Internet resources provide us with amazing power for innovation. For example, we have the ability to simulate earthquakes with great precision and thus stimulate new building approaches for greater safety; quality (and sometimes just fun) video production is in the hands of the masses (e.g., YouTube), and there is the broad availability of Internet interfaces that engender “mashups” across major platforms such as GoogleMaps  (here’s one that shows the “walkability” of your neighborhood).

However, these technologies are also relatively abstract.  They are available for our use – but will we think to use them?  A computer is just a dark screened paperweight until it’s turned on.  Does that trigger your thinking for innovation the same way a physical object would? Would the Houston engineers of Apollo 13 "Houston, we've had a problem" fame been as likely to find a jury-rig solution to fit a square carbon dioxide filter in a hole for a round one if they’d had to imagine the objects the astronauts had rather than having access to physical duplicates?

People are generally lazy – or perhaps “efficient” -- even with just their thinking.  Louis and Sutton called this “habits of mind”.  We have to trigger new understanding if we want to spur on innovation. 

I’m getting to my question of the day.  Think about the Amazon Kindle eBook, recently promo’d by Oprah and so apparently moving into the mainstream.  Electronic presentation of written material has been around for a long time.  Yet only recently are we seeing electronic textbooks in significant use.  We don't see people reading books on more general use laptops.  The University of Texas is running a pilot project where students get their textbooks via the Amazon Kindle eBook.  Is it the physical nature of the eBook that will make the difference regarding people reading electronically versus on paper?  The outcomes may extreme: smaller backpacks, smaller bookstores, no “used” textbook sales.

The physical existence of the eBook (and certainly the improved quality of the text in the high-end models) may be playing a triggering role.  Sony seems to understand the role of physical objects in changing perspectives.  Their Sony PRS-700 eBook is being introduced by 1000 specially trained sales people in 3000 physical stores.  They say this is important as people changed their minds about being “uninterested” in reading eBooks after physically being exposed to the product.

Do we need physical objects to help along otherwise abstract innovations? What other examples do we have?