Intel’s Brandon Barnett: Mapping the Future

By Scott Kirsner |  September 21, 2013

Brandon Barnett is the director of business innovation at Intel Corp., the world’s largest maker of semiconductor chips. Based in Portland, Oregon, Barnett has incubated businesses within Intel, but his current role involves designing and executing experiments in the marketplace to help the company explore emerging opportunities and business models. He spearheaded Intel’s involvement in the National Day of Civic Hacking earlier this year. Intel has about 104,000 employees; 2012 revenues were $53 billion.

How do you explain what your team does at Intel?

I’ve come to view innovation as the mechanisms and strategies for survival in a very dynamic ecosystem. Technology is changing rapidly, social norms and cultural constructs are changing. Those are the complex interaction of forces from which markets emerge, in my view.

I look at innovation as what it takes to ride those things out. When things change, and the old competitive measures are no longer important to consumers — more horse power, more megapixels, or more gigahertz — that’s when you need to search for that next basis of competition.

One thing we do in my group is try to get into different communities and understand how those social norms and cultural values are changing. You try to understand how people make choices about products, or how should I evolve my existing product to make sure it’s meeting peoples’ needs. While we still do that work, we’re also looking at what has changed in society that will create new markets, and new orders. And that means understanding foundationally what has changed underneath the market.

One example of a foundational change: our collective understanding of what ownership means has changed over the last decade. We don’t own our music any more, we lease it or rent it? Do I own my home if I’ve rented it out through Airbnb? I may rent out my driveway, so I’m sharing that ownership. Digital technology allowing physical assets to be shared and circulated is changing the notion of what ownership means.

Another one is a shift from traditional notions of producer and consumer, to models of participation, where people want to contribute to what they’re consuming. One example is Quirky, where they’re helping to design a product, because they want the product to be good for them. Or Local Motors, where you are crowdsourcing a car design.

That notion of participation is an interesting one that really changes the dynamics of markets, and how products and services should be delivered.

Can you talk about what you do to explore a big shift like that?

Well, the next phase is testing your hypothesis — for example, that you think that participation as a manufacturing technique is really going to take off. What are the different value propositions or business models that could work? How do we understand that in a way that doesn’t put all our bets on one option that isn’t validated by any data? I think hackathons are a good way of doing that. If you do it right — and we haven’t mastered it yet — you use it as an experimental platform. How do I mobilize that community of hackers or entrepreneurs to explore the space, and make sure we’re getting a diverse set of ideas and exploring the business models.

That’s how we structured the National Day of Civic Hacking. It was already moving forward with White House support, and a lot of government agencies putting data out there. What was interesting to us was the possibility of new value being created when you mashed that data up with people’s own data, or some community data. We created a framework. We created personas, like someone trying to navigate the educational system, or the local transportation system. How can you use these data sets to solve a problem for them?

You’re putting guardrails on the type of problems that you want people focused on, with an eye toward mapping the space, not getting a solution. You’re using the crowd and the hackathon not to get the next big idea — “I have a problem, and I need a solution.” This is saying, I want to see what the whole landscape looks like. Hackathons are better at that than they are at generating a solution. They’re time-limited. They map a space well, they don’t necessarily give you the right answer.

The National Day of Civic Hacking had 11,000 participants. We did a smaller one before that in Portland, the Vibrant Data Hackathon. We learned from that experience, but realized that we needed to scale to a broader participant base to really understand the landscape. So that’s what led us to the National Day of Civic Hacking.

Where do you take that next? What connects the hackathon to actual products or activities inside the company?

In the aftermath of those, one of the things we’re doing is advancing some of those ideas in an innovation pipeline. We’re taking some specific ideas out of the National Day, which look interesting and really embrace this notion of personal data mashed up with other data sources for the benefit of the individual. Let’s advance those, and explore the business model.  We’re also working with a partner to develop an analytics platform that ties it all together, so we can explore the value, not just of any one isolated application, but the value that is created when disparate datasets inform each other in surprising ways.

Another thing we did was something you might call crowdsourcing, or expert-sourcing, to understand all of the factors that might need to be in place for this new personal data economy to arise. We gathered fifty diverse experts to weigh in on the factors, and how each factor was related to the other factors. So for the first time we have a collective opinion about the complex network of factors that would need to be in place for a new system to emerge. With a little analysis, we identified four key areas of focus or design principles that could catalyze a data economy. There’s no market data, but we now think we have the ability to find points to focus on from a business and a strategic standpoint to make this transition that we hope to see. That’s another open innovation advancement for us — using the crowd to map a complex space conceptually, where the hackathon does it physically, by actually trying to build things.

We put the results of that online, on an open website at All the research is there — the factors, how they mapped out, and the analysis we did. It gave the participants the benefit of what came out of it.

One of the big issues at other companies we’ve spoken to is communicating what the innovation group is doing and seeing with the people running the lines of business at the company. They are usually incredibly busy, and they have goals they’re trying to hit for next quarter.

I certainly wouldn’t claim we have it figured out, in terms of how our work connects perfectly to the product groups. There’s a lot of work to do there, because you’ve got very different viewpoints coming together. Typically the product groups are doing the best they can. They’re in the market with their product, and they’re doing a good job. To be talking about, ‘Hey, the ecosystem is changing, way out here.’ It’s hard for them to know what to do with that. We’re trying to gather data that may not be traditional market research data, but data that we can use to drive decision-making. Really good visualization tools help. They can often create a pause. When you see something that is  really compelling that you don’t understand, it gives you pause. It opens up space to have a dialogue about different perspectives, and what is really happening.

Our ethnographic team saw the emergence of smartphones, before there really were smartphones, back in the late 1990s. That team did a lot to say, ‘We should watch out for this.’ But it can be hard to get business leaders to make a judgment about something new, until there is a market, and players getting revenue. It’s just hard to know what to do until you get information in a format that you’re used to seeing. The challenge is mapping the ecosystem, doing experiments, gathering data and creating metrics to help leaders wrap their heads around these shifts, and understand the business implications, sooner.

Video overview of the Personal Data Challenge from #WETHEDATA: