What’s it like to… be an innovation consultant?

Interview: Sam Roots, Innovation Consultant

DESCRIBE YOUR JOB…

 

I describe myself as an innovation consultant, but that’s one of those terms that could mean anything and nothing, so I’ll try to add some specificity:

I work on problems that involve new technology interacting with people, often including some kind of market or business viewpoint in the mix. 

The actual work I do varies. On the one hand, I sometimes get involved with hardware innovation and prototyping – which usually means building electronics, writing code, and then learning from how people interact with it. Other projects are much more in the line of traditional strategy consultancy, like explaining to a corporate client how renewables and home energy technology are going to transform the way we interact with energy in the next 10 years, and what they need to do about it. In all of this, I use a wide hodgepodge of skills I’ve accumulated over the past ten years, but primarily my job is about critical thinking, communication and creative problem solving.

I also work for myself, which means I manage my own time and to some extent decide who I work for, and how much. I need to be disciplined and clear with my own goals, and I have a very direct relationship between what I get paid, and what I actually do. Others might be alarmed by this work situation; I find it strangely life-affirming.

 

HOW DID YOU GET TO WHERE YOU ARE TODAY?

 

My undergrad degree was in materials science – which is an excellent degree to pursue as it provides a great base of general working scientific knowledge with a healthy dose of real-world pragmatism. I would say that this world-view and aptitude for ‘systems thinking’ stood me in good stead for what I do now. 

After University I worked for a few years for a company analysing the renewable energy, and the financial, political and technological shifts underway. In my late twenties, dissatisfied with being an analyst and an observer, and wanting to get making things, I did a master’s in London called ‘Innovation Design Engineering’, which gave me a thorough training in “design-led innovation”. I intend to eventually create or join a start-up that provides some kind of real value to humanity, and I’ve been freelancing for the last couple of years, to broaden my experience and understanding what kind of work I like to do. 

 

TALK US THROUGH A RECENT WORK DAY…

 

Some of the corporate consultancy tends to be quite dry and I’ve given about as much information as I can already, so I’ll talk about my favourite prototyping gig.

It was for a TV show called the ‘Big Life Fix’, and I was working with the designer Ruby Steel on a voice-control system for a woman called Susan, who had Multiple Sclerosis and could not use any technology involving touch control. Ruby had done some observational research with Susan beforehand, and I joined a team of 4. My role evolved into a kind of ‘system architect’ role. This meant I was involved in creating the human interaction, and also programming the back-end of the system – translating from one part of the team to the other, and making sure all the bits of the system could talk to each other properly. 

 

WHAT DIGITAL SKILLS DO YOU USE ON A DAILY BASIS?

 

For the kind of work I do, flexibility is key. I have a basic facility with a very wide range of tools and platforms, but I would say that my main skill is probably adaptability. That, and communication and storytelling. It’s incredibly important in my work to be able to simplify complex ideas and present them clearly.

On a daily basis I would certainly use office skills and I would describe myself as an excel and powerpoint power-user. That said, I much prefer to use Adobe Creative Suite where I can, for anything that requires a layout or design that looks like it hasn’t been cribbed from a Microsoft template.

On a prototyping project, I might also be using Arduino, Python and/or Javascript to write the code for the device I’m making.

 

WHAT DIGITAL SKILLS OR ATTRIBUTES WOULD YOU ENCOURAGE EDUCATORS TO SUPPORT YOUNG PEOPLE TO DEVELOP?

 

Over and above any specific aptitudes like programming languages, I would recommend supporting the development of creative problem solving, and qualities like personal initiative, collaboration, persistence and resourcefulness. The techniques of ‘design thinking’ are all about human insight, and understanding what the real problem is that needs to be solved. Until you know what that is, you won’t necessarily solve it in the most appropriate way. 

Secondly, I would strongly encourage the development any kind of creative expression (art, music, dance, etc) to a high level, as this involves learning technical skills and mental agility that becomes uniquely – and, today, apparently unexpectedly – valuable in other arenas. 

 

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO A YOUNG PERSON LOOKING TO ENTER THE DIGITAL SECTOR?

The digital sector is big and growing, and it’s moving very fast. Now is a very exciting time to be moving into it. Over the next 20 years, you can become an expert in something that today doesn’t even exist yet. 

 

It’s more important to work out who you are, what skills you like using, and what fascinates you, rather than what specific job you want. Also, make sure that when you go for a job, that you’re going for something that makes you feel authentic and enriches your life. It is entirely possible to waste a lifetime chasing prestige, or someone else’s idea of ‘success’. It’s a cliché but your career is in your hands, and you can decide – in fact, only you can decide –  what makes you successful or not.

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