From Starter to Closer, BIF 2016 Storytellers Show Good Stuff

By John O. Harney

Every September, I get a new fix of inspiration at the Business Innovation Factory (BIF) summit of innovators. Last week, I was at BIF’s 12th summit, my sixth. My main inspiration this year came from Dave Gray. The founder of the strategic design consultancy XPLANE, co-founder of Boardthing and author of Liminal Thinking gave a simple message: Shut off autopilot. As he said, the only place we can make change is in the now. Problem is we don’t often think about now because we’re on autopilot. First piece of advice then: Shut off autopilot and do something different. In an organization, he added, one cog shutting off the dance can change everything. We all talk about disruption a lot, he said, but we don’t disrupt ourselves.

Well, it’s hardly a disruption (a word you hear a bit too much in innovation circles), but I vowed to do one thing different from the past, and not write exhaustively about every speaker I heard. For the ones I left out, it’s not them, it’s me. Happens that the stories that really hit me included the starter and the closer.

The starter was Bill Taylor, founder of Fast Company. He researched his new book by seeking out extraordinary stories in ordinary places—not Silicon Valley or Kendall Square, but retail banks, insurance companies, even parking garages. He told, for example, of the “Megabus effect” that had replaced up-to-then drab bus experiences with modernized double-decker busses complete with big windows, GPS so it would be easy to avoid traffic backups, wifi for device-beholden passengers, seatbelts so riders felt safe and smooth ticketing via the internet.

Taylor also spoke of Lincoln Electric, an Ohio company founded in 1895 that makes welding systems and thinks progressively. In 1948, company leaders said Lincoln will never lay off an employee and it never has, not even during the Great Recession. A sign over the factory gate says, “The actual is limited; the possible is immense.” A sort of BIFy take on the proud, “Through these gates pass the best shipbuilders in the world” motto at Bath Iron Works (which by the way, can’t claim Lincoln’s no-layoff promise).

The closer was Ross Szabo. On the outside, everything looked fine for the class president, varsity basketball player with a 3.8 GPA. But he was hardwired for mental health problems. At age 11, he visited his older brother in the hospital after the sibling had a manic episode. Ross himself was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 16. Over the jokes of classmates, he started to talk about his disorder … and classmates started listening. But in his 20s, he attempted suicide, began heavy drinking and experienced psychotic episodes. He dropped out of American College, then returned four years later and earned a degree in psychology. He recently developed a mental health curriculum for college that is now used in campus Greek life, orientation and athletics programs. We need to normalize mental health, he said. “Mental health isn’t for when things go wrong. It’s something you build, like physical health.”

Videos of the storytellers will begin to be released starting in mid-October at Jessica Esch did telling sketches of the BIF proceedings.

Among tidbits between Taylor and Szabo, Matt Cottam, co-founder and chief design officer at the Providence-based design firm Tellart, spoke of Tellart’s exhibit at the “Museum of the Future: Machinic Life” in Dubai showing how robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) will augment human experience. One example: replacing the uncomfortable aspects of airport security with soothing warm towels that can immediately be scanned for pathogens and other threats. Or automatically adding vitamin C to drinks when a certain number of office workers come down with a cold. Or building a game in the Dubai arcade that requires people to be active and delivers biometric information. Or building an algorithm that takes a 1,000-year view on environment risks, rather then the current shortsighted focus on just a few generations. As machines become better at reading our emotions, Cottam asked, will we naturally employ them to take better care of us? Will we trust AI enough to have avatars be our nannies?

New demographics

Joseph Coughlin, director of the MIT AgeLab, noted that around the year 1900, life expectancy was 47. But half of American babies born in 2007 will live to 104. Coughlin credits the gains not only to doctors, but also to civil engineers, noting that clean water has done more than anything else to add to life expectancy. In Japan, more people are buying adult diapers than kids’ diapers. Coughlin pointed out that the fastest-growing part of the population is the 85 and over group. Gen Z people should prepare not just for five to eight jobs, but for five to eight careers. Your kitchen will be able to monitor what food you’re running low on. Smart toilets will tell you whether you took your medicine. Smaller grocery stores with lower shelves and more compact parking lots will cater to the aging, childless shoppers.

Longevity could mean a lot of time for retirement. And perhaps for loneliness? Kavita Patel, a doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital Community Physicians and healthcare policy adviser, said loneliness is the single most preventable public health epidemic today. People often feel alone, she said, but loneliness is a feeling that no one cares about you. And loneliness worsens other diseases, she said. She told of a study in Australia finding that 37% of early teenagers and young children say they only feel more alone when they get on social media. She cited the longitudinal Framingham health research, famous for its heart study, which also studied loneliness and found lonely people tend to affiliate with other lonely people. And people who are not lonely would actually become lonely if their networks were made up of lonely people. What can we do? Screen for the condition, for starters, she said. And change views. Hospital chiefs brag about private rooms, but such rooms are very isolating and presumably make people lonelier, according to Patel. Also reach out and touch people! (To be sure, that’s a tall order in a society poisoned by political correctness, fear of lawsuits, fear of infection and fear of condescension.)

