Archive for the ‘Innovation Edge’ Category.

An education system to support innovation?

For the final session of the day I attended a seminar on whether our educational institutions living up to the innovation demands of the 21st century. The end of the day is always a tricky session and a bizarrely-shaped room didn’t help matters, but I couldn’t help but feel we never got to the meat of an exciting and radical topic.

I have worked with a lot of education clients in my previous roles and have always been struck by how traditional the structure is. Just taking schools as an example, the pattern of a day is still pretty much the same as it was 100 years ago - pupils arrive, listen to a teacher or read a book, make notes and answer questions and leave. They all go to the same building, and I bet school days typically start and end at the same time the always did, with a bell marking the same number of breaks.

Now compare this with the experiences of a modern workplace. Companies and the environments they create have changed radically in the last 100 years. The same is not true of our education establishments, many of which pride themselves on offering the same level and type of education that they have done for tens or hundreds of years. I went to a university that was proud of just that!

It’s not that this doesn’t work, or that things should change for the sake of it. Rather that the education system is not making the most of the creativity tools and social media that we see in the business world and social enterprise.

In work that I have done in the past we have developed innovative structures for education. We know that a real barrier to education for those with low skill levels or on low incomes is having to travel to a school or college - they either can’t afford the time or money to get there or feel intimidated by being in an ‘institution’. Why not, then, take education to them? Build small and localised learning studios that people can attend. Link them together through the internet and social media to create small studios that truly feel part of a larger (if virtual) organisation. There are pockets of innovation like this but nothing substantial and sustained.

Instead we’re Building Schools for the Future. As one colleague in the education sector once said to me “We risk knocking down old Victorian buildings to just build a cleaner, shinier modern replica in their place.”

I think the education system isn’t making the most of tools to support innovation and it’s a pity the discussion didn’t get here today. Perhaps it was the end of day blues and the bizarre room. I know at least one of the panellists, Andy Powell the Chief Executive of the Edge Foundation is passionate about change in education and making it more appropriate to the needs of learners. Sadly an open and detailed debate on these issues too often never emerges.

Are online social networks the new cities?

The afternoon sees a series of large seminars (we must have had close to 800+ people in the first one). The discussion was about whether social networks were the new cities and much of the debate centered on how these two crucibles of humankind compare and how they each deal with similar issues. The panel included the Richard Leese (Leader of Manchester City Council), Michael Birch (founder of Bebo.com) and Jon Gisby (Director of New Media and Technology at Channel Four). With Charles Leadbeater in the chair it looked set to be an interesting and informed debate.

For Leese there was no doubt that virtual worlds were not a replacement for real ones - you need cities and need to encourage and facilitate innovation and creativity by creating physical spaces that support this. If you do this and encourage people to the city then it will flourish. Whilst this point wasn’t made directly during the session, I think this also describes perfectly how you create a successful social network.

Birch explained how the early stages of Bebo.com were tough work. Creating an environment that people wanted to come to online and then getting the first few members who joined the site to take part and return. There are thousands of social networks out there, but only some reach the stage of maturity where they are vibrant and successful. The process of creating inviting spaces and then nurturing the first people to join you seem similar across cities and social networks.

Perhaps this returns to a theme that we saw earlier in the day. Whether you are building a city like Manchester or a social network like Bebo.com, you are dealing with the same commodity - human beings. We are social creatures and in both cases you want to create a network of these creatures, limited either geographically (in the case of the city) or by their online activity (in the case of a social network).

In both cases the route to success is simple:

  1. Build an environment that is appealing to the people you are trying to attract
  2. Make an extra special effort to attract your first members
  3. Work with them and nurture them to ensure that they stay and attract their own networks
  4. Allow the space to grow and develop as you get more people, and allow people to contribute to building an environment that’s right for them

Collaboration not competition?

An interesting panel session discussing whether collaborative innovation is something that the western world is privileged and developing countries cannot. Sam Pitroda commented that innovation has always been used to solve rich people’s problems, despite them not really having any problems at all. This may be true. Indeed the brain drain from countries such as India is in part reflecting the fact that the brightest brains in India are not solving their own domestic problems, but working in Wall Street banks.

This thesis is opposed to some extent with the oft quoted phrase amongst western politicians and leaders that we need to innovate in order to compete with the likes of India, China, Brazil and others. This view seems counter-intuitive. Global businesses, as Helen Alexander for the Economist points out, operate globally. They cooperate across boundaries and are intrinsically set up to make the best of the resources available to them, wherever they might be.

Our sister company, FreshMinds Research, did some work a couple of years ago for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the UK on the science and technology links that existed between India and the UK. We found that those that were most successful were often those the governments knew nothing about. Perhaps Helen Alexander was right when she said the best thing the government could do for innovation was to stay out of the way.

Geldof and the power of unreasonable people

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world and the unreasonable man persists in adapting the world to himself”.

By this definition from George Bernard Shaw, Bob Geldof would call himself an unreasonable man. And he thinks the time is ripe for innovation; we are running out of things (air, land, oil and the likes) and so we need innovation to help us adapt. Everyone can have ideas and everyone does but they don’t exist out of time - they emerge if they are applicable to the moment. This is what we’re seeing and business needs to support and push these appropriate ideas forward.

For Geldof, social entrepreneurs are the real unreasonable men. He gives the examples of Professor Mohammad Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank, who brought micro-finance to Bangladesh. With initial loans of $5 to 27 people he has taken 100s of millions of people out of poverty. This was an innovation that was rejected by the big banks and the corporates but that has had a profound impact and change in Bangladesh and across the world.

He thinks that the UK needs to encourage this kind of entrepreneurship more. Fund research of the type Berners-Lee was talking about; research where we don’t know why we’re doing it. Geldof thinks we need to celebrate failure and the attempt at trying - without this we will not get real innovation.

Here all of Geldof’s speech here.

Vague but exciting - the creator of the Web

“Vague but exciting” is how Tim Berners-Lee‘s boss described his initial proposal for the World Wide Web. It seems like a description that applies even today. The inspiration for Berners-Lee’s work came from a book called Enquire within and upon Everything, another appropriate description for what you can do online.

Berners-Lee worked on the Web because his employers said “not yes but not no” to doing it. He thinks that this approach - giving employees some space to think or find alternative ways to solve problems - would be beneficial for most employers. We often say that the most intelligent people don’t work for us, but it’s also true that we too often don’t give those who do work for us enough space to generate new ideas.

Don’t tell them what to produce - you’re looking for new ideas, don’t give them your old ones.

You don’t always know why you are doing what you’re doing; why it will be useful. And if you do then it’s probably not research. Some companies do embrace this approach - letting employees have 10% of their week to work on their own projects (as at Google) or opening up your innovation to those outside your organisation (as P&G do with their online communities).

Bringing people together from different disciplines

Talking about his current work on web science, Berners-Lee shows how it’s important to bring together people from different disciplines. For him the web isn’t a connection between web pages or between computers but a social tool - a link between individuals. So developing and innovating in the Web you don’t need just a set of developers and coders, you need to understand people’s motivations and behaviours online and then develop tools and other innovations that support and enhance this.

As we say at FreshNetworks, getting something right online is about more than just the technology.