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Why LEGO is the most innovative toy company in the world

The LEGO movie pulled in $69.1 million last weekend (Warner Bros. Picture)

More than half a century after its founding, LEGO remains one of the most innovative companies in the world. It’s not just that the company has been buoyed by the success of the new blockbuster LEGO movie, which pulled in a whopping $69.1 million last weekend — the company has consistently remained one step ahead of the innovation curve, releasing new products and finding new ways to engage users of all ages with its tiny, plastic bricks.

So what have been the keys to the company’s innovation success?

Most importantly, LEGO has been unafraid to experiment with emerging new technologies to extend its brand from the world of physical play to the world of digital play. This is especially important because the current generation is growing up as the first all-digital generation. They are growing up with tablets and smartphones and expect to use them everywhere they go. As LEGO’s top leadership has pointed out, the company is “embracing what digital can do.” That means searching out relevant technologies that are both relevant and complementary to the basic LEGO brick.

As a result, the company has created a line of programmable robots, such as the R3ptar, that bridge the gap between physical play and virtual play. Since 1998, when LEGO began releasing its DIY Mindstorms kits, people have been increasingly able to assemble robots, program them via computer, and then control them via a combination of Bluetooth, downloadable apps and voice commands. It’s now possible for a child under the age of ten to get an introduction to programming in a way that’s fun and intuitive.

The company has also tapped into the full power of the crowd, both to crowdsource new designs for upcoming products and to encourage users to share their designs with the world via YouTube and other online social platforms. Whether planned or not, LEGO is now part of the DIY Maker movement, which encourages people to “tinker” and “hack” and find better ways of creating things. LEGO is now as much about making as it is about playing. In short, LEGO is a creativity catalyst.

This has tremendous implications for LEGO. The company is no longer just a toy company — it is now part of the DIY maker movement. It’s not just about buying tiny plastic bricks for your kids, now it’s also about adults re-engaging with the LEGO brand to build stunning new creations. Some even look like museum-ready designs. Spend just a few hours on Twitter or Facebook, and you’ll almost certainly run into examples of people sharing examples of amazing LEGO creations.

Finally, LEGO has significantly expanded its growth trajectory into emerging and frontier markets. Growth in Asia, especially in China, has propelled LEGO past Hasbro in global toy sales. Worldwide, people now spend 5 billion hours a year playing with its toys. And there’s more growth to come – LEGO is now extending into markets such as South Korea and Russia in pursuit of additional growth.

Which is not to say, however, that all this growth does not come without a cost for LEGO. Some have criticized LEGO for its new digital toy creations — such as that scary robotic snake — for being off-brand. Some have taken LEGO to task for losing its focus on fun — instead of letting people decide what they want to build, LEGO now offers detailed building manuals for creating complex designs. And, finally, critics of the new LEGO movie say that the company has lost its way with too much of an emphasis on product placement and edgy humor.

Yet, it’s hard to think of a single other company that has so successfully bridged the gap between physical play and virtual play. No wonder educators have also embraced LEGO, creating new competitions for students, while parents have also remained loyal to the LEGO brand. As new technologies such as augmented reality and 3D printing enter the mainstream, it will be interesting to see how LEGO adapts these trends in the creation of new products that both surprise and delight the next generation of designers, builders and innovators.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.



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