Tales from the BIF

By John O. Harney

Click here for videos of BIF-8 storytellers!

The Business Innovation Factory (BIF) held its eighth annual collaborative innovation summit on Sept. 19 and 20 in Providence, and the key, as always, was the art of storytelling. No themes, said summit facilitator and BIF founder and “chief catalyst” Saul Kaplan. You decide which connections you can make, he told the 400-plus attendees.

Granted, going to a BIF summit is a bit like a visit to a shrink. Lots of platitudes about how good it is to fail, and chants like “Connect. Inspire. Transform.” A Swiss guy sitting next to me said, it’s kind of like a “church.” And a little focus-groupish, I thought. Just below me, Dean Meyers was sketching the proceedings—a very BIFy touch. Still, the summits always feature enlightening storytellers. Among them:

MIT professor Sherry Turkle is the author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. She told of being asked during a recent panel discussion if someone should feel guilty about not wanting to talk to the checkout guy at Trader Joe’s. It seems the questioner saw the time checking out at the trendy grocery chain as her opportunity to catch up on any email she’d missed. But the Trader Joe’s clerk wanted to talk—what Turkle saw as good old-fashioned conversation, even customer service. Turkle broke with the other panelists—manners experts—by suggesting that the questioner go ahead and talk to the checkout guy, reminding her that CVS stores have already replaced checkout clerks with machines. Apple’s Siri takes it even further, she noted, teaching us how to have a conversation, even take advice, from a source that has never experienced a human feeling. Turkle warned that technology appeals to us most where we are most vulnerable—it offers the illusion of companionship without the burdens of friendship.

Darrel Hammond is the co-founder of the nonprofit KaBOOM. Hammond told of how he and his seven siblings became wards of the state when their father left and their mother could no longer care for them. A tough tale of foster care? Not completely. They were raised at a camp outside Chicago, where, among other things, there was a 1,200-acre lawn to run on and countless trees to climb. Now, in an era when just one in five kids lives within walking distance of a public park or playground, and school recess is being cut back, Hammond has become a crusader for play. Play, he noted, is the foundation for learning, as kids work out differences with others who don’t look or speak like them … and it’s fun. Many of us put kids in organized sports, he said, but where’s the creativity when there’s an adult with a whistle? His KaBOOM initiative gathers volunteers to build playgrounds in a single day focusing primarily on so-called “play deserts.”

The health care field has been particularly immune to innovation in service, aside from ever-fancier medical procedures, according to Nancy M. Schlichting, CEO of Henry Ford Health Systems in Detroit. A lot of administrative people are not sensitive to the patient, she said. She called on organizations to look for “disruptive” people, like the surgeon who suggested placing kiosks focused on health and wellness at churches, or the chair of urology who came to her with the idea to adapt robotic technology for prostate cancer patients, or the nurse who draws inspirational sayings on disposable gowns that the staff wears, knowing the gown will be thrown away when the work is done. She cited Gerard van Grinsven, a former Ritz-Carlton manager, who now leads the chain’s West Bloomfield Hospital, which includes not only the latest medical equipment and practices, but also luxury hotel amenities, excellent cuisine, a day spa and an indoor farmer’s market. Recognizing that hospitals can’t pick up and leave the communities where they are anchors, Henry Ford Health has embarked on community partnerships such as providing incentives for employees to live in Detroit.

Mike Harsh said when he was a kid, he’d build things in his basement out of junk parts his Navy father would bring home. He didn’t know the math behind any of it, but the things he made, worked. He went to college for material sciences, but wanted to get back to electronics. He was faced with a career choice: design missiles for one of the growing aerospace firms or go to GE Healthcare. He chose the latter for what he thought would be a short experiment, but he has stayed there 33 years, designing nuclear cameras and developing CT scans. Innovation happens at the intersection of disciplines, he said, and some people will always say, “That’ll never work.” People thought ultrasounds would not work. Harsh showed the BIF crowd the progress from early ultrasounds that looked like blurry windshields, to ultramodern instruments using carbon 13 showing light to trace tissue abnormalities.

