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Transacting innovation ideas...

There’s a lot to like about Berlin - a city swollen with culture (anywhere that devotes a whole island to museums and galleries must have a lot to offer), rich in recent and older history. And with plenty to entertain you, from the formal array of theatres and music venues through to the underlying scene, a defiant mix characterised by the headquarters of the Pirate political movement. The perfect place to hold a conference, variety and stimulation already in the air, never mind what you might import in the way of delegates, speakers and workshops.

Except that for ISPIM - the International Society for Professional Innovation Management - Berlin hasn’t been the venue. Or rather it has, but thanks to a certain pandemic it’s been reduced to hosting the event online. Twice. On the plus side there is a saving on shoe leather (no need to walk around the city which can get a little hot and bothered in what was 30 degree heat for much of last week) but on the down side there’s no chance to explore the delights of the city. Not least a cool beer to damp down the dust and a chance to sample its varied culinary treasures.

What we got instead was food for thought and on that front at least I came away well satisfied. In fact there's a danger of over-indulgence - in a virtual event it really is possible to be in many places at almost the same time and having recordings means you can go back catch the sessions you missed…

Berlin has always been a trading city, was one of the early Hanseatic League cities, recognised as an inland port where many different vessels brought their wares to trade. In the same way virtual ISPIM was full of crossover possibilities between the different worlds of academe, industry, policy and consulting. And it retained that bustling market square kind of feel, plenty of variety, people going from stall to stall, delicious and interesting smells wafting through the air, a hint of this, a sniff of that, a sense of surprise

One welcome new feature was a series of ‘fireside chats’ - not sure the metaphor is quite right since the real temperatures in Europe were pretty close to high summer, but the spirit of the idea worked well. They offered conversations and explorations rather than keynote broadcasts, opening up interesting insights.

Some key takeaways for me from this interesting trading of ideas in the innovation management world...

  • We’re increasingly going round in circles - in a good way. Much of the discussion, papers, workshops, etc. was linked to sustainability and how to innovate to save the planet - for example Allen Alexander's 'fireside chat' with Kate Raworth. Encouragingly this wasn’t simply rehashing some important moral principles, it was very much concerned with the practicalities. Circular economy, doughnut economics, all sorts of different topographies which point to how we might actually do something about the huge challenge.

  • Thinking about and beyond the crisis. Last year’s event was, not surprisingly, full of discussion about the pandemic and how it had changed the innovation game, jumping the tracks to find new ways of responding quickly to challenges like designing and building ventilators and developing vaccines in a fraction of the time normally associated with medicines. This year there were, again, plenty of papers and workshops but this time looking beyond, trying to tease out lessons and new practices, with the pandemic as a lens through which we could look at new models for managing innovation and discuss the challenges of resilience and fragility. Do we simply go back to how we were, waiting for the next surprise - or do we build into our innovation systems the capacity to pick up and reconfigure ? Reminds me of the original definition of dynamic capability - ‘the ability to integrate, build, and reconfigure internal and external competences to address rapidly changing environments’

  • DEI - diversity, equality and inclusion. Innovation thrives on diversity, it’s the intersection of ideas which creates something new and so the more differences we have the more we increase the chances. DEI has always been important but in the past such discussion has been a bit like that around sustainability, full of worthy sentiments but lacking somewhat in the practical way forward. How do we build into the way we think about innovation and manage it the big questions raised by DEI? For example, a wealth of research highlights the fact that the contribution of women is not just under-reported but also actively inhibited by systems and prejudices operating at organizational and cultural levels. Tim Harford’s excellent piece around the ‘Ms Monopoly’ problem helps frame some of the challenges and it was gratifying to see in ISPIM several panels, presentations and ‘fireside chats’ digging deeper into this theme. Timely too - if it weren’t for people like Ada Lovelace or Hedy Lamarr we might never have had the computers or wi-fi to be able to carry out virtual conferences. (It’s not just across gender lines that we should look for diversity - there are plenty of other ‘fault-lines’ across which we might find opportunities. This interview opened my eyes to how much inter-generational innovation potential there is if only we could find ways to mobilise it).

  • Remixing and recombination. One of Berlin;s roles as a port back in the 15th century was to trans-ship, exchange cargoes coming in from different directions, mix them up and send them on their way again. This kind of recombination has become a key feature of innovation life - borrowing ideas from one world to plant them in another, and it’s an old favourite at ISPIM conferences. For example, Ramon Vullins has been a regular contributor and his metaphor of being an ‘idea DJ’, helping organizations with their remixes is a powerful one. But this year we also had some fascinating theory coming from discussions with Dave King and his colleagues talking about ‘exaption’. In evolutionary biology that describes the way a trait which has emerged to suit one set of challenges can be deployed to enable something else - for example bird feathers probably emerged to help with temperature regulation but they turned out to be rather useful for helping them to fly. Once again in exploring this theme and in the other sessions around recombination we were moving from the (fascinating) theory world to one of practical tools for implementation.

So all in all a useful way to spend last week, even if the beer was consumed in solitary fashion rather than in good company and with recorded rather than live music in the background. The event concluded on an optimistic note - looking forward to next year’s meeting in Copenhagen with the hope that we’ll be exploring digital and sustainable futures in the flesh rather than online. I’ll drink to that….

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