Nintendo uses a product-development philosophy called “Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology.”
It led to the 20th century’s most successful game console: the Game Boy. One day, a gaming engineer named Gunpei Yokoi was commuting home on the train when he saw a man playing with an LCD calculator next to him. Unfortunately, Nintendo didn’t have the budget to push the technological frontier at the time, so they used old technology to innovate. So long as the gameplay was engaging, Yokoi believed that players didn’t care about technical details like colors or screen resolutions. Compared to its contemporaries, the Game Boy was durable and affordable, which removed barriers to entry for users and developers. People would play for hours because it used AA batteries that were cheap and easy to find. Today, the Game Boy has sold more than 118 million units.
That same engineer also created three other popular products: Super Mario, the Nintendo Game and Watch, and the D-Pad — the four-way directional controller that has become so ubiquitous in the video game world. All three of them, along with The Game Boy, show how you can have cutting edge innovation without cutting edge technology. While its competitors tried to out-spend each other with fancy displays and advanced computing power, Nintendo combined readily available technology in new ways.
The history of innovation is full of lateral thinking examples. The Dyson vacuum design was inspired by the way sawmills use cyclone force to eject sawdust. Henry Ford borrowed from two industries to design the assembly line: studying the watch industry led to interchangeable parts and the canning industry-inspired continuous flow manufacturing. Even Bitcoin, which some predict will become the most important technology of the 21st century, combined cryptography advancements made in the 1970s, with digital cash research from the 1980s, with cypherpunk philosophy from the 1990s, with digital cash experiments from the 2000s, which Satoshi Nakomoto cited in the Bitcoin white paper.
While writing, you can follow Nintendo’s methodology. While the rest of the Internet is talking about the latest Netflix show or the new book at the top of the New York Times Bestseller list, you can pull from old and under-valued ideas instead. Find classic movies through the Criterion Collection, classic speeches on YouTube, and classics that are free to read because they’re so old that they no longer have a copyright. Then, write about the intellectual phase transitions that emerge. I call this “Lateral Thinking with Withered Ideas.”
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