Robin Chase, founder of Zipcar, explained how the car-sharing company helps the environment because people often sell their own cars, and then drive less in the rentals where they pay by the hour. She has also spoke of introducing buzzcar in France, in which individuals rent their own cars to their neighbors. An upside is that the owner of the car and the borrower might get tips on restaurants, find baby seats installed—all human niceties you won’t find with a car-rental business like Enterprise. It’s peer-to-peer—a big BIF theme. We can solve world’s problems with such open-innovation platforms for participation, Chase said. As examples, she cited carpooling.com of Germany, which moves a million people a month; fiverr offering small services for $5 and up; Topcoder advancing digital open innovation; and Etsy, the marketplace for things people make themselves.

Jeffrey Sparr said his Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) was so bad he’d have the feeling of turning around in a busy airport to find his two-year-old child missing. But he’d have that anxiety all the time. Plus compulsions. During a particularly desperate episode, Sparr tried painting and, lo and behold, he noticed he felt better. He painted obsessively, he said, like the way Forest Gump started running. Pieces included ½ of Daddy, depicting himself only half there for his children, and PeaceLove, which he hopes will do for mental illness what the LiveStrong bracelet has done for cancer. PeaceLove Studios was established by Sparr and a partner to build the first positive symbol for mental illness. One in four people suffer from some kind of mental illness, he noted, and two of three don’t get the help they need due to stigma. Sparr also coined the term “Wear Share Experience” to create a platform so people could share their stories of mental illness in a celebratory way.

Hillary Salmons spoke of creating a learning world for middle-schoolers through the Providence After School Alliance, which she directs. Besides being the lustiest years for young people, middle-school time is the most robust in terms of asking questions. With brain development in full throttle, these are years we should be tapping, instead of wasting. Moreover, Providence has the third highest child poverty rate in the U.S. One solution has been “AfterZones: a mix of creative, intellectual and physical events with community partners built on a coordinated schedules for the whole city of Providence The police chief got cops to come in for sports. In the third year, teachers started to want to be involved. One offered to teach horseback riding. There was no obvious place to ride, so the police chief offered the police stables. Salmons said the program formed partnerships between informal afterschool educators and formal educators, using inquiry-based STEM learning with groups such as the Audubon Society of Rhode Island. All boats started to rise.

Science photographer Felice Frankel, a research scientist at MIT’s Center for Materials Science and Engineering, touted visualization. She spoke about No Small Matter, a book she co-authored with scientist George Whitesides on nanotechnology. The book refers to an information processor connected by wires that are only 1,000 atoms wide. Frankel shared a print she did on acetate using a flatbed scanner to show a nanotube cylinder with details showing electron clouds. Creating the representation made me learn about it, she noted, adding that visualizing reveals misconceptions. We should start drawing collaboratively, she said, and bring this strategy to schools. I don’t draw personally, she added, but I see the power of it. She also championed using photos as metaphors, citing as an example a photo of empty seats at a graduation ceremony to represent the difficult-to-represent notion of cell assembly.

Jeff Lieberman mesmerized the BIF audience with a time-lapsed photo of a drop of water as he described his work as host of Discovery Channel’s Time Warp. The only thing an infant pays attention to is what’s right in front of them, he told the BIF audience. Yet adults standing in line are uncomfortable because they’re thinking of where they’d rather be. People are living longer, but with more stress, he said. He cited a Harvard study showing that about half the time people’s minds are not on what they’re doing. He observed how different that is from being an infant, when no alternatives exist to distract the mind, or from being in deep sleep before waking up and beginning “self-created suffering” as the mind gets hung up on categorizing and theorizing the world around it.

Carol Coletta, president of CEOs for Cities, noted that three things attract people to communities: social offerings, openness and aesthetics. She cited a New York Times article arguing that even the Champs-Élysées feels like nowhere because it feels like everywhere. Even bike-sharing and local food movements have moved from fringe movements by citizens to mass consciousness. The global elite used to sit on the boards of local museums and other charities. But now they own second and third homes and effortlessly move between them. When you divide yourself between multiple houses, she wondered, what do you call home?

