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

By John O. Harney

I was at Providence’s Trinity Rep last week covering the Business Innovation Factory’s (BIF’s) summit of innovators—BIF’s ninth, my fourth. The lineup of speakers—“storytellers” in BIF parlance—included puppeteers, rebels at work, an innovative rabbi, educators and assorted other visionaries. The audience: about 400 self-assessed innovators, some with job titles like Chief Sorceress and Disruptor. The BIF theme: mix design talent with humanitarian instincts, and voila, you just might get a socially conscious hot brand. The mantra: “enable random collisions between unusual suspects.”
It’s all a bit cultish to be sure … but the stories are fascinating and inspiring.

Among the most memorable from BIF-9 …

Evan Ratliff is a journalist who could rescue long-form journalism. He wanted to write a story about people who reinvent themselves. He decided to fake his own death, sold his car, changed his hairstyle several times (“because you have to go all in”), went on the run and mostly off the grid except for some Tweets. Wired magazine offered $5,000 for anyone who could find him, as long as they broke no laws doing it. “The Search of Evan Ratliff” group was posted on Facebook, featuring maps and diagrams.

Eventually, someone found him, but Ratliff and friends came up with the idea for a platform called “Creativist” to do storytelling without limits. Using the Creativist software, writers can fold into their narratives multiple types of media: character profiles, maps, timelines, videos, audio clips, photography. It could revive the dying art of long-form journalism online—a far cry from “the short and anxious newswriting style that has become standard on the web in the last 20 years.” It’s not just about getting people to your website and having them leave, says Ratliff. Creativist publishes its own pieces and allows people to use the software to tell long stories—“e-singles” meant to be sold to readers for downloading to mobile devices or e-readers. Everywhere people are looking for ways to tell long stories. If you appeal to better side of audience, says Ratliff, the people who care about it will be more loyal.

Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) is not reacting to the massive change going on in higher education; he’s leading it. LeBlanc says the U.S. suffers from twin curses: historical inequity and low social mobility. He says there is more class inequity in the U.S. than in several European countries and less social mobility. His parents had eighth-grade educations when they immigrated to the U.S. from Canada, but his daughters are going to Oxford and Stanford. Education is the key reason for mobility, he says, noting the Great Gatsby Curve that shows people’s mobility compared with their parents. But, he adds, higher ed has hardly changed since medieval cathedral schools. Students used to take for granted that their higher education was pretty good and that they’d get a job at the end of it. But they don’t take that for granted anymore. Most college tours today talk about “coming of age stuff’ like dorm life and so on.

Conversely, SNHU’s College for America targets the bottom 10% of wage earners. It offers the only competency-based degree program approved by the U.S. Department of Education, based not on numbers of credits but on competencies: what the student can do. Students can go as slow or fast as they like. It follows the philosophy of Nobel prizewinner Muhammad Yunus who rethought banks to focus on small and go out to the customer, rather than requiring customers to come to the bank; now SNHU has rethought the credit hour.

Carmen Medina worked three decades at the CIA before retiring as a heretic. She sees a “worldwide conspiracy for the preservation of mediocrity” … not just at the CIA, but at lots of workplaces that have “large organization disease.” Medina wondered why no one was helping rebels at work to become better rebels. She co-founded Rebels at Work to help heretics like her challenge Bureaucratic Black Belts and prepare for conflict, especially constructive conflict. Now at Deloitte Consulting, Medina counts financing and national security among fields that desperately need to rethink paradigms. She used to say “optimism is the greatest form of rebellion,” until she noticed Tea Party groups retweeting it.

What’s an eighth-generation rabbi doing at BIF? Rabbi Irwin Kula, a “religious innovator” according to Fast Company, says it’s not clear how religion will fit in with all the transformation the summit focuses on. In surveys, about a third of adults say they’re not religious, and many do not contact clergy, even for funerals. What the world needs now, says Kula, are “early moral adopters” who think deeply about wisdom and compassion. He tells of assembling cellphone messages from passengers and families on 9/11 that lackedthe feelings of revenge sweeping some places at the time. He set the messages to hauntingly loving chants.

