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New Areas of Innovation: Healthcare, Education, Products for the Ageing, Mega-cities

Posted by: Reena Jana on October 15, 2007

Back from the Collaborative Innovation Summit in Providence, RI, the third annual conference held by the Business Innovation Factory. The lineup was impressive: from Clay Christensen, Harvard professor and author of the seminal book The Innovator’s Dilemma, to Mark Cuban, the entrepreneur who has successfully leaped from investing in pioneering tech way back in the 1980s to professional sports and now to appearing on the TV show “Dancing with the Stars,” no less. (He showed up in a stretch limo, accompanied with an entourage wearing “Vote for Mark” T-shirts and was greeted by paprazzi.) What struck me was a consistency of a couple of themes that ran throughout the summit: one, that collaborative innovation (between public and private sectors, between academia and industry) is what will help the United States find solutions to the healthcare and education challenges we face today, specifically. Not to mention inspiring discussions on new areas where to apply business-innovation strategies, namely to creating appealing new products and services for older customers (consumers in their 50s, 60s, and beyond) and researching global megacities (Mumbai, Cairo, etc.) in more depth.

Christensen, for example, revealed that he is currently working on a book on disrupting the healthcare system to innovate how we are treated in hospitals and doctors’ offices, via “precise diagnostics.” This I understood to be products, processes, and systems that will better uncover what health problems we face so we can be more efficiently treated. And Paul English, founder of the popular travel site, is currently working with Harvard researchers on launching the Global Health Delivery Project, which will involve providing online collaborative tools for health workers around the world to benchmark and share treatment and research data, primarily in poor communities.

Another eye-opening theme that ran through the conference was a focus on innovation in the realm of services and products for ageing baby boomers and the elderly of the future in general. Joseph Coughlin, founder and director of MIT’s AgeLab, discussed a device developed by P & G called the “personal advisor,” basically a scanner that elderly consumers could take to the supermarket and scan products with. The gadget, which features uploaded health information on its owner, and after having scanned products, provides advice on how a food or beverage or other product might be harmful or helpful in terms of the consumer’s health. Even Mark Cuban discussed the ageing population as one of his new targets; Cuban recently bought the Landmark chain of movie theaters, and is planning on marketing them to 60-somethings raised on cinema and live performances.

While so many companies (and, admittedly, journalists) keep focusing on 20- and 30- somethings, as well as teens and tweens, as the targets of innovative products, it was refreshing to be reminded that the ageing population should not be ignored as a powerful market.

Of course there were many other fascinating speakers, too many to mention here. They included Richard Saul Wurman, the original founder of the TED conference, who discussed his new project (in collaboration with Larry Keeley of Doblin and others), a five-year research initiative called 19.20.21, that will standardize economic and other data on the 19 cities that will reach populations of 20 million people in the 21st century – a boon for corporations looking to better understand their global markets. And a particularly engaging and inspiring speaker was Denise Nemchev, the president of Bostich, which makes the Hurriquake Nail, a sort of screw-nail hybrid that can withstand intense national disasters. It's a truly simple innovation that has the potential to save thousands of lives and millions of dollars.

What was so wonderful about this conference was the relaxed, unpretentious atmosphere both on and off the stage. While there were no question and answer periods after presentations and panels, the speakers were easily approached at informal receptions between and after each session. It will be interesting to see how the summit evolves as word gets out – if it stays as an intimate incubator of ideas or if it grows into something larger and slicker as more and more attendees share with friends and colleagues news of its refreshingly laid-back and yet dynamic atmosphere.

Reader Comments

Shape Xue

October 18, 2007 11:32 AM

Something worth watching are the cyber social experiments such as aims to create anonymous and open 2-way communication between
the mgmt and worker bees. Truemors is dedicated to "rumors". Facebook makes young
people to socialize online.

Some will stay and change the world profoundly.


October 18, 2007 5:47 PM

The beautiful thing about BIF is the way that less-known speakers can often surprise, and give as much to think about as the better-known folks. Denise Nemechev is a great example, but another good speaker this year (who you'll surely be seeing more of in the press) was Matt Mason, a former pirate DJ from England who's written a great book about the relationship between online piracy, youth culture, and capitalism at large. Good stuff.


