How World Class Innovators Create the Unexpected
Robest Yong fuses:
- other people's problems, his own curiosity, & multi-sourced methods
- invention & commercialization.
"Can I have a chop, please—a rubber stamp? I'm starting a new company & need an official stamp for registration & bank account."
"Sure. Can I see what you'd like to stamp?"
"Here you go."
"No problem. We'll have it ready next week."
"Next week?? So ridiculous! One rubber stamp—you mean 1 week? Why do I have to wait a week?"
"That's how long it takes to make the stamp."
"Why is it so difficult to make a simple stamp?"
"They're hand-carved, you know. I have people back there working on piles of 'em all day. OK, you're so clever, you tell me how we should do it. Come, I show you."
They walked into the hot back-room and watched the tedious operation amid rows of debris, walking among people carrying stamps and supplies from here to there.
"This is not how to do it. I was a printer. I know how it should work. I can do it better. The easy way to do this is to cure the pattern onto the rubber with ultra violet light and then brush-wash the uncured rubber you don't want to be part of the print. It should take you five minutes."
"Wow—if I could do that, everyone would get stamps from me."
The year was 1993, and with knowledge from the printing industry and a tinkerer's mindset, Robest Yong devised an automatic stamp-making machine. Patent in hand, he sold his machines to stationery- and book-shops all over the world. The polyclone instant rubber-stamp-maker won him an award (the first of many) at the International Invention Exhibition in Geneva, and he was named Malaysia's National Inventor of the Year.
Robest didn't stop there. He went on to invent a magnetic brush, luggage detector, and much more, for example:
Mosquito Glue—Most people use mosquito repellant to drive bugs away from their bodies and homes, but then the bugs just go to their friends and to the neighbour's house. Robest thought that wasn't very friendly and decided to ponder the problem backwards. (He finds 180° transpositions useful for making breakthroughs.)
"So, I attract. The thing works like a glue. Mosquitos land on it and die, like flypaper. But to catch mosquitoes is different from flies. They're not attracted to blood or sugar or whatever, so I had to figure out a lure. They're actually attracted to carbon dioxide and heat (as when you breathe out). Scientific researchers trap mosquitoes to count them and use a solution that's already in the market—just not for commercial use. So, I adapted that, and it works!"
Micro-Fertiliser — "One day, I was going to buy fertiliser and noticed it comes in these big, smelly bags, and I know 80% of it is rubbish. They use fillers to make the thing look huge so you think you're getting a lot when you buy it. It's cheating, really—not serving customers. Transporting it is a pain, storing it in a condo is ridiculous (we live in a house, but many people are balcony gardeners), and customers have to pay for the pre-sale packaging, transportation, storage, and handling. Why not just sell the essential bits and solve everybody's problem?" So, he created a fertiliser concentrate, using probiotic enzyme which (when added to soil) enables microbes to grow and plants to break down nutrients. You only use a single dash. It's soil probiotics.
The Flush & Wash — "Another day, I was in the petrol station and noticed the cover for the cistern was broken. Many people here actually open the cistern to get water for washing, and don't put it back properly, so it drops and breaks. Separately, I realized that even if you want to wash your hands at the sink outside, after you've done so, you have to close the tap, and when you touch it you're germy again—back to square one. Also, your hand-wash water is just running down the sink, useless. Why not make a cistern where, once you flush, the water flows like a sink for a short time, enabling you to wash your hands above the cistern, and the hand-water refills the cistern? So, I did—it's called the flush & wash."
The Rubber Band Mistake—Have you ever bought take-away coffee in a plastic bag tied at the top with a rubber band (most Asians have)? It's devilishly difficult to get the blasted rubber band off so you can enjoy your drink. Robest found a mistakenly mal-formed rubber band one day and realised it would be the perfect solution for the blasted-rubber-band problem. He tried it out, found he could grip and remove it easily, went to a rubber band factory, drilled a special channel to try making one, and when he did, filed another patent. No special factory is needed—just a tab drilled into an existing channel mould.
