In my role, people often ask me why innovation is such a hot topic right now. More specifically, they want to know what makes human-centered design so different from the traditional product development process we have been doing for the last twenty-plus years. They suggest it's just the latest trend, like Big Data was five years ago. But the more I work within a culture of innovation, the more I believe it's something bigger. In fact, I've come to realize that the attention on innovation may not actually be about business, product development or even being innovative. Instead, it's about empathy.

This hit home recently when I received an email from another preschool mom with a subject line that was just my daughter's name. If you've ever had a four-year-old, you know that can really make the adrenaline kick in. But it turned out the other mother simply wanted to praise my daughter for being so empathetic toward others. This surprised me. Why would she thank me for an ability everyone should possess? Making me wonder: have we lost our ability to do the one thing that makes us human?

Certainly we have become a society that's become reliant on technology to communicate and work with others. It provides answers to any question, on any topic, within seconds and solves many of the problems that used to make us rely on each other more.

This shows up every day in the way we work. We are expected to do more with less. We communicate via email and texting instead of live exchange. It's easier, and frankly more productive, if we remove the human element. But in our quest to be more productive we have slowly lost the connection to one another. For example, technology makes it much harder to understand the nuances that can be obvious in a face-to-face conversation. Seeing whether a person's words match their tone, or gauging their reaction from facial cues or body language, all disappear from the interaction. Simply put, we have become too comfortable with keeping a screen's length away from the people we are trying to serve.

While we may have become a society that has access to everything in real-time, we are cut off from each other by our devices. Humans are different from other species because we don't just mirror the behaviors of others; we can feel, internalize and act on empathy. We are social beings who crave physical touch and need to feel connected to one another.

According to a 2008 article published in the Journal of Evolution "...As our technological connectedness has increased, there does not appear to be a proportionate increase in global empathy. Instead, we are living in a time of relatively decreasing empathy, compared to our connectedness to the greater world. Its lack can be found all around us."

Could this be why innovation is resonating with the corporate world now? In their book The Game Changer: How Every Leader Can Drive Everyday Innovation, A.G. Lafley and Ram Charan assert, "the most essential component to game-changing innovation is deeply understanding your consumer at both the rational and emotional levels... It requires deep understanding of what drives their emotions."

This point has been proved many times by both researchers and the world's most innovative companies: empathy leads to innovation.

Striking examples of this can be found in the field of universal design, an approach that considers how a product or service can be used by people of any age or ability. Its founding is often attributed to industrial designer and gerontologist Patricia Moore. At age 26, Moore set out to study the life experiences of the elderly. But to truly empathize with this population, Moore traveled North America dressed, and impaired, as a woman in her 80s, using prosthetics and other devices that limited her movement, vision and hearing.

The experience of the physical disabilities, as well as being treated with dismissal, and even cruelty by others, allowed Moore to innovate better design. This resulted in products that are easier for everyone to use, such as the OXO Good Grips line of kitchen utensils that were designed by Moore, as well as others, like digital thermometers and rocking light switches that were inspired by her work.

By forcing us to solve problems that are not our own, I believe the appeal of innovation is its necessity for empathy. But it also serves as a reminder to always keep the needs of the consumer at the center of any business. Because without empathy it's too easy to miss the intangible cues that might signal the next great innovation.

So I ask you: Have you felt empathetic today?

Published on: Feb 2, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.