09 March 2010

On Innovation

I was speaking at an event yesterday hosted by the Dublin City Council focused on creating the right environment to stimulate the development of Small to Medium and Micro Enterprises in the Green sector.

The format was interesting, called a World Cafe, with a series of 4 short presentations that each posed a question to the audience, who then broke up into small discussion groups each with a facilitator and a note taker. Notes were captured on a large sheet of paper that was then attached to various walls around the venue to be shared. After each presentation the participants then moved to a different discussion group, though the facilitator remained in place. The level of debate and discussion was very high, with the added benefit of an enforced networking effect. Had there been more time the facilitator would have reported back to the wider group on the main themes and strands that emerged from their discussion, but as it is a summary will be sent out via email to all participants. The level of attendance was also high, between fifty and sixty participants from local government, social entrepreneurs, business owners, activists and others interested in doing more than simply talking about change. The numbers were particularly impressive given the fact that there were numerous other events in the city to mark International Women's Day, which many attendees were also actively engaged in.

As part of my ongoing work to create a Space that stimulates the development of Ireland's Public Sphere I was speaking on the conditions necessary for innovation to occur within a Green Economy-orientated space. While the focus of much of the day was on the concept of a Green Hub, almost an incubator for small Green businesses, I was arguing that bricks and mortar alone would not provide the spark for innovation to occur.

You can find my notes and slides below. Regular readers of this blog will find many familiar themes, and while it is more pro-business sounding than most of my polemics its heart is in the right place. Its not often one gets to draw from Krugman, Žižek, Vandana Shiva and Fintan O'Toole in a presentation on business.

On Innovation

In 2007 a colleague met David Edwards, Professor of Biomechanical Engineering in Harvard. Edwards had just released a book called ArtScience, where he argued that innovation cannot be simply made to happen, that what is necessary is to bring together people from different backgrounds and experience in a conducive mental and physical environment and innovation will then occur organically. My colleague shared Edwards' book with a few of us on the leadership team who were concerned that the creative spark was disappearing from many of the activities in our Dublin operation.

At the time one of my roles was to recruit recent MBA graduates from top-flight European universities into our management program. Our company had grown rapidly, in Dublin alone we had gone from twelve of us to 1200 in less than four years and as an organization we felt that we needed to supplement our company knowledge with external business knowledge to meet the needs of our now more mature operation.

After spending some time discussing ArtScience it became clear that by relying on senior talent recruited almost exclusively from similar MBA backgrounds, an overwhelming element of groupthink, what Vandana Shiva calls "Monocultures of the Mind", had entered into our organization, thus when faced with a problem or challenge the vast majority of our new management team would all approach the problem in the exact same way (The INSEAD way, the LBS way, The Bocconi way), and when that solution failed they were out of options.

They had been taught what to think, not how to think. No amount of funky office decor and free food is going to stimulate innovation, it happens organically when the right people are brought together, and a diversity of thought emerges.

Ireland is strong on Enterprise. One of our greatest successes has been our ability to attract so many Multinational Corporations at the cutting edge of their sectors to Ireland, but in many cases the majority of their innovation and research has remained in their home countries.

We have come under increased criticism recently from those within the MNC community for not being able to supply the caliber of workforce that they require, and this is increasingly being used as a justification for reductions in the level of investment in Ireland, or a withdrawal of operations altogether.

While I am not sure if I agree with this viewpoint, there is an element of truth in Fintan O'Toole's assertion that the Irish mindset is trapped in the 19th century, in that our workforce gravitates towards the security of a stable job, rather than adopting an entrepreneurial attitude towards risk and opportunity.

The problem with this is that international evidence suggests that the majority of Green Economy jobs will not come from large Multinationals, rather they will emerge from native Small to Medium or Micro Enterprises.

Thus for the Green Economy to materialize we need to foster a culture of native entrepreneurs, indeed a national entrepreneurial mindset, that will generate the next cycle of mass employment in Ireland, less affected by the volatility of the international market but still attractive to external investors, generating ideas and innovations that themselves can be exported.

In effect what we need is a culture of Innovation Independence.

Innovation Independence will occur when we are able to overcome our own national trait of risk aversion.
(I'm not talking about the kind of risk that we have seen all too frequently within our financial sector where individuals and institutions gambled with other people's money and with little or no personal exposure, what Paul Krugman calls "heads they win, tails someone else loses" in his op-ed piece on Ireland in today's NY Times. I am talking about the type of risk where someone takes a chance and tries to affect positive change whether by starting a new business, a new social enterprise, a community group or other action that contributes to the betterment of society around them) - added on the day, not in original notes.
Samuel Beckett wrote the best piece of business advice I have ever heard, saying: Try again, Fail again, Fail better.

Innovation Independence will occur when we escape our collective 19th century factory mindset.

Innovation Independence will occur when we overcome the fear of sharing and collaborating and emerge from our mental silos.

Innovation Independence will occur when our business culture is fundamentally transformed to encourage and enable a diversity of thought.

And with Innovation Independence the Green Economy will flourish.

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At 8:58 pm, Blogger Unknown said...

I remember sitting on a bus when I was 14 and explaining to some girls at the summer camp equivalent I was on that my life's ambition was to unify art and science.

If only I'd known it was as simple as calling it "ArtScience"! Genius!


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