Innovating Out Loud: Why Invention Is Not Innovation

Greg Ratcliff •

In this blog series, “Innovating Out Loud,” I discuss Vertiv’s culture of innovation through the lens of five behaviors that help spark curiosity, bring new and exciting ideas into the fold, and strengthen a company’s innovation muscles. These behaviors are described in one of my favorite books on the topic of innovation, “Eat, Sleep, Innovate: How to Make Creativity an Everyday Habit Inside Your Organization.” In this post, we’ll look at how companies foster innovation by focusing on the specific needs of their customers.

We’ve all walked past the “As Seen on TV” aisle at the grocery store and noticed the wide array of odd-looking tools and gadgets, all claiming to remedy the “Has this ever happened to you?” situation. While I find some of these gimmicks amusing, there’s a reason these products are often piled in bins and labeled with discount stickers — They claim to fix problems that either don’t exist or at the very least, fail to appeal to their target audience in a meaningful way.

I bring up this example to illustrate something I believe is a universal truth in product design, regardless of the industry: invention does not equal innovation. For a product, solution, or service to be innovative, it must have customer value. If your company does not have a passion for figuring out the problems faced by your customers now and into the future, you will not be able to innovate in that space.

Some of my favorite recent examples of technologies that solve customer problems are the technology stacks used by popular rideshare and vacation rental companies. I’ve always admired how these companies have progressed by building on the shoulders of past innovations, such as prior apps and security tools. Several of these disruptor companies also use a tech stack run almost entirely on open-source software. Open-source stacks are groups of independent tools that work together to create customer solutions.

These tech stacks provide companies with agility, flexibility, and speed to solve common business problems and allow organizations to scale and expand capabilities without having to overcome licensing or proprietary hurdles. As the leader of Vertiv’s innovation office, I take a lot of inspiration from this approach and think we could benefit greatly from figuring out new ways to not only build off our previous innovations, but also make our various parts of the business work together to solve customer dilemmas.

Having a Customer-Focused Innovative Mindset for Today’s Problems

The data center industry is undergoing a period of unprecedented growth to support everything from remote work to automated supply chains, and there are about 4.1 gigawatts of new data center capacity currently under construction. To slow down the effects this growth will have on the environment, customers today are putting more emphasis on solutions that contribute to their efficiency and sustainability goals.

One example of a solution designed with the customer in mind is the Vertiv Liebert® EXL S1 with Dynamic Online Mode, which can increase energy efficiency by up to 5% and reduce energy losses by up to 75% when compared to a legacy model. Several of Vertiv’s uninterruptible power supply (UPS) units are ENERGY STAR® qualified, and our water-free cooling systems have saved billions of gallons of water a year worldwide since we introduced them in 2013. For instance, the Liebert® DSE Free-Cooling Economization System saves up to 4.0 million gallons of water per year, per unit, compared to previous models.

Having an Innovator’s Mindset for Tomorrow — And Beyond

Soon, we know that chips used in data centers will reach a point in their power consumption where deploying liquid cooling will be a foregone conclusion. This means that racks in the data center will require some sort of plumbing system. In the years ahead, the growth of nearby edge computing applications and smaller communications outlets, including 5G, 6G, and beyond, will require unmanned liquid-cooled systems. Customers are going to need design experts in electronics and plumbing. With thousands of servers running every day, there will always be the risk of a leak. Our job is to think about how we want to handle these leaks and consider the O-rings, shut-off valves, and other pieces of equipment that will be needed to successfully install this equipment.

We do this not just because future applications will require it, but also because of the efficiency benefits organizations gain from adopting this new technology. Today, about 40% of the electricity in a data center is dedicated to cooling. The higher thermal transfer properties of liquid compared to air, combined with not needing fans to move air across the data center, can greatly reduce this number and contribute to an organization’s efficiency goals.

Whether these customer needs will come to the surface two, five, or 10 years down the road is uncertain. However, being able to have these conversations with technology scouts and stakeholders, and anticipate these needs and issues before they happen, is a key differentiator in our ability to provide innovative solutions for customers.

In the next blog post, I’ll recap my experience hosting Vertiv’s Innovation Summit and share some innovative insights from other leaders within the company. If you have any thoughts or comments on the topic of innovation, please get in touch. I’d love to hear your ideas.

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