A problem for some becomes an innovative solution for all
MindTags Group has been tackling an everyday problem for blind people – finding their bearings and gathering information in buildings. In part, this issue has a direct impact on actual employees, who are more than unhappy with existing solutions. The project resulted in a digital accessibility solution for everyone, not just blind people. Steinbeis expert Stefan Wilke, Managing Director of MindTags Group, explains how the solution came about, how the innovative idea works, and the innovation system behind the solution.
Before we go into the project in detail, however, let’s take a look at innovation in the context of SMEs. Innovations are the lifeblood of all companies and central to safeguarding their existence (and success). Entrepreneurial action is a process in constant flux – a process in which to pave the way for successful action, it is necessary to reconcile many things at the same time. Many factors can be developed and controlled internally, but there are also external influences, which can make entire processes difficult or even critical.
Innovations and the time they require are therefore fundamental to the success of companies. Innovative ideas keep creativity alive, focus attention on the horizon, and often give rise to things previously unthought of. They also fuel synergies that are not at first perceptible. Innovations and regularly coming up with innovations are important ingredients of stability, growth, and competitiveness – especially for small and medium-sized businesses. Unlike big companies, however, SMEs have extremely limited resources, which is why it is important to have overarching concepts and strategic support, to inject life into innovation.
Innovation processes – the basis of an innovation system
Innovations require both an innovation system, encompassing and mapping all constituent parts, and an innovation process, which is a central feature of every innovation system. This process comprises five elements:
- Vision: Clear visions help employees understand where the company wants to be and the role innovations play in achieving this goal. They also help to keep employees motivated and committed.
- Communication: It is important to communicate openly, because this motivates fellow-workers to offer their own ideas and suggestions and play their part in developing innovations. It is also important that employees feel their opinions and ideas are being listened to and are valued.
- Knowledge: People need access to knowledge and information, which helps them develop and implement innovations.
- Creativity: New things do not happen without creativity. Encouraging employees to be creative and develop new ideas is the basis of every innovation.
- Culture of failure: A culture of failure marked by acceptance has a crucial role to play, because people become bolder and more creative when they know it’s all right to make mistakes, and mistakes are seen as an opportunity to make improvements.
Costs – the assassins of innovation
Innovations can be extremely expensive, especially for SMEs, which is why costs are one of the most common obstacles to innovation. Companies are at an advantage if they have their own research and development function. There are levers and pulleys that can be used to enable successful innovation management, however. One such tool is open innovation, a process that allows potential customers to be closely involved in development projects at an early stage, with the aim of identifying and exploiting previously unknown customer needs. Also, when SMEs evaluate innovations they should take estimated costs and volumes into account, as well as mutual influences on other products. If an innovation offers customers more benefits, this can also improve cost-benefit ratios. It is important to remember that investments are made in the long term and that cutting costs is not always the best idea.
Using synergies and funding to inject momentum
SMEs can derive benefit from areas such as Industry 4.0 (smart production), data analytics, artificial intelligence, and digital business building. Prudent HR policies and the right organizational structures can also fuel more ideas. And then there are methods such as forming partnerships with startups to bring fresh ideas and technologies on board, offering strong drivers of innovation with plenty of synergies. This allows SMEs to develop new business models and innovative products with others, as a result of which they can make more efficient use of resources.
Another important aspect is government funding, such as the Central Innovation Program for SMEs (ZIM) run by the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy. The idea of the ZIM program is to strengthen the innovative capabilities and competitiveness of medium-sized companies, for example by making it possible to invest more money in alternative fields thanks to personnel cost allowances. Combining conventional and innovative levers is also a good way to cut costs and develop new digital concepts. Whichever options companies consider, it is important they carefully weigh up the costs of innovation versus other costs. They should also take long-term impacts into account, especially when it comes to company competitiveness.
“We help objects and buildings talk”
But how does such an innovation process work in practice? For their project, the team led by Steinbeis expert Stefan Wilke first took a close look at DIN standard 18040, which covers barrier-free construction and stipulates in regulatory terms that all people must be able to find their way around buildings independently. The Steinbeis experts concluded that information provided in buildings for orientation purposes generally comes in the form of tactile guidance systems and touch-based illustrations. The fundamental problem with this is how visitors are supposed to find out this information if they have not yet been inside that building. Current options do, at best, show where things are – but in most cases this is without any further information. If information is offered, then this is only in isolation and aimed at an individual target audience. This also ties up major resources in terms of time, people, and materials. As a result, the project team developed a vision:
- No standalone solutions
- One system for all target groups
- A system that can be updated and extended at any time
- A system that can be used anywhere
- A system that saves resources and is climate-friendly
This resulted in a solution called MindTags, which provides information in modules based on an app, Bluetooth technology, and a content management system. In addition to supplying information, the system offers orientation inside buildings and public areas. The app is free and does not require internet access.
The journey of creating an app
Let’s start at the beginning. The first step was to develop a solution capable of providing blind and visually impaired visitors with information on routes and locations. Any processes that work for such visitors should also work for others, and this led to the idea of also offering appealing visual directions and information to sighted people. The next step was to match information to different target groups, also thinking about any support needed, such as texts in plain language or videos in sign language. An option was also included to add further system languages in addition to German.
The project continued to gather momentum toward its eventual goal of bringing together all important information in a single app. To achieve this goal, the experts included important interfaces in the new system, not only in order to incorporate information from other sources, but also to make it possible to provide more information. Many public facilities use QR codes these days, so the app also features an integrated scanning function. “We also solved the issue of ensuring the system doesn’t require changes to be made to buildings, so it can be installed on historically designated sites and on the outside of buildings, such as at bus stops,” explains Stefan Wilke. The project team also took data protection requirements into account; the app developed by the experts neither logs nor processes any information of a personal nature and all servers are located within Europe.
A fully-functioning innovation system – and a successful innovation
All elements of overall systems – organizations, companies, research institutions – have a contribution to make to the inception, application, and dissemination of scientific or technological knowledge within innovation systems. To develop its app, MindTags Group enlisted the support of Konsole Labs in Berlin. Testing was then carried out at Hotel am Froschbächel in Bühl, at the central station in Wolfsburg, and at Rossi Haus in Rastatt. Further areas of use are planned, also because of the unanimous feeling among team members that “we’re interested in how well it works, not whether it works.”
The project was made possible by partnerships with other companies and startups, by tapping into existing technologies – which were adapted as required to match the objectives of the project – and by running continual tests among different target groups and conducting user surveys.