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Umami for Advanced Ideation

Photography: Smaku

The Japanese have a word for it. “Umami” can best be translated as “savoriness,” a fifth flavor beyond the sweet, salty, sour and bitter that Western cuisine usually targets. It describes the heavy, meaty flavor of mushrooms and soya sauce — or any food that contains a high level of glutamate, an amino acid that helps form proteins. Ketchup has it, and so do parmesan cheese, wine and seaweed.

In Japan, umami has been recognized for more than 100 years but it’s only now having influence in the West. Both top chefs and food manufacturers are looking for ways to add umami to their foods, making them tastier without increasing salt content.

Nice for the food industry but what does umami have to with ideation — the ability to be creative and conjure up new ideas?

With a little thought, quite a lot. The discover and exploitation of umami can inspire anyone looking to discover and build uniqueness.

Thinking Beyond Borders
The first lesson we can learn from umami is the value of thinking outside the box. For centuries, chefs had been thinking in only four dimensions. The idea that there was a fifth that they could exploit — or that others were already doing so — didn’t occur to them.

Today, of course, ideas flow around the world as easily as bird flu. But that doesn’t mean that every foreign concept has landed on every shore. There may still be plenty more umami flavors waiting to be discovered for every type of industry.

Designers, for example, may discover that African cultures see color or form in a way that makes them think again about their own work.

Engineers could find that an island’s boat design gives them new ideas about beating resistance and improving usability.

And any entrepreneur might be inspired by a discovery that success can be measured in different ways by different cultures.

Nor do you have to look abroad to find new concepts. Questioning any limits — or even categories — you take for granted could open up a whole world of new opportunities.

Build your own Ideational Umami Bombs
Now that chefs have discovered umami, they’re making the most of it. Master Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, for example, has created “umami bombs” that use umami-rich ingredients to focus the flavor.

Once you’ve discovered your own umami, you can do the same thing.

Artist Yves Klein, for example, found a unique shade and made it the main point of interest in his painting “Monochrom blue.” When it became clear that the ability to hear different frequencies diminishes with age, ringtone companies created ultrasound ringtones that only teenagers could hear.

Creating a product that’s based entirely on your new idea is always the easiest first step towards making the most of it and highlighting its most important features.

Get Portable
The next step though is to open your discovery for everyone to share.

That might sound like a terrible idea. If you’ve just found something new and valuable, why would you want to give it away?

The main reason is that discoveries rarely stay hidden for long. The people who have made the most money out of umami aren’t the chefs charging $185 for parmesan custard and white truffles. They’re the companies that isolated the glutamate and sell 95,000 metric tons of MSG in the United States alone.

Creating a product that makes the most of your discovery will get you noticed. Building a product that enables other people to use it, may get you wealthy.

Get Creative…
And then you can really start to play. Inevitably, the first products based on a unique idea are going to be relatively crude. The first MP3 players were interesting but nothing like as stylish as the iPod. And it took a few years for the iPod to develop into the iPhone.

The same may happen for your idea. It’s first uses will be obvious. Its adaptability will create stability and allow you to benefit from your work.

But once you have that stability, you can really start to push the envelope. Just because an accelerometer was designed to change screen format doesn’t mean it can’t also be used in video games, for example, or in digital spirit levels. The more juice you can squeeze out of your umami idea, the more you can benefit from it.

And Start Again
Eventually, of course, your novel idea will be all squeezed out. Just as machine-based operating systems are giving way to online software so your new discovery will become another part of the system.

Once that happens though, it just means you’ll have a new border to think beyond.

[tags] creativity, umami, ideation [/tags]

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