Inventing The Future

Inventing the Future: A Xerox Alto workstation, circa 1973 (Image credit:

Xerox founded its PARC research center during the sales heyday of its eponymous paper copiers, and tasked it with inventing “the office of the future.” Its location in Palo Alto, far away from corporate headquarters in an Internet-less era of expensive toll calls, is often cited as a mistake that kept it from commercializing every discovery.

“No, we went where the people were,” answered Steve Hoover, PARC’s CEO, noting that physical and psychological distance meant its innovators weren’t bound to big company thinking or definitions of success, too.

“PARC was about how digital would change the nature of work, and those skills were emergent on the West Coast.”

Perhaps it’s no surprise that the R&D center introduced the Alto, the world’s first computer with a graphical user interface, less than two years later. The reasons why we’re not all using Altos today speak to the mechanisms of innovation, many of which were also born at PARC.

“If a company uses everything its R&D group creates, its innovators aren’t trying hard enough,” Hoover explained. “Your job is to create options for the future.” He went on to describe baseball hitters who get into the Hall of Fame for batting .300, which means they still miss 7 out of 10 pitches.

“Since most company investments are in incremental improvements, R&D needs to balance the portfolio to include transformative and disruptive innovation.”

Today, the mechanisms for achieving that balance are put to work on behalf of Xerox, which funds half of PARC’s efforts (and owns it outright), and outside clients, split almost evenly between government work (like DARPA and NIH) and engagements with commercial companies, both large enterprises and startups.

Hoover listed the key components of how PARC innovates: Seeing challenges in broad contexts; including social scientists and other non-engineering experts; applying ideas across functions and verticals; and collaborating with businesses to explore what’s possible, not only what’s needed.

The resulting options it devises are the ultimate deliverable of its innovation process, yet the importance of implementation can’t be overlooked, which Hoover characterized as coming from three qualities:

“An innovation not only has to work, but also solve the right problem in a way that people find natural and easy to use.”

For example, PARC helped Xerox create a new service called CitySight that helps city enforcement agencies optimize their operations with actionable analytics. When first engaged for the product, PARC researchers were told that the problem was to develop analytics algorithms coupled to a mobile app to tell parking officers where to look for the most likely violations.

PARC started the innovation process with field studies to understand how officers spent their days, and learned not only how to deliver the information in an actionable way, but also the surprising breadth of officers’ duties beyond just issuing citations (it included helping direct traffic around accidents, and responding to other needs of the public). With this insight, PARC researchers worked collaboratively with the Xerox state and local business team and customers in a major US city to design a real-time dashboard that visualized real time data and analytics on two key metrics, citations and service. Delivering such utility helped get the tool into use quickly and effectively.

In another instance, when asked to design faster Xerox printers, PARC researchers pushed the boundaries of the project remit: Instead of just focusing on making bigger and faster individual printers, they thought about the highly parallel architectures used in cloud computing and disk arrays to deliver both large capacity and high availability through redundancy.

The benefits of its “what if” questioning are evident not only in a breakthrough technology used in Xerox’s market-leading Nuvera printers, but how it inspired new architectures for high speed production printing, and launched new PARC research initiatives in industrial automation, digital design, and 3D printing that are driving the future of digital manufacturing.

“The best way to innovate what’s necessary is to imagine what might not be possible,” Hoover added.

[This article was originally published on February 25, 2016]