“If You Build It, They Will Come”: An Innovation Fallacy

By Amanda Rose, Innovation Advisor and Pranali Aher, Innovation Marketing and Social Media Intern

We’ve all heard the phrase “if you build it, they will come.” And in theory, it sounds great. When innovating, however, this phrase doesn’t typically hold true.

It’s not always a foregone conclusion that thoughtfully engineered systems or great ideas bundled into products or services will achieve sustainable, scaled adoption. Many of us can point to innovations that are pushed, rather than pulled, into markets. The developing world especially is full of promising innovations that failed to reach the level of uptake and impact envisioned by sponsors due to poor market-product fit, weak service ecosystems, and misaligned incentives among users and market actors.

Ensuring Sustainable Adoption of New Products

As innovation advisors, our priority is laying the foundation for clients to successfully take innovative products and services to market. We do this by taking the pulse of priority markets, understanding demand and preferences among priority customer segments, and clarifying how barriers to adoption can be proactively addressed to enable sustainable, scaled adoption of new products and services. We are especially mindful of the complexities at play in emerging markets, where poor innovation-market fit can lead to unintended consequences such as wasting limited resources and perpetuating inequity experienced by disadvantaged groups.

Our work related to multi-unit reinvented toilets (MURT) in Bangladesh is a good example of how we help donors and others critically assess what it takes to position a new product for sustainable, scaled adoption in an emerging market environment. The Government of Bangladesh has a strong record of supporting sanitation programs and implementing improved sanitation. Since 2017, the government’s policy priorities for sanitation focus on fecal sludge management, public toilets, improved service coverage and service level, and sanitation in schools. However, waste collection and treatment capabilities and infrastructure remain nascent throughout most of the country.

In partnership with UPM, we researched barriers and enablers for scaling on-site sanitation. We laid out actions in the near-, medium-, and long-term to open the market and scale onsite sanitation systems solutions. We investigated potential early adopters and market fit for an advanced on-site sanitation technology. We identified the steps needed to position the MURT as a potentially transformative option for the sanitation sector, with the ability to process waste onsite and providing safely managed sanitation for populations without access throughout Bangladesh.

Bridging the Gap Between Technology and Market Opportunity

From that project — and many others — we came away with some key questions to consider before launching a new product or new service in a new market, especially within a low-resource environment. If you’re thinking about either, I recommend you spend some time answering these before jumping in.

1. What problem needs to be solved and what are the root causes of that problem? Do all people experience this problem in the same ways? Are people expressing demand for the problem to be addressed in new ways?

My advice: do not presume your innovation will add value because it is based on a creative, novel idea. It’s better instead to set aside your ideas of what a solution looks like. Start first by deeply investigating the problem to be solved. Look at the problem from multiple vantage points. Take a skeptical view of the opinion that ‘innovation’ is needed in the first place.

2. What alternatives or competitors exist in this space? How well are these incumbents addressing the problem?

Just because a persistent problem exists does not mean incumbent solutions do not already exist. Pay attention to what solution exists to address this problem, and how it is performing. At what price point is it offered? How do people feel about it? Incumbent solutions set a baseline of sorts in terms of innovation performance, cost, user experience, etc. against which new products and services will be compared.

3. What are the perceptions and levels of risk appetite at play within the target market?

These questions are not focused solely on potential customer segments. They focus also on potential manufacturers, suppliers, and other market actors that must say ‘yes’ to your innovation in order for it to operate effectively and reach target customers in a particular market.

4. What aspects of the broader market systems (e.g., policies, regulations, financing) might enable my innovation to reach sustainable scale? What barriers might I need to address?

The ‘if you build it they will come’ premise breaks down in large part due to the linear fallacy of innovation it upholds: innovation design and development leads to market entry to early adoption to scaled uptake. This linear fallacy fails to take into account the complex, dynamic nature of market systems that must be embedded into the innovation process, such that innovators benefit from ongoing integration of technology-market-user insights.

I encourage you to take these factors into account to ensure that when you go to market with a new technology, “they — the users — will come.”

When you need to successfully bridge that gap between technology opportunity and market opportunity, we can help.

We provide comprehensive, current, and independent insights that fuel your quality innovation decisions. Through our technology landscapes, technology scouting and monitoring, and performing market feasibility assessments, we ensure you have a thorough understanding of the market and how your innovation will be received. And our commercialization, technology transfer, and in-field testing and prototyping services help you gain efficiencies and streamline your path from strategy to impact.

Amanda Rose supports our clients by aligning innovation investments with future visions for change, especially within global food and agriculture systems. She brings to our group a generative mindset for envisioning future systems change combined with a unique skillset in facilitation, design, research, and project management. She has dedicated her career to supporting high-level, systems-change initiatives in the global agriculture and sanitation sectors.

RTI Innovation Advisors helps clients turn insights into new products, services & technologies that have meaningful human and business impact. Feed of RTI Int’l