Smartphones for the Blind — On another occasion, Robest met a friend of a friend at lunch. His new acquaintance was blind and was using a very old feature phone (with buttons). Robest asked, "If your phone breaks, where would you get a new one?" The man said he didn't know. No one made that model anymore, and soon all feature phones might become extinct. He had tried a variety of apps for sight-impaired users, but none worked very well. Dictation capabilities exist on every new smartphone but are notoriously inaccurate. You have to type the corrections. So, for the moment, he would just happily text his friends with the one he still had.
It became a new challenge for Robest, who decided to address it simply—without advanced technology—maybe with braille? All the letters of the alphabet can be written in braille with a combination of six dots. Specially-made phones with raised keypads do exist but are predictably expensive and complex.
Instead of pushing something up, why not push down? He punched holes in a transparent piece of plastic with a school-binder hole-punch, laid it atop a smartphone, and found that he could, indeed, find his way around a smartphone without seeing. With a simple app to mimic a braille keyboard, sight-impaired users can now use any smartphone to write text.
"He sees things more sensitively than other people."
- Teng Yu-Mein, wife & former colleague
Finding problems is Robest's forte. He notices things and gets ideas when talking with people (which he does a lot). When people share problems with him, they're not always aware they are problems. Once sensed, he can find a university researcher or other innovator happy to work on it (and grants to fund the work), but someone has to find and define the problem for them, first.
"The key to inventing is to become more observant—more aware—and you do that with the things you care about and the things you collect or mess around with. Take bird watching, for example. Observing birds doesn't make you a bird watcher. But being a bird-watcher will make you observe birds very well."
To maintain his creative energy and flow of ideas, he associates with other innovators, engages in competitions, and conducts workshops. He's noticed other innovators who start to think too highly of themselves and lose their outward focus and openness. He guards against it as best he can.
He listens openly for problems and searches for expert help, but he works on basic approaches himself (so, less open while innovating a solution). Once he's created a solution, he's again open—to challenge and arguments—in a way that sets him apart from many others. Most people fall in love with their solutions and don't want to be challenged. Robest, on the other hand, wants to hear challenge and opposition. Instead of rejecting outright, he will often think about it actively and subconsciously for a week or a month or more.
Robest constantly crosses boundaries into "other people's business" and takes action where others don't. Since he earns his living inventing (not as a salaried university researcher inventing on the side), he monetizes something out of every journey (except Smartphone for the Blind, which is free).
Innovations must be useable, marketable, bankable, and sustainable. To compete with existing solutions (even bad ones), his must be completely different. He can't say his is 10% better and expect to oust an incumbent or attract investment capital. Further, if his invention is good, it'll be copied immediately. (You should worry if you're not being copied.) To stay a step ahead, he keeps improving and inventing.
He designs for pain-points and markets for desire, since people buy what they want (not necessarily what they need). Marketing must be creative when an idea is novel. He's noticed that many innovators cannot market (especially researchers).
Empathy is a much-lauded skill for solution-design, but Robest is not known for having emotional empathy. Most emotional-empaths would not have given the stamp-maker a hard time and been challenged to walk around the back room designing something better. Emotional empathy might actually have prevented that encounter and the subsequent innovation.
That said, he is perhaps a helpful example for understanding at depth different types of empathy—and that good design does not always require them all.
He has the second basic type of empathy—cognitive (taking others' perspectives)—somewhat. Although he may bring multiple players together and senses others' problems, he doesn't necessarily align himself with others' perspectives. He keeps his own and pursues projects that interest him and have commercial potential.