Out of this world

Kava Newman, deputy administrator at NASA, said she expects to see humans within the orbit of Mars in the 2030s. She believes that if Mars had life 3.5 billion years ago, then something went terribly wrong, that could teach lessons about life on Earth. (I had seen her a few years earlier at BIF when she was a professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems at MIT, talking about the pressurized, skin-tight Bio-Suit she developed that gives astronauts unprecedented flexibility in space.)

Irwin Kula, a rabbi who talks about disruptive innovation, is president of Clal–The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership described as a “do-tank” committed to making Judaism a public good. Kula noted that “nones” are the fastest-growing religion. As disruption guru Clayton Christensen would put it, the “incumbents” are in trouble. True, 40% of Americans say they go to church, but observers found it’s more like 23%. A lot of people think Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife, Kula said. We need an innovation ecosystem in area of religion, suggested the rabbi. (I had also seen Kula a few years earlier at BIF with his moving Jewish chants set to voice messages from people about to die in the 9/11 attacks.)

Stowe Boyd is a “work futurist” who coined the term hashtag. He said ism’s are holding us back. Anywhereism is about mandating work anywhere, Boyd said. But most companies are actually decreasing square footage of offices to save money, even if many people are less happy and less productive in open spaces. Airspace, he noted, bring similar open plans, glass walls, communal table-desks, high ceilings and artisan touches not only to offices, but also to cafes, hotels and home. Workism and the cult of leadership go back to the fact that organizations are not democratic. Horizontalism suggests that a bossless organizational model would seem to liberate us, but, Boyd suggested, moving away from hierarchy without making other changes is like a mob tearing down a dictator’s statue, but not ousting dictator himself. It’s just a new business model where we become managers and the managed. Techism tells us that using more tools, we’ll be more productive, but we’re actually less productive.

Darden Smith, an Austin, Texas-based singer, is the founder and creative director of SongwritingWith:Soldiers. He sang and played guitar at the BIF summit. Folky, he made references to hearing Bruce Springsteen as a kid, being influenced by Dylan and Elvis Costello. But he said (repeatedly) that he doesn’t believe in cynicism anymore; he believes in love. (Never mind that smart cynicism empowered those musical heroes!)

New starts

Coss Marte started selling pot at 13, then other drugs. He said he came up with a different way to sell drugs. He and his 20 or so assistants all started wearing suits, and the operation grew to be a multimillion-dollar business. Then he got busted and ended up jailed in a 9’x6’ cell. Told by doctors that he was dangerously overweight, he started working out and lost 70 pounds in six months. After his release, he developed a unique fitness program based on the one that had worked for him in prison. With that program, he launched a prison-style fitness bootcamp on the Lower East Side of Manhattan called ConBody. He built his own gym to look like a prison cell and staffed the operation with other formerly incarcerated people. To scale up, he then began offering online videos, where he said, exercisers can feel safe learning from a convict who’s not physically there.

Roberto Rivera, president and “lead change agent” of The Good Life Alliance, spoke of how he went from being a dope dealer to being a hope dealer. He found out he was learning disabled, which he came to see as learning differently. Rivera started his own clothing line. Did a rap: I know you love it/freestyle here at the storyteller summit. He created his own major at the University of Wisconsin-Madison called “Social Change, Youth Culture, and the Arts.” “And this person who was told he was LD is now getting his Ph.D in education.” As he noted, “Standard educational goals can produce high-achievers who go to Ivy League schools, earn their MBAs, join blue-chip corporations, and devise brilliant financial schemes that build immense wealth for the few on Wall Street, and chaos for everyone else. … We want all kids on both sides of the gap to have a moral compass, to think critically, and to make the institutions that they’re a part of and the communities that they serve to be more just and more humane.”

Kare Anderson was diagnosed as “phobically shy” as a child. Classmates prevailed on her to run for student body president in fourth grade. She said she won because students had less positive views about the two other contenders (a cautionary tale?). She is a “synesthete”—a person who sees colors when she hears sounds and that she has no sense of direction. She felt out of sync in many situations and was overly sensitive to stimuli. The upside is that the way her brain works has allowed her to help others go “lower and slower” as they become accessible to those around them and ask lot of questions. That questioning habit led her to a successful job as a reporter with the Wall Street Journal.

BIF chief catalyst Saul Kaplan reminded attendees that storytelling is a superpower you must have for innovation. After two days (and six years) of great stories, I suffered from what Kaplan termed BIF-induced insomnia. Here are some of my pieces on past BIF conferences …

BIF and the Brains

No. 9 … No. 9 … No. 9 (Rebels, Rabbis and Stories on Innovation from BIF-9)

Tales from the BIF

Tell Me Another One: More Stories from the Business Innovation Factory

Tell Me a Story: Reporting from the BIF-6 Conference in Providence 

John O. Harney is executive editor of The New England Journal of Higher Education.

(Cross-published on JOH NEJHE blog by John O. Harney.)

Painting of “Tuning the Fisherman’s Toy Piano” by Montserrat College professor Timothy Harney


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