October 18, 2007 8:15 PM

I was at the first day of the conference, and so missed several of the speakers you discussed, but really enjoyed the format and the choice of speakers, or story-tellers, as the BIF team would probably call them. highlights for me were the conversation between Walt Mossberg and Jason Fried about what kind of leadership it takes to withstand the onslaught of mediocrity, and Colonel Dean Esserman on community policing.

Pamela O'Hara

October 18, 2007 8:33 PM

Thanks for covering this great event, Reena. I attended as well, and was struck by the diversity and intensity of presentations. Nice to spend a few days hiatus from my own workload to engage with such a variety of new perspectives. Even the "down-time" was a treat; my favorite conversation was with a children's television exec trying to redefine teaching creativity. Not every day you get to have an informal strategy session with such a high caliber group of talent.

Cliff Dutton

October 19, 2007 6:21 AM

Nice summary of the BIF Innovation Summit in PVD. Healthcare, products that matter to the ageing pop., examples of innovation in even the most mature of businesses (nails, for goodness sake!) and the government (Jay Cohen, DHS Undersecretary for Science and Technology driving innovation to keep us safe). All of that and the outline of RSW's project to gain better understanding of the economic data that illuminate global urban centers in our near future... great learning all day each day.

The intimate size and style of the summit makes it uniquely valuable. Hope it stays that way.

Jim Lavoie

October 19, 2007 8:15 AM

Also in attendance and impressed by the format. I think Saul Kaplan will shy away from bigger=better. Though speakers told their own stories, the themes were often common concerning innovation participation. I found the informal time as rewarding as the theatre experience. Great conference, nicely captured in your re-cap.

Christine Flanagan

October 19, 2007 9:25 AM

Thanks for your kind review Reena. Although the summit itself will remain an "intimate incubator of ideas," the stories themselves are meant to be shared with a much broader audience. (How else to affect real change ?!) The full-length videos of each of our storytellers will be posted shortly over at our innovation story studio next week.

Melissa Withers

October 19, 2007 10:34 AM

I was most impressed by the interesting convergence of ideas that came from pairing seemingly disparate storytellers on the same page. Take for instance the subtle similiarities between the young "pirate" Matt Mason and retired IBM exec Irving Wladawsky-Berger. You'd think that the thirty year age/career gap would make drawing parallels impossible. Not true. Where their stories aligned I found some incredible insights revealed. Where they diverged I saw how the world has changed with the proliferation of digital media and global commerce/connectivity. I would love to have dinner with those two and capture their discussion. Opportunities for inspiration like the BIF Summit are so rare and I am grateful for the experience.

Adam Darowski

October 19, 2007 12:21 PM

I was able to attend Day Two and also was thoroughly impressed. I've been to a few tech conferences where the focus can be a bit (or a lot) too heavy on step-by-step execution. What BIF did was look at things at a higher level—and that's something you don't get very often.

Another huge benefit was that the presenters were all from VERY different types of companies. You could see that while the solutions were very different, innovation is something that spans across all fields. Good stuff.

Matt Mason

October 19, 2007 5:30 PM

I thought BIF was incredible, not only were the conversations over the two days of the conference really inspiring, but the connections and continued conversations I've had in the week since with people I met there have been really amazing.

Some new ideas and ventures are already growing from those conversations. Today I met with Zipcar co-founder Robin Chase, we met at BIF and discovered we had a shared interest in the power of mesh networks, and hopefully I'll be working on with her on a new project in that space. Already looking forward to next year!

Josh Silverman

October 21, 2007 4:48 PM

BIF is and has always been a conflation of established storytellers and emerging mind-blowing occurrences; of what is versus what could be.

Allan Tear

October 22, 2007 10:38 AM

What struck me about my two days at the BIF Summit was the importance of intimacy to innovation. All of the standout speakers spoke of human scale and getting back to the emotional realm. Interesting that our organizations have designed these qualities out as "unsafe", and replaced them with process.

My guess is the Summit will stay small, at human scale as well, to encourage the connections that create innovation.

Damian Ewens

October 22, 2007 1:04 PM

Well written piece. I have been to the last two BIF conferences and the other piece worth noting is the stuff going on outside of the actual presentations. The interesting thing about the BIF conferences is that the presenters are really asked to present ideas and the stories behind them- its not a product sale. This filters in to the breaktime discussions where a mix of anyone from IT guys to military engineers and educators can carry on about unmanned cars and how they tie into their respective fields. Its a wonderful, low-key, mixing of ideas and people.

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