The third type—active empathy (compassion)—is where he excels. Although he works on some problems of his own (e.g. the polyclone stamp and fertilizer), the majority of what he works on are not his problems. In fact, he even solved problems for a former employer:
"He already left the company, and the new mechanic couldn't handle the machine. They actually called him up and asked him to come and help. He wasn't even handling that machine, but he did it. How come he can find the problem and solve it, and so very fast? They had all the same information he did, and yet he can solve the unexpected."
- Teng Yu-Mein, wife & former colleague
Nowadays, since he has a national reputation, people from anywhere seek his advice. He gives it freely.
People find him (and he finds others to add to his network) through government agencies such as the Ministry of Science and the International Youth Center. He would like to foster a culture of innovation and promotes it through workshops for government, schools, and private companies like Grab, where he held workshops for workers and their children.
He has a little black book (actually, a collection of them). Every time he sees a problem and doesn't have a solution, he writes it down to solve another day. He doesn't record technologies or ideas of other people (which can be Googled) but does draw ideas he's had.
He throws idea grenades on his Facebook page "Think Without the Box" and collects a lot of good ideas and issues. He says, "Everybody can teach you something."
Beyond the above, friends describe him as enthusiastic, goal-oriented, determined, headstrong, truthful, direct, very focused, always thinking, and gifted. Intensely curious about everything around him, he loves to ask questions, such as, "Why is it done this way? Isn't there a better way?" or "How can I commercialize this new way?"
Nicknamed MacGyver (after the unconventional problem-solver from the 1980's/90's TV show), he's open to any kind of problem—big, small, day-to-day, workplace, household, societal—and rapidly finds ways to overcome them. He brokers between different fields and dabbles in technology, marketing, finance, and beyond, looking for ways to apply what he finds in one field to another. He bridges different domains, teams, and cliques.
He reads and writes a lot. He drills down to the fundamentals of ideas instead of branching off into complicated implications and applications. He marries the technical with the creative, as well as innovation with commercialization, which are unusual combinations in a single person.
He's planning to publish a book on his approach and methodology—something like Blue Ocean, but addressing an earlier phase—how to create the new. He'll add it to his repertoire of workshops.
But no matter how well he lays out his inventing tools, techniques, and methodology (especially his 180° turns and bias for radical simplicity), nothing can replace his remarkable state of openness, curiosity, questioning, and unique brand of empathy that sees from others' perspectives and compels him to act yet embraces opposition.
Learning to see is intensely personal and rooted in curiosity. Seeing differently requires uniqueness. Robest is unique, and that uniqueness both sets him apart and connects him to others in a way others miss. Setting out on his own, making his own company, and needing a new stamp set him on the journey of a lifetime, seeing something new with each step.
What do you already see or hear that others miss?
What do you care about and would like to tinker with?
Will you walk into the back room?
1. one who innovates across domains of industry, field, country, social class, etc.
◦ s radical innovator, interdisciplinary creator, T-shaped person, borderless freethinker, boundary-crossing integrator, oddball;
Robest Yong is an Innovation Ambassador with Innopreneur Enterprise. He is "from" Malaysia and Japan (lived 6 months+). For more information on his work, see : LinkedIn, apanama.com.my, "Think Without the Box" on Facebook, and Smartphone for the Blind on TEDx.
I thank the participants in this study (Fusioneers and Friends) for your insights, sharing, help, and patience. You inspire me, and I am honoured to know you. Special thanks go to Gladys Lee for her marketing excellence and video- and podcast-production brilliance, as well as the host of creative professionals involved in producing the videos and podcasts (you're all listed on YouTube, iTunes, etc.). I extend a warm thanks to Fusion Research Assistant Dr. Lee Poh Chin for her continually-wise and dedicated contribution to this research, as well as i2i Executive Shareff Uthuman for managing the rats-nest of global research travel and budgets. I thank Nitish Jain and the S P Jain School of Global Management for supporting this research—you're the foundation that enables the whole project. You are all God-sends. It takes a village to write a paper.
Photo/video cuts courtesy of Robest Yong, Depositphotos, and our own creative team.
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