BIF founder and “chief catalyst” Saul Kaplan convened a conversation with Fast Company founder Bill Taylor and Zappos founder and CEO Tony Hsieh. Taylor, who did an estimated 80 talks last year, says he always looks forward to BIF to hear new vocabulary like sharetakers and marketmakers. (Of course, you don’t have to go to BIF to hear new management terms.) Hsieh offered an update on the Zappos-led Downtown Project to enliven Las Vegas. The effort includes investing in 100 to 200 small businesses and the BIFFy idea that encouraging collisions will work better to boost Vegas life than megaprojects like the sports stadiums tried to stimulate other cites. Hsieh had 1,500 people cut the ribbon as Zappos moved into the former city hall in Vegas. He is now attracting bands and creative chefs to city, as well as a speaker series.

Mary Flanagan is a game designer and founder of the gaming research lab Tiltfactor, which designs games around topics such as public health, layoffs, GMO crops and other social challenges. Players use collaborative strategy, and the extent to which a player wins is positively correlated to the success of other players. Flanagan designed a game about the Nile, but a lot of players just tried to get to the end of the river in a boat as if it were a racing game—not what Flanagan had hoped. A professor of digital humanities at Dartmouth, Flanagan offers some historical bits: when Atari consoles were big in the early 80s, a surprising 40% were sold to girls. It was 1993 is when games became shooting games. On a more personal note, games, including card games, allowed her to dream big as a child and connect with her family. Moreover, playing games models systems-thinking very well, Flanagan says. A game she designed called Pox: Save the People was explored as a way to stop the spread of diseases. Tiltfactor then began research on the play and learning outcomes of how a zombie narrative compares with the original Pox game.

Alexander Tsiaras, CEO of Anatomical Travelogue, introduces The VisualMD, which he characterizes as NIH (National Institutes of Health) meets Pixar. The project collects tons of data, then tells stories with the data. For example, it uses visualization to show kidney disease. “The visualization of the hidden parts of the body is a much more potent way to motivate health living than what any medical authority tell us,” he says. He and partners created an ecosystem that guides people who have been diagnosed with kidney disease. As records are input, contextualizes them with info on how a person is diagnosed and treated. Big data are broken down to tell the story elegantly in a way that is not intimidating. People can annotate the data, share it for second opinions and consider themselves at the molecular level before conditions advance too far. “You don’t want any part of your body to be a mystery,” says Tsiaras.

While working as a speechwriter for Joe Biden, Andrew Mangino asked a D.C. student from Bangladesh what his passions were. The child looked blankly; he’d never been asked that. Mangino notes that America has an Inspiration Gap … it’s solvable but it’s going to take a movement. Mangino and his friends built The Future Project. Launched on 9/11/11 with hundreds of people in three cities. One idea was to create Dream Directors in schools (16 in four cities). He shows a video depicting a student proclaiming” “I am Perfect.” It was the largest education initiative launch since Teach for America.

Performance artist Ermino Pingque takes the stage and electrifies the nearly-century-old theater with his cartoon-style gibberish, foamy puppet outfits and sharp humor. The masked and costumed man talks of transforming himself with no business plan. But he’s very funny. He shows his doodles, which led him toward performance as Big Nazo.

Among other BIF-9 storytellers:

Easton LaChappelle, 17 years old tells of designing a robot hand when he was 14, controlled by a glove originally intended for gaming (a big BIF theme). A sensor on the fingertips tells the user how hard to grasp an egg for example.  LaChappelle speaks of using 3D printing to develop a prosthetic arm. He is now making an exoskeleton with extra strength. (3D printing is another big BIF theme—and I still don’t get it.)

Air Force Staff Sgt. Stacy Pearsall was wounded twice in Iraq and had a traumatic brain injury, but she carried the most powerful weapon possible: the camera. It’s a role where the natural temptation for fight or flight has to be suppressed to take pictures. She is now fighting for VA treatment. She has taken to photographing veterans and writing books on photojournalism: Shooter: Combat from Behind the Camera, and, A Photojournalist’s Field Guide: In the Trenches with Combat Photographer Stacy Pearsall. She also founded Charlestown Center for Photography, where she teaches her art.

