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Technology Innovation Practice

Center of Excellence

We’ve all heard the old aphorism, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” While the provenance of the proverb is uncertain, its truth is not in doubt.

One may consider the terms “invention” and “innovation” as synonymous, or at least very closely related. Necessity forces us to think differently. To simplify our lives—to make things better, faster, cheaper—we often need to take a new approach. In an effort to make day-to-day lives easier, we sometimes need to innovate, to envision a new way of doing something.

Necessity has spurred humans to innovate throughout the ages. The creation of the wheel in 3500 B.C. (or thereabouts), the invention of the potato chip in 1853, and the development of a carbonized bamboo filament that could power a light bulb for over 1,200 hours all have one thing in common: a need had no existing solution, so one was created.

Laborers had to move heavy goods; someone, probably around 2,100 years ago, intuited that putting a wheel under a bin and adding handles would lighten the load, and so the wheelbarrow was born. When chef George Crum got complaints that his fried potatoes were too thick and soggy, he sliced a new batch as thin as he could, fried them until they were crunchy, and topped them with a generous amount of salt, creating the first potato chip. While other 19th century inventors had created incandescent lights, Thomas Edison—using a bamboo filament—developed the first one that burned long enough and with low enough power consumption to be widely useful.

Many inventions (like Edison’s) are purposeful, while others, such as the potato chip, may be considered a happy accident. Today, inventors are taking purposeful actions to deliver innovations not only to make things better, faster and cheaper, but also to protect the environment, create new consumer services and continue to improve our day-to-day lives.

Within the information technology (IT) space, innovation is moving faster than ever. Since the beginning of the World Wide Web in 1991, we’ve moved at rapid speed to improve delivery of IT services. From the cloud to mobile applications, agile and DevOps, IT leaders have learned new ways to bring functionality to market faster, reduce error rates, improve cycle time and lower the costs of delivering and operating IT solutions.

To keep pace with demand within the IT arena, innovation has become a way of life. Some of us are old enough to recall when you could not conduct a web search for details about a person, message your spouse from your smart phone, or get directions from your vehicle’s GPS. Now, IT-empowered innovations such as self-driving vehicles, cryptocurrencies, personal drones and virtual reality headsets are commonplace.

Defining innovation

Innovation is not specific to a trend or industry. The common thread is a person or group wanting to do something different to make things easier (smart phones, e-commerce), faster (grocery self-checkout, drone-based delivery) or cheaper (robotic process automation, sustainable energy).

Innovation need not be life changing, nor have to change the world. Some innovations, however, truly are revolutionary, and should be studied for the lessons we can learn.

Take for example CGI’s “Hidden City” approach to smart infrastructure management. Every municipality has an underground network of utilities and infrastructure needed for delivering water, sewer, power and telecommunications services to residents and businesses. Recognizing the necessity for improved continuity of service (no one looks forward to a water main break), CGI uses a mixed reality platform to digitally map, document and interact with a city’s underground infrastructure, to visualize what is there without actually digging. This helps municipalities proactively identify, manage and resolve operational issues before they happen, minimizing impacts to residents and businesses.

Cities can monitor and manage their utilities from within the comfort of an office, reducing the need for field technician intervention. In some parts of the world, where cities may be covered in snow for much of the year, such technology innovations can help address even those challenges. While many technologies employed to support smart cities have existed for years, it is often the act of applying a technology in a new way—for example, using virtual reality to envision utilities in the field—that lead to new innovations.

As shown in this video, our “Hidden City” innovation is supporting the ability not only to operate as a smart city, but also to actually move an entire town, the City of Kiruna, Sweden.

CGI's "Hidden City" in Sweden

Read more in our “Hidden City” brochure and case study, “Using augmented reality and precision data to enable the future smart city.”

When one combines need (necessity) with ingenuity (smart people applying technology), the result is impactful innovation. For government, innovation is a necessity. CGI Federal is proud to help our federal clients innovate every day, including at our CGI Federal Innovation Center in Arlington, Virginia. This dedicated collaboration space allows agencies and CGI experts to explore the potential of new technologies and to act as the backbone for a workshop process and outcomes. Please contact me to learn more about these and other innovation opportunities at CGI Federal.

About this author

emerging technologies logo

Technology Innovation Practice

Center of Excellence

Accelerating innovation and change CGI serves as a mindful visionary to help you connect the dots (from end-to-end) and pursue strategic emerging technology investments that enable you to continuously innovate and realize value.