that encompass the development of original ideas. These eight themes provide a link between how designers generate innovative products and or processes and the types of products we see emerging throughout our society:

  1. Superior solution to an old problem
  2. Application of new technology
  3. Green design
  4. Exploring new shapes
  5. Addressing a new user group
  6. Appropriate miniaturisation
  7. Down-teching
  8. Combining functions

Source: Adapted from Design ability Group Pty Ltd 2000

Let's study these in more detail.

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Superior solution to an old problem

Many aspects of an innovation address an existing problem in a new way. New materials or processes may be incorporated into a design or invention of a solution to a problem. The problem may be accepted by society as the limits of a product until a further development is undertaken and this new ground breaking solution emerges.

An example of this type of innovation is the Dyson vacuum cleaner (external website). Society had accepted the limits of efficiency of vacuum cleaners available to consumers. James Dyson developed a new system for dust extraction and capture which challenged consumers' preconceived ideas of the limits of domestic cleaning appliances.


Identify the components of the innovation on the Dyson web site from the list below. Tick each box as you find the information.

This might be a useful checklist to help you select a suitable innovation for your case study.

  Design and design practice. How ideas are developed and proceed to realisation.
  Factors which may impact on successful innovation.
  Entrepreneurial activity, for example, how or what was undertaken to achieve successful acceptance by consumers?
  The impact of emerging technologies, for example, society and environment.
  The impact on Australian society, for example, social, environmental or economic impacts.
  Historical and cultural influences, for example, development from existing product. Acceptable limits, of mores (beliefs) of a particular culture.
  Ethical and environmental issues.
The impact of the product or innovation on society and the environment.
  Indication of future development. The application of new technology to develop further refinements and or a range of new products or components.
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Application of new technology

New technology provides society with the raw materials to enable designers to approach a problem from a different perspective. For example, how we receive and process information has been totally changed by the development of the Internet. Some designers may find new ways of using technology. dog Photonics is an area of new technological development that will provide for emerging development of products and systems. For example Fibre bragg gratings, an innovative technology, will assist the communication industry in developing an optimum network. Other examples are infrared transmission, robotics (external website) and biotechnology.

Pixel, the Museum's
Sony AIBO. Powerhouse
Museum, Sydney.

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Green design

The impact on society and the environment of products and systems developed by designers is becoming increasingly important. Whether by choice, or because of legislation, many designers are now considering the effects their designs may have on the environment. For example:

To find out more about design for environment (DfE) principles visit the Centre for Design (external website) web site.

Existing products as well as those newly developed are becoming increasingly evaluated for their impact on society and the environment. This can be seen with common household appliances that have become designed for extended use. For example, food processors, blenders, extractors that share a common power centre so that only one item needs to be purchased to perform multi-functions instead of three or more. Power tools have also undergone a similar trend in design.

The energy source utilised by products such as photovoltaics in solar appliances has undergone recent redesign to provide greater efficiency and viability for domestic use.

Also see tutorial: Factors affecting design: Energy in Design and design practice.

A focus on cardboard

Recycling materials is another aspect of green design. Some really innovative designs have been chairdeveloped with cardboard.Cardboard furniture was developed for the Sydney 2000 Olympics, see Figure 1.

Take a look at these sites for some innovative uses of the humble cardboard box:

Visy cardboard displays (external website)

Frank Gehry's corrugated cardboard furniture (external website)


Figure 1 Frank Gehry's
Wiggle chair from Easy edges collection,
Guggenheim Museum

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Exploring new shapes

Design fashion and styles often determine how the end product will appear for the consumer. Products may have a status attached to them without regard for the product's function. Trends in the fashion of design in recent years have been towards curves in many exterior components of products. For example, Eveready work torches (external website) have changed from the brick shape without major changes to its functional components. The aluminium and enamel paint table (external website), Event Horizon, by Marc Newson as seen on the Powerhouse Museum web site is innovative but does not change or challenge the function of a table in any way.

