Tom Ollerton: Unnecessary Innovation in focus at CES

By Tom Ollerton, founder, Automated Creative

On the face of it, there’s a lot to be excited about when it comes to the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). After all, it’s the cream of the global innovation crop. The output of some of the world’s most exciting and dynamic companies as they look to the future.  

But for me, what was on display this year left a lot to be desired. For the most part it was a depressing collection of unnecessary innovation. ‘Show over substance’ should be the event’s strapline. 

Some of the headline grabbers included electrically-powered “personal air vehicles” (flying taxis to you and I) from Hyundai and Uber and voice assistants in literally everything from motorcycle helmets to electric toothbrushes.

There were even multiple toilet-related ‘innovations’, such as a robot to refill your loo roll from Charmin and – I’m not even joking – a SmellSense fart sensor that informs you whether or not a bathroom is safe to enter.

And of course, loads of massive TVs.  

Tech for good

Perhaps this is a little ‘bah humbug’ of me but I was hoping for better. Humanity has bigger problems than CES is attempting to solve. Climate change, child pornography, the rise of fascism and hate crime – these issues affect all of us. But instead we see solutions for individual first-world problems from businesses which just want to access our wallets.

In fairness, this is nothing new for CES. It’s always been about wild and wacky gadgets – it’s the Nobel prize of needless ideas. But the blame here shouldn’t necessarily be placed on the conference itself.

It has attempted to encourage more innovation for the better, though this side of it generally garners much less airtime than toilet related PR stunts.  

In 2017, the CES Climate Change Innovators awards were introduced to highlight those whose technology will have a meaningful impact on the environment by reducing carbon emissions. This year’s climate change innovator award went to the Airbitat Compact Cooler – a more efficient air conditioning system designed for a planet that’s heating up. 

This is a nice innovation, but when you consider the bigger picture, it’s a bandaid on a broken leg. It will take more than an air cooler to stop the ice caps melting. We need blue chip brands with big budgets to start taking our global issues seriously.

With the cash and the brains they have available, they should be winning these awards every year. Instead, we’re relying on smaller disruptors to solve the biggest problems of our time.  

Peter Theil said in 2014 “If every one of India’s hundreds of millions of households were to live the way Americans already do–using only today’s tools–the result would be environmentally catastrophic.”

He’s got a point – and what has changed since then? Smartwatches?  

It’s not just that it’s necessary for the planet – there’s huge PR and commercial opportunity here. In her New York Times column, tech journalist and podcaster Kara Swisher stated that she believed “the world’s first trillionaire will be a green-tech entrepreneur”.

She cites potential opportunities like battery storage, renewables, climate focused software and artificial intelligence, the food ecosystem and even how to construct our buildings.

In a year’s time when CES comes back around, it would be great to see partnerships between big tech companies to solve problems. For businesses to start looking outwards to solve issues bigger than how to fill their own wallets. To use their considerable resources for good.

But given Silicon Valley has taken four years to not solve fake news, I’m sceptical.  

If the best we have to offer in 2021 is more toilet roll delivery, that’s a pretty crappy indictment of today’s big brands. 

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