Every good project starts with an idea. Whether it is a new design, piece of art, product, service or a new business. From hardcore start-up-entrepreneurs, I have repeatedly heard slogans like: “Ideas are for free and can be found on the internet.” And, while I – and probably a lot of people from the cultural and creative industries – dare to disagree, the truth behind such statements does hold. No matter how good your idea, the key is to turn it into reality. The proof of the pudding is in the eating.
But how can we determine where we are in that process of realizing our ideas?
What is the trajectory for taking that idea to its destination and final beneficiary? And where are you along that trajectory? Lately, I have been getting a lot of questions from artists, designers and creative entrepreneurs on how they can judge the often long journey from idea to end-product. Fortunately, we can draw on an established schematic flow, introduced by NASA, called Technology Readiness Level, or TRL. In this article, I will share my insights on how this framework has already been adapted for the creative sector (by EU-funded project WEAR Sustain) and what we could do to transform it into end-user readiness level (EURL) and make it even more widely applicable.
Technology Readiness Level
NASA has long worked at the forefront of technology, developing new systems for spaceflight from rocket booster to spacesuits. In an environment where even a minor problem could be deadly, NASA used the TRL flow to determine whether technologies were ready for use in space and if not, how far along they were in development. It provided them with an unambiguous framework to dialog with their suppliers.
Looking at this chart, it is easy to see how this could be applied to any type of technology development. I have seen it being widely used within the world of high-tech R&D and it is also popular with tech start-ups for determining the TRL of their products.
Application of TRL in creative industries
Supported by the EU H2020 program, WEAR Sustain took the basic technology readiness model and refined the definition of each of the levels to be more relevant to their goals. As illustrated by the chart below, they interpreted the TRL definitions to their domain of ethical and sustainable design-driven wearables projects.
Technology readiness Levels
Interpretation of the TRL model for design-driven wearables projects (©WEAR Sustain – www.wearsustain.eu) (click to enlarge)
This great effort by WEAR Sustain proves that the technology readiness levels can also be applied to creative sectors, giving clear indication of which level a project development is at. By knowing the readiness level of a project, the project team can understand what the next step in the process could be, particularly interesting to those doing it for the first time. Also, just like NASA, the TRL can easily be used to show how close, or far, a product is from production and help to assess the steps, time and eventual costs needed to bring it to the next or final level.
End-user readiness level
The effort by WEAR Sustain made me wonder: could this become a universal framework for turning ideas into reality? Can the same model also be used for creating a piece of art, developing a new service or starting a business? I believe that it can.
WEAR took the general TRL model and adapted it for their domain, but what if we took the ‘technology’ out of the vocabulary and made it an even more generic model: an End-User Readiness Level (EURL) model rather than solely for technologies. I am sure you can already use your imagination to see how the model could be adapted to the ideas you are working on. It might need some different definitions and heading names. For example, step 7: ‘System prototype demonstration in operational environment’ could be changed to ‘Dress rehearsal’ for putting on a show.
I am not going to define all the fields and titles, but I will give a few examples of how and where the EURL model could be used: from tracking a project to defining the scope of your organization. And either in an absolute way (current readiness level), or in a relative way (e.g. to indicate progress).
End-user readiness level for projects
There are many ways to track a project, but these typically focus on actions and critical paths. This is great for knowing what specific actions need to be done next or what is blocking progress. But where are you in the project – still stuck in development or ramping up production?
An End-User Readiness Level model would help to set expectations within the team and to inform your target end-users on where you are and what the next major steps will be. They let everyone have an overview of the journey and how to get to the end, or even just the next phase of the project. It can indicate the current status of the project (at level x) or progress towards a goal (moved from readiness level x to y, expect to go to level x…).
EURL for organisations and partnerships
For organisations, the EURL model can provide clarity over what your organisation does or where it fits into a supply-, partnership- or development chain. For example, more research-oriented organisations may only focus on the early stages of the EURL model. And open calls and support programs could unambiguously define which level of maturity is needed (or which progress in EURL levels should be achieved) to be eligible.
Any stakeholder that has a role in bringing ideas to reality should make sure it focuses on a set of EURL steps that match with its partners up- and downstream in the process. If my organisation focuses at the idea generation stage, let’s say supporting projects up to EURL3, it should be my responsibility to partner with organizations that accept projects from EURL4 onwards. Otherwise, the projects that I support risk to face a gap in their needs to complete the chain and valuable ideas might not reach their full impact and destination. To my opinion, it’s these gaps that especially in the cultural and creative industries could be addressed more.
How would readiness levels help you?
The TRL model is very relevant process in high tech and start-ups. But consider how a more generic or tailored EURL model would work for your domain. Would it help you to work out where you are?
Perhaps you already using something like the EURL model outside of the tech domain. If so, let me know. I would like to hear about your experience of using such a model and what insight you can add to the discussion.