What Is The Value Of Radical Experimentation In Tech?

A collection of stories about how companies big and small are using rogue R&D to tinker their way to the next big idea.

What Is The Value Of Radical Experimentation In Tech?
[Image: Flickr user Canadian Film Centre]

A decade after Google’s legendary “20 percent time” first inspired copycats, and a year after the practice was declared “as good as dead,” the nature of experimentation inside technology companies is changing, refining–maybe even growing up.


Here’s the fundamental tension: Good ideas take time to gestate, but time costs money. With finite hours and energy, the companies we talked to still condone messing around–they just find ways to get people to do it efficiently.

The value of radical experimentation might not always be obvious up front, but tinkering that doesn’t immediately move the needle on critical business metrics can still be valuable: from a healthier culture to big, lucrative new businesses.

Here at FastCo.Labs, we’re also tinkerers. We’re big on toying with our processes, conducting small publishing experiments and coming up with new ways to measure our progress. Lately, we’ve asked some of our writers to pitch us feature stories based around a single, central theme. This first package of stories has to do with the state of experimentation today in technology companies, and where it’s going next.

Why Mega-Publisher Hearst Ditched “R&D Labs” And Opened Up Its Data Instead

Instead of one R&D group, Hearst CTO Philip Wiser decided to decentralize the publishing giant’s experiments with new tech. So he opened up Hearst’s data to a select pool of developer partners–many of which have already surprised him with new ways of viewing magazine content. Hearst’s atypical experiment has helped spawn things like the industry’s first magazine formatted for Google Glass. Armed with a massive set of audience data and empowered to tinker away, the company’s small army of developers is only getting started. [Read Full Story]

How This Dev Team Made $1 Million In 24 Hours By Forgetting Their Focus

Game studio Double Fine Productions is no stranger to experimentation. Their now-ingrained tradition of the “Amnesia Fortnight” involves a two-week period where the entire 60-person studio simply forgets what they’re working on. Instead, they divide into four teams, and each team makes a small game prototype unrelated to the company’s main project. Just by tinkering around, Double Fine went from a studio on the brink to one that does business in a way that allows indie studios to survive and maintain their independence. [Read Full Story]

Why Do Big Companies Do Hackthons?

Hackathons aren’t just for startups anymore. As corporations start to embrace the idea of a software-first future, they’re taking a page out of the tech industry’s book by adopting hackathons for everything from R&D to talent retention. For Fortune 500 companies, hackathons represent not just a source of new code and fresh ideas but an opportunity to totally shift their internal cultures. [Read Full Story]


How This iPhone Hardware Engineer Stays In His Creative Zone

When Todd Beauchamp was a teenager, he developed a habit of solving hardware problems using random objects around him. It came in handy years later when he was working at Apple and was asked to fix a potentially launch-delaying problem with the audio on the first iPhone. His unconventional approach not only worked, but saved the device and pleased the company’s notoriously temperamental CEO. [Read Full Story]

OK Glass, Launch This Rocket

Chaotic Moon will probably never build an Internet-connected rocket for any of its clients. But should the Austin, Texas-based dev shop get such a request, it will have some experience to draw from. Earlier this year, a team of coders and hardware engineers at the company rigged up a small model rocket with a GoPro camera and some sensors. They then wrote an app for Google Glass that let them launch the rocket using a voice command and then view real-time data like altitude, temperature, and speed. [Read Full Story]

How To Virtually Unite Remote Teams With RFID, Arduino, And Beer

Chaotic Moon isn’t the only creative shop hacking new technology to show off for its clients. Allen & Gerritsen runs an internal hackerspace called A&G Labs that does it all the time. After the Boston-based ad agency acquired Philadelphia’s Neiman Group, it suddenly had two teams separated by 300 miles. To help bridge the divide, A&G’s hardware and software gurus cobbled together sensors, hardware, and code to build a giant, interactive game of tic-tac-toe that connects the two offices. [Read Full Story]

How Writing And Art Must Change If The Comic Book Will Survive

The economics of comic books sucks. It’s ironic considering how much money superhero movies rake in every year. But alas, publishing in all its forms is undergoing a tricky transition from print to pixels and comics are no exception. Thrillbent is a digital comic book publisher that isn’t content to see the medium flounder in the digital age. To these guys, experimentation comes naturally. Everything from the creation to the distribution of comic books is ripe for new approaches. [Read Full Story]

This Robot Shames Your Instagram Friends For Their Lame Selfies is a recent project from Philadelphia-based ad agency Allen & Gerritsen that uses an Arduino-powered robot to help you shame your friends for committing common sins on Instagram. The Instagram account they used for PixNix may have been shut down a few days after launch, but that doesn’t mean the project was a flop. For A&G, projects like this represent an opportunity to tinker with the latest technologies (the group has been playing around with RFID and iBeacons lately as well), learn what’s possible, and win over future clients. Read Full Story]


Why You Should Let Your Creative Employees Roam

At Mother New York, agency employees are encouraged to dig deep into their passions–and bring back creative commodities that no other agency could come up with. To promise social currency for big clients like Microsoft, Mother created something like a mixture of an externship and Google’s former 20% time program. [Read Full Story]