“It’s not rocket science, but…”

In his third law for predictions about the future, Arthur C. Clarke famously declared that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. This is truer today than ever before, and almost every day sees the introduction of some new mobile application that is widening the boundaries for what we traditionally perceive as possible. A fancy and free iPhone application like Shazam has produced astonished faces and disbelief all over the world and it’s impossible to imagine just how the next big thing will make your jaw drop. Development of applications and services is happening extremely quickly, and at the Living Labs Global Summit in Zurich on 15th May we wanted to further speed up this process by bringing together some of the prime movers within this field. The matchmaking meeting included people from private companies, the public sector, universities, and cluster organizations, and the panel sessions were divided into three major themes: ICT/media-enabled services in cities, Healthcare service innovation, and Service innovation and design in cities. The matchmaking summit took place at the Hyatt, and in-between the introductory speeches and the panel sessions there were rich possibilities for people to meet over coffee and lunch.

No matter how fascinating and high-profile a guest speaker might be, the heart of an event like this still lies in the unscheduled periods of time where participants can learn more about each other. This was also true in Zurich, where everyone were happy to engage in talks from the first minute. This success was partly due to the fact that most of the hundred participants had already met over drinks the night before; Living Labs Global and the innovation district 22@Barcelona had invited everyone to an informal cocktail party at the Hyatt, and for several hours people were enjoying the setup before going out to dinner in larger groups where they could continue their conversations.

It was already during this first stimulating evening that I heard three different people describe their own services with the almost derogatory statement: “It’s not rocket science.” This has become a catch phrase for people working with the new technology, and I’m hearing it all the time from Innovators, venture capitalists, and cluster organizations – everyone uses it. Most of the time it’s actually meant as a positive statement about the service or application, and a more correct transcription should read: “It’s not rocket science, but…” Of course, this can just be a way to talk down people’s expectations before presenting them with all the great features that the product does in fact possess. But it still poses the intriguing question: Do the people who work with service innovation believe that it normally has to be rocket science to be good?

If this is indeed the case, if the use of advanced technology in a service is seen as something inherently good, then we are just facing the old bête noir of technology push. At the Matchmaking Summit in Zürich, we had representatives from the huge market that the public sector covers, and they met with companies that are realistic and focused on the needs of the users. Many great applications and services were showcased at the event – and even though they may not be rocket science, some of them are actually indistinguishable from magic.