The function of a product may also drive the design towards changing form and aesthetics. bikeThis can be evidenced in the development of carbon fibre bicycles such as the AIS/RMIT Olympic Superbike (external website).

AIS/RMIT Olympic Superbike.
Courtesy: Powerhouse Museum,

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Addressing a new user group

Mainstream design caters for the majority of a projected market population. Some groups within the community may require specific design needs to be addressed by:

Examples of this type of design may be evidenced in areas of physical ability; mental ability; disposable income.

Products such as a keyboard adaptor for computer use by cerebral palsy sufferers. Also, devices to aid limited grip as experienced by arthritis sufferers, such as tap turners and jar openers.

A product to suit a specific need can be seen in the design of the Cochlear implant (external website). cochlearThis product assists a deaf person to hear and is part of a system developed to benefit a new user group.


Courtesy: Cochlear Ltd

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Appropriate miniaturisation

Some large products may find an increased application when miniaturised. For example the telecommunication industry has undergone rapid innovation and emerging technology focus in recent years. This may be evidenced in the development of mobile phones and associated systems: laptop computers and home theatre systems.

Inappropriate miniaturisation may include those items that have been rendered functionally inadequate due to changes in form. For example wristwatch calculators that have buttons so small thereby making the task of using the calculator nearly impossible. A portable television that does not have sufficient screen size for comfortable viewing.

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Many products in our society are aimed towards the consumer market, however, there are extensive opportunities for designers to design products that meet a need using very simple technology. The Centre for Appropriate Technology (external website) uses this principle in many of its designs.

Designers may also provide products for those members of society who wish to reverse the trend of high resource use and dependency. A high-tech product such as a radio (external website) or electricity system for a community can find a new application through down-teching. For example, radios have been developed with power sources from solar to wind-up mechanisms; solar street or village lighting and water heating systems as well as electrical supply for domestic appliances.

Developing countries have many needs that may be addressed by alternative material use. For example, bicycle frames made from bamboo, demountable wheelchairs made from wood or bamboo.

Resources may also be recycled from consumer rich countries. For example, in Australia there are programs that currently disassemble unwanted bicycles to utilise their components for re-use as raw materials for wheelchairs. These are made available for individuals from developing countries who would otherwise be severely hampered in mobility. It is interesting to note that some of these products may not be accessed in our market due to legislation regarding product use and liabilities for consumer litigation.

An excellent example of down-teching was evidenced in the use of recyclable components for furniture used throughout the Sydney Olympics 2000.

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Combining functions

The design of a product that incorporates a range of functions may be considered innovative. Combination products such as the Swiss Army knife are an example of a range of functions within a product. However, some of the individual components may be seen as having little value and are more of a sales gimmick on multi-functionality. The Energizer outdoor flashlight combines a sturdy light with a storage pocket.

Other products such as a floor rug that may be easily converted into a lounging chair, a cradle that converts to a rocking chair or other multifunctional products (external website) stretch the limits that society pre-conceives for the use of particular products.

Function is not always the driving force or the ultimate state for a product to achieve. Aesthetics of products are a feature that society may place value upon. Combining functions may also challenge creative urges to design products that respond to the environments we live in. Examples can be evidenced in Australian society in common products such as caravans, camper trailers, yachts, multi-function ovens, kitchen appliances and power-tools.

Re-defining the problem

Often innovation is linked to problem re-definition, that is, looking at a problem in a different way. This allows the designer to have a clear picture of the whole problem and re-evaluate accepted limits. This is perhaps the highest form of innovation.

The Re-Define project (external website) established by the Centre for Design RMIT is a good example of innovation through re-definition of the problem.

By looking at innovative products and analysing what makes them innovative, you may find the key to future designs. When you look at the approach the designer has used you may be able to transfer that approach into the development of your major design project.

The next step is research, see the tutorial: Researching your innovation case study.

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