Howard Lindzon tells of living in an era of “social leverage” just as we have lived in a world of “financial leverage” till that got thrown out the window. In 2008, no one was talking about Facebook or Twitter. Also, punch your banker and hug your developer (meaning tech developer), or maybe punch your developer and hug your designer. Connect the dots—meet people like Easton LaChappelle. Big hedge funds aren’t connecting the dots; they don’t know people like Easton. They know about stock market but not about innovators. You don’t need inside info to know these are the early days for 3D printing.

Stanford University Neurosurgeon James Doty reminds listeners that being compassionate has a significant effect on the occurrence of disease, severity of disease and length of disease. Growing up in poverty, with alcoholics in his family and a brother who died of AIDS, he says he has witnessed what institutions do that can bring despair. But through that experience of suffering, he realized he was a humanist and a feminist. “It is our lot as humans to suffer but it is also our lot to care and soothe,” he says. When someone is authentic and connects with others, that is when they thrive. Their immune system is boosted.

Ping Fu was 8 years old during China’s Cultural Revolution. Her father was sent to hard labor. She started studying programming. She is now chief strategy officer at 3D Systems, where she is 3D printing Smithsonian pieces for the National Mall. In fact, she had 3D printed the loud pink wedges she wore on her feet as she addressed the crowd at BIF. Her technology also ended up being used on Space Shuttle Discovery—a special thrill for a programmer who wanted to be an astronaut as a child.

Speaking of astronauts, Dava Newman is an aeronautics professor at MIT trying to develop lighter spacesuits, so eventual Mars explorers will avoid the muscles injuries caused by currently very heavy spacesuits and be able to put all their energy into successful exploration, not fighting the suit. It’s like modern-day Tang. The same technology could be used to help kids with cerebral palsy move better. Newman is looking back at experimental skintight suits from 70s, as well as Electrospun materials from MIT and technology similar to kids’ Chinese finger traps for seals in spacesuits.

Scott Heimendinger notes that it used to be not cool to be into what you were into, but that’s changing. Now the self-proclaimed food geek who’s into “modernist cuisine” writes food blogs. He started with a simple Scott’s Food Blog showing, for example, sandwiches he liked. One day he bought a strangely cooled egg that turned out to be “sous vide” … cooked in a sealed plastic bag in warm water. From there, he was able to approach cooking like an engineer. But if you wanted to cook sous vide at home you needed a $1,200 piece of immersion equipment. He used kickstarter to raise money for the sous vide circulator. He renamed his blog Seattle Food Geek. “I found the right pond,” he says.

Bruce Nussbaum tells of bringing design ideas to Business Week. When I was doing book signing, one thing people wanted to share with me was “I’m creative, but my boss isn’t. What can I do about it?” He says Google is successful because it embodies the values of its generation. We know that people with tattoos aren’t just outlaws as we once saw them; they’re getting married and having children.

Paul van Zyl speaks of a Chinese company finding a cheaper way to weave Indian silk weaving. But like Italian and French luxury items, the Indian silk was valued based on being done with human hands. Van Zyl and partners have designed a way to bring the tradition to scale and offer a good workspace.

We too often divide things into pure evil and pure good, says Grant Garrison as he shows a slide of Gordon Gecko and Mother Theresa. People don’t want to separate their lives doing bad during the day and good afterwards. Garrison is strategic director of GOOD/CORPS, whose mission is to “partner with brands and organizations to help them do the same by transforming the values at the core of their identity into actionable solutions that improve both their business and the world.” Among other things, Garrison has worked with the Nature Conservancy on an initiative to get tourists to the Caribbean to take a stake in protecting the nature there.

Perhaps the loudest round of applause came for Heather Abbott, a victim of the Boston marathon bombing, explaining her prosthetic legs … an innovation on the move.

Here is some coverage of past BIF conferences …

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

Painting of “The Circus Thieves” by Montserrat College professor Timothy Harney.


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