Ideas from the Economist Innovation Conference

Last week I had the opportunity to attend the Economist Innovation Conference, held at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley. It was a fast-paced (almost too fast), jam-packed event, with lots of good speakers and a heady flow of ideas. The downside to the 1-day format was that there was little time for networking, however they did make sure to get Q&A from the audience in almost every session, which was good.

Here are some of the ideas that came up during the presentations and discussions (assume that these are paraphrasings, not exact quotes):

Daniel Franklin (Economist Executive Editor) had some thoughts on what the world could look like in 2050, including some somewhat jokey company names:

  • ExxonHydro (oil and water both will be the valuable resources)
  • TataSoft (Indian IT company becomes a full software powerhouse)
  • Google Goldman Sachs (since financial knowledge makes sense to become rolled up into Google’s storehouse)
  • Shanghai Automotive (Chinese car manufacturers have taken the world stage)
  • GSKPfizerNovartisAstraZenica (the logical endgame of the pharma business)
  • Oxbridge Harvard (Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard combine forces)
  • BollyDis - Bollywood meets Disney

Laura Tyson (Haas, UC Berkeley): On appropriate role of government in fueling innovation: Don’t forget that it was a government grant (National Science Foundation) that funded Larry and Sergey while they were at Stanford, leading to Google.

Naveen Jain (World Innovation Institute): The Kahn Academy is an interesting idea, but still a primitive version of what virtualized education could be like. It’s akin to radio stations decades ago getting into the TV business, by simply sticking cameras in front of the talking heads/actors - they hadn’t yet realized the full value of the new medium.

Stewart Brand (Long Now Foundation): We’ve been terraforming the planet for a while now. The choice we have now is not to stop terraforming, but to figure out how to do it well rather than badly, as we have been. This is a big mental shift for the environmental movement, which has historically focused on humans getting out of meddling in nature to have it return to a pristine condition. Brand argues this is no longer the best path if we want to keep the planet sustainable for our species and others.

Beth Comstock (GE): Cannibalization is a big fear for companies considering reverse innovation, where low-cost/resource innovations and brought from emerging markets into developed markets. The barriers to successful reverse innovation are not just R&D/technology, but incentives for internal adoption (will people be willing to embrace and sell the new solutions?), and the different business models required to optimally sell them.

Vijay Govindarajan (Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth College): People in poor countries don’t want cheap products. They just have a very different perception of value. To succeed in these markets you have to dramtically shift the value/price equation. For example, someone in Thailand was able to develop an artificial limb for US$35….for an elephant!

Vijay G: Companies must create value before they have permission to appropriate (take) value. This was the breakdown that occurred in 2008 - companies were taking value for themselves before others were seeing the requisite benefits.

Carl Bass (Autodesk): The rise of desktop manufacturing will undercut China as the workshop of the world. The historical equation of mass manufacturing equalling lower cost is breaking down.

Carl B: Design thinking is bunk! It’s a marketing term dreamed up by design consultants, but it has no basis in reality.

Clayton Christensen: The problem for innovators is, how do you reach consensus on a counter-intuitive notion?

Clay C: I’m not ready to call Facebook or even Google innovative companies yet. They have both had very good ideas to get started, but what they have not shown yet is that they can consistently follow those up with winning new ideas. That’s the hallmark of truly innovative organizations.

James Quigley (Deloitte): How many people here think innovation is a bad idea? [show of hands, very few!] How many have been able to get their organizations to innovate successfully [again a show of hands, a similarly low number…] Everybody wants to do it, so why are so few successful? (Incidentally, this was the question that sparked my book)

Colleen McCreary (Zynga): At Zynga, our executives are required to spend 20% of their time thinking about people [contrast with Google’s famous 20% spent on new projects]. Zynga also uses an employee net promoter score (asks, would you as an employee recommend Zynga as a place to work for a friend?)

Gina Bianchini (Mighty Bell): You know what I need as an entrepreneur? It’s not funding. It’s customers.