Last Friday I spent my afternoon at an internal event focussed on Innovation. A combination of speakers and workshops seemed to energise a diverse room on a Friday afternoon and given the event was internal we were lucky to be joined by Professor Mark Dodgson a leading academic on the subject who is a visiting professor at Imperial College London but more of him in a moment…
The opening session was delivered by one of my colleagues, Mark Thurston who had used a TED talk delivered by another academic Steven Johnson who is preoccupied with Innovation. If you have 19 minutes to spare it’s worth a watch but in essence he debunks the notion that great ideas arrive in eureka moments but more than they grow by individual nurturing and through discussion and interaction with others who challenge and build on the idea. He uses the phrase ‘liquid networks’ and cites a step change in Innovation occurring in 17th Century England which may correlate with the opening of coffee shops and a switch from depressants (due to poor water quality most people drank alcohol all day) to stimulants such as tea and coffee. Coupled with the design of coffee shops to encourage discussion and interaction.
He then goes on to talk about events of 1957 when the Russians successfully launched Sputnik 1 into space. In their paranoia to prove that the launch and orbit wasn’t a hoax the Russian authorities made it widely known that the signals sent to and received from Sputnik 1 were being broadcast on a readily available frequency. A group of keen young scientists decided to try to listen to the signal and using some nee-naw (Dopler effect) calculations worked out the position of Sputnik as it travelled around the Earth.
This triumph of the geeks spread around their University and another researcher asked if they could reverse the effect – instead of tracking a moving object in space from a fixed point on Earth, could they track a moving object on Earth from a fixed point in space. The work that followed was in favour of the US government who were attempting to track Submarines and this was the genesis of the global positioning system that so many of us rely on regularly to do many things…including finding coffee shops!
Later, when Professor Dodgson took the stage he shared some incredible insight in how the tragedy of 911 has pushed design engineers Arup to rethink how people can be evacuated from tall buildings in emergencies and how these innovations are part of the Freedom Tower. Weirdly, the answer came back to challenging one of the rules we all take for granted – using lifts in case of emergencies but lifts with modification and capability to allow them to function effectively in an emergent situation. He went on to describe the challenge Arup faced in convincing not only their client but potential tenants and insurers of the building that this was the right answer – basically they got them all to re-solve the problem with them!
He cited the oft told story of IBM and it’s transformation from a product business to a service business but also shared a fact that brought innovation into context in FMCG – 66% of Nestle’s turnover comes from products that didn’t exist 10 years ago – what I believe is referred to as a burning platform! When asked what his work had taught him about companies that were great at innovation he talked about making it part of the culture, that it needs to be part of the strategy, having clear and accessible process but the biggest need he cited was leadership – without senior leaders who are evangelists about innovation it will not succeed.
He ended his session with what he believes is the biggest opportunity for innovation that is still in it’s infancy – the mobile phone. He didn’t wax on about Apple vs Android or Samsung’s new handset but shared 3 simple numbers: there are 7 billion people on the planet, there are 6 billion mobile phones and there are 2 billion bank accounts. The opportunity to make money ‘mobile’ could literally bring the developing world galloping into growth. He shared insights on the impacts of microfinance in developing countries and the impact it is having on those who haven’t been able to save, borrow or trade outside of a limited environment.
All in all it was a fascinating afternoon and it left me excited and optimistic that whatever the news says we as a planet and a race will support and challenge each other to innovate our way out of it. The other thought I had was the irony of how the paranoia of a group of Russians during the cold war could, inadvertently, through the chain reaction of GPS and it’s impact on mobile change the face of the world by allowing 5 billion people access to structured finance…
Not a bad thought for a Friday…
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