Jan 18

Innovation in practice

Not only did Innotribe address the how, why, when, where and who of innovation, but also: what happens if you succeed?

Innotribe’s first innovation for 2017 was to bring a strong sense of history to the practical business of innovation. Just as London coffee houses provided the backdrop for the British enlightenment of the 17th century, so the Innotribe space was explicitly designed to foster a sense of coffee-shop collaboration. There were two Jimmy Monkey coffee bars; we squeezed around tables for the sessions; while the other half of the space was laid out with sofas, chairs and tables for more relaxed contemplation. Throughout the week, with most sessions full to capacity, that other half buzzed with conversation. Whether it was down to the coffee or exchange of ideas, Innotribe was the place to be in Toronto.

Positives and negatives

The practical business of the week was the ‘how’ of innovation. Key note speaker Admiral Michelle Howard, commander of the US Naval Forces in Europe & Africa, set the tone with an exploration of the journey of innovation. Taking inspiration from earlier generations of American pioneers, Howard cited commitment, stamina, connectivity and a willingness to ‘travel light’ among the timeless factors that can contribute to success. 

While many of Monday’s sessions focused on issues around data and identity the process of innovation remained front and centre of the debate, notably in the afternoon session, ‘Financial inclusion: increasing the pace’, which highlighted the need to take account of inclusion when designing and regulating new financial systems and services in order to maximise their reach and societal benefits. 

Sir Tim Berners-Lee spoke on Tuesday morning, sharing his experience of innovating the world wide web and looking forward to future innovation. On Monday, we had been told that Innotribe was about ‘yes, and not ‘yes, but’, however Berners-Lee reminded us that innovators sometimes have to work against indifference, rather than negativity. “There was a paradigm shift with the web. Now, when you talk about clicking, everybody understands that a click could take you to a page on the other side of the world. Then, at the start of the web, you couldn’t explain the potential of it; you could show somebody that you were going from one page to another, and they would say – so what?” he explained.

Berners-Lee went on to discuss the often ignored relationship between, as he put it, the individual space in which innovation happens and the rest of the world. “There is a phenomenon where people design something that seems like a good idea at the time, and it works, and nobody does the math on what’s going to happen at scale.” Taking the example of email – a welcome innovation that enhanced efficiency – Berners-Lee pointed out that nobody had thought through the impact of commercial motivation: spam. There can be positive consequences of innovation – the web led to Wikipedia – but these are not inevitable. “Nobody’s done the math on social media, whether these will produce happy results,” said Berners-Lee.

If you have an innovative idea, be prepared for indifference. If your idea works, think through its possible knock-on impacts, negative as well as positive. In the Q&A, Berners-Lee expressed optimism, but not fatalism. Discussing the negative attitudes and hostilities that can manifest on social media, Berners-Lee acknowledged that some social-media structures can be conducive to negative expression, but said these online systems are designed by people and as such can and should be redesigned. He declared however, “We should not throw up our hands at humanity.” Innovation can influence our behaviour, just as we can affect the progress and direction of innovation.

Assets and liabilities

To successfully master the practical application of innovation, we must factor in the human element. We were reminded of this in the session, ‘Innovating in a high-stakes environment’, which focused on the shipping industry. The theme of the day was how to handle legacy, sometimes seen in banking circles as a liability, rather than an asset. “It’s not so bad having legacy, if it means you’ve kept going,” said moderator and day anchor James Lloyd, Asia-Pacific FinTech leader at EY, citing the accumulation of staff experience and expertise that legacy can include.

Alongside the ‘how’ of innovation, the session also posed the question ‘when, if ever?’ James Baker, editor, Lloyds List Containers, explained that the pace of innovation in shipping had slowed recently in part because it works as it is. Recession has been a driver of change, he said, but also pointed us to a number of barriers to innovation traceable to the human element. “The issue has not been the technology, but the culture. Much of this is out of the hands of the technology companies and even the shipping lines. Some of the problems come from the regulators, and many exporting nations have a penchant for bureaucracy,” said Baker. Eager tech entrepreneurs pitching solutions don’t necessarily start from an understanding of the issues in shipping, he added.

Innovation does not happen in a vacuum, Lloyd reminded us, but is driven by need. “You innovate because you want to improve the fundamentals of your business, improve your competitive position, make more money, reduce costs,” he stated. In shipping and banking, innovation has become a priority due to changes in the underlying economics of the respective industries, but also because of very similar competitive challenges. “There’s always a perceived threat that Amazon is going to start buying its own ships. There are high barriers to entry to shipping, but there’s a perceived fear: everyone’s still waiting for the kid in the basement to come up with some true innovation, something that changes the model,” said Baker.

Hopes and fears

Fear might be a great motivator, but it is not necessarily conducive to generating positive outcomes. In ‘Making space for innovation’, Toni Townes-Whitley, corporate vice-president for industry at Microsoft, highlighted the mental space needed for innovation, identifying four requirements.

“First, you need quiet; second, you need to be internally focused, not distracted; third, you need a slightly, not overly, positive mindset; and fourth, you need not to be thinking directly about the problem.” Setting aside an ‘innovation hour’ is less likely to be effective than simply being receptive when the best ideas come.

Townes-Whitley worked through a series of case studies – HM Revenue & Customs, Carlsberg, ASOS, thyssenkrupp – to illustrate the role of innovation beyond product development: in both the employee and the customer experience; in ensuring the robustness of the core platform; and finally, in the business model. She also pointed out that methods of innovation pioneered by digital natives can and should be applied by all firms seeking to service customers in the digital economy.

According to Townes-Whitley, every company has at the core of its innovation process two digital feedback loops: signals from product and product telemetry; and signals from customers and customer feedback. “It is in the integration of these two loops, and the willingness to move in a viral fashion with this data, that we see the greatest increase,” said Townes-Whitley, giving the example of Netflix’s close focus on customer preference. “Digital feedback loops are going to be necessary for companies to accelerate.”

Call to action

In a week centred on the ‘how’ of innovation, we were regularly prompted to also consider the ‘who’. To thrive and adjust in a fast-changing environment, it’s up to us to ensure our businesses are open and alert to innovation. In the session, ‘Artificial Intelligence in plain English’, Clara Durodié, founder and chief executive of Cognitive Finance Group, reminded us that the technology only expresses what we tell it to express. “Algorithms have parents,” she said. But it was Townes-Whitley who gave perhaps the most direct call to action. “This conversation is around each of you making space in your personal lives, in your professional lives, in your organisations, to innovate,” she said, closing her presentation with a comment that summed up the Innotribe week. “Innovation doesn’t just happen. You have to make space for it.” 

Over to you.


December 19, 2017
January 9, 2018