Day 2 at BIF-2…
Another great day here in Providence at the BIF-2 Collaborative Innovation Summit. Today’s host was WSJ columnist Walt Mossberg and the presentations seemed to swing more widely in terms of subject material. It started with Dean Kamen, who is of course the well-known inventor of the Segway and other technological marvels. In a soft-spoken and steady manner he extolled the benefits of innovation to companies and to America in general. “Not every company and organization needs to be innovative. Only the ones that want to be relevant and successful.”
Kamen’s talk focused on education – specifically how US kids are falling behind significantly in math and science. “How will America be better with millions of recipients instead of millions of contributors?” Educational tactics and priorities need to change, he argued. The problem is not supply and demand, it is demand and supply. Science and technology needs to be treated and presented as fun and interesting (not hard to do), just like sports and pop culture are now. … He then profiled the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) annual robotics program which has grown from a small high school gym in 1992 to the Astrodome in recent years. And they announced that every school in Rhode Island will now have this program available. “We’re not building robots, we’re building relationships – between kids and serious adults.”
Who could possibly follow that? Well, next up was Frans Johansson, author of The Medici Effect and a semi-regular mention on Creative Generalist. (Check out my recent interview with Frans here.) His presentation was an outstanding rapid-fire summary of the book’s main idea (intersectional thinking) and how he came to write it. 15 minutes was way too short and I think the whole crowd was left hungry for more.
Ophthalmologist Bill Tsiaris followed with a primer on angiogenesis (the development of new blood vessels) and how it could be at the centre of a $63 billion market by 2010. Tsiaris described three types of vision loss – retinopathy of prematurity (infants), diabetic retinopathy (young adults), and age-related macular degeneration (older adults) – and described the research going into curing them.
Self-professed geek Peter Gloor told his story of cybermapping the internet in its early days and cautioned innovators to not focus too much and too early on the money side of start-ups. More interestingly, I found, was Gloor’s notion of stars versus galaxies as they relate to social networks. Stars are people at the centre of several disconnected personal relationships whereas galaxies are people who connect all of these personal relationships. “Don’t be a star, be a galaxy.” The galaxy guy has more power because he has more “betweenness” and that matters more than your number of friends. Catch that, MySpace?
I’ve always been curious about InnoCentive and their open approach to research. It’s founder Alph Bingham was on hand to talk about how problem-solving by strangers; by people who would never otherwise be found because they are not in the business or because they are outside of particular disciplines. He related the types of innovation he finds to Edison vs. Archimedes, or iterative innovation vs. “Eureka! I found it!” discovery. …”The biggest competitor is the status quo.”
The conference has been held in a beautiful recently-renovated 242-seat theater. Curt Columbus is the artistic director of that theater, Trinity Rep. Shirking PowerPoint, Columbus passionately argued that American theater has unfortunately become a ticket transactional experience but that for it to thrive it needs to once again become a community. Theater, he believes, counters the social isolation brought about by TVs, cars, iPods, and other modern trappings. “Democracy cannot exist in that isolated setting.” “The space where innovation is possible is the space in between people.”
Up next was Betsy Cohen, a senior VP at Nestle/Purina. She touched on cutting across functions, brands, companies, and cultures to be a champion of innovation. To be honest, it was a lot of corporate speak and not particularly insightful for someone in such a lofty organizational position.
Former Seinfeld writer Andy Robin showed some clips from a movie he and others have recently created called Live Free or Die. His three tongue-in-cheek tips:
1. Caffeine, chocolate, and sugar work.
2. Sleep dreams are worthless.
3. If struggling, struggle in company – find a creative partner.
Co-founder and CTO of nTag Interactive Rick Borovoy described his very clever electronic conference badge system. Unfortunately, his presentation was overly complicated and mired by technical troubles so it was difficult to get his drift. I think it was that a technology needs to have a solid core for it to withstand the pressure of multiple stakeholders (in his case everybody from sponsors and event organizers to researchers and technical designers). “Your choices make choices.”
Artist Michael Singer gave one of the conferences more eloquent presentations. It was about complexity and how communities and innovation are actually not all that simple. Singer has been especially successful at rethinking infrastructure and integrating smart design into previously dumb buildings like waste management facilities. “We need to begin looking at everything that human beings create as serving more than one function.” This is someone whose work I wish to read more about: www.michaelsinger.com.
Marketing consultant Randy Antik shared four of his innovation AHAs:
1. Be unstuck
2. Aim high
3. Focus on your passion
4. Determine your role
“Innovation is a team sport. Innovation is the offense.”
To the right of the stage a fellow by the name of Peter Durand has been doodling his impressions of each presenter. Today was his turn to take the stage, which he did in hilarious style dressed as a caveman. More seriously, he and his teammates at Alphachimp Studio have just launched The Missing Link, a cool practical archive of conference visualizations. Check out Peter’s BIF-2 drawings here.
It was great to hear Fast Company co-founder Bill Taylor speak. (He just launched his new book Mavericks at Work.) He discussed tapping into the feedback of customers and used Fluevog and Threadless as examples – companies that are largely fueled by the brainpower, effort and collective tastes of its customers. “There are people so talented and so hardworking out there and they will work with you if all you do is ask.” The question is no longer “How do I manage people?” but rather “Am I the type of person that other people want to work with/around?”
MIT bioelectronics guru Hugh Herr spoke about how innovation is courage. He shared with us some of the leading technologies in prosthetics, such as smart knees and powered ankles. As he puts it, the key to the future will be combining recently matured disciplines (robotics, tissue repair, etc.).
The event’s closer was a charming woman named Alice Wilder. Alice runs the research and development efforts for Nick Jr.’s groundbreaking preschool television series Blue’s Clues. She spends a lot of time observing the viewing and learning habits and behaviours of very young kids. She spoke of how the show’s production was ego-less (“it really is about the kids”) and how important a factor attentional inertia is. Once you have a child’s attention, it is easier to maintain it. … Also lamenting the state of education today, she challenged the crowd to create communities where people can watch kids learn. Seeing what sparks kids’ interests, she noted, is a very special experience.