Carne Ross told of his journey from British diplomat to something of an “anarchist.” While working at the UN for the United Kingdom, he called the Iraq War illegal, putting his future employment in question. In 2004, he founded Independent Diplomat, to help fledgling states such as Kosovo operate in international halls of power. Today, the world is not a chessboard, Ross said. It’s more like a Jackson Pollock painting. No government can track that and know what’s going on. What might work instead, he suggested, is agent-led change. He pointed to the “Porto Alegre experiment” in Brazil showing, as he wrote in The Nation, that “mass participation in decision-making has succeeded in deliberating the affairs of a city, and the results clearly indicate more equal provision of services, better environmental protection and an improved political culture, one that is open, nonpartisan and uncorrupted.”

Andrew Hessel is a “genomic futurist.” In 1990, scientists had analyzed one genome of a virus. By 2000, they had completed the genome of bacteria and humans. Now, genomic synthesizing technology has unlocked genetic engineering, allowing us all to be genetic engineers. In 2004, MIT started to teach undergrads (whom Hessel analogized to undifferentiated stem cells) how to use genomic synthesizing. The living cell is far more complex than an electronic computer, and the cell self-manufactures. Programming it will control food supplies, create new drugs and build renewable fuels.

Jeremy Heimans runs Purpose, a home for movement-building. Recently, Purpose incubated the global gay rights movement. He showed the BIF audience a photo of a homemade sign, reading: “’I’m very much in love with you’ Free Roger” to protest the arrest of a man in Cameroon for sending a note proclaiming his love for another man. As a child, Heimans captured attention trying to counter the Cold War. After finding the UN and nonprofit sector too inefficient, and McKinsey & Co., efficient but not aligned with his politics, he moved on to Oxford, where he again became antsy. Drawn to action, he campaigned against the first Gulf War using faxes and the second one using the Internet.

Teny Gross, the Israeli-born director of the Institute of the Study & Practice of Nonviolence in Providence, told of working to end street violence in Boston during the Hub’s cracked 1990s, when the number of murders passed 150 one year (compared to about 30 a year now). Today, his streetworkers include former leaders of the Latin Kings and other gangs who teach young people to stay out of trouble. We need to recycle them into the economy as was done in Belfast, he said, adding that the leader of peace in Israel today is a former soldier. People who were written off are now productive.

Consultant Susan Schuman said she loves helping companies transform. (Starbucks, IBM, etc.) But how do you drive transformation at scale. Her “Unstuck” app helps individuals bring their best selves to work. She has expanded the model to focus on teams via Teamworks. Organizations have become good at managing the top and the bottom of their workforce but not the “forgotten middle.” Schuman said her first job was on the “Newton” project at Apple, which failed. No one was teaching her, she said. She took the experience and created a company to deal with people in the middle. We think of business as rational. But it’s not only rational. It’s also human and personal. People come to work when they’re sick, cranky, etc. We have to bring the human element into work.

In offering his M.O., Dave Gray said: You are always in the middle of something. You have to put it out there. He cited Google and Amazon as successful examples of innovators that are always starting in the middle. When Gray’s company was acquired by DachisGroup, he was concerned because he knew that 70% of change initiatives fail. Besides DachisGroup was a “social business”; Gray wasn’t sure what that meant. At BIF, he used illustrations from Are You My Mother to show him asking “What is a social business?” He started a blog, and became known as a “getting things done” blogger. People kept asking, “Do you have a book?” (Which gave Gray the opportunity to tell a joke at BIF about two professors meeting after not seeing each other for many years. One asks the other, what have you been up to? The second one says I’m writing a book. To which, the first one answers: “Neither am I.”)

Lara Lee, chief innovation and operating officer at Continuum, described the difficult challenge of helping Pampers enter China. Many people in China live in extended families and use cloth diapers and split pants, so didn’t need disposable diapers. Lee’s firm helped position Pampers as allowing more sleep for parents.

Tony Hsieh, founder of Zappos and author of Delivering Happiness, told of looking at new campuses in the Fremont East section of Las Vegas—a very community-focused neighborhood that many people wouldn’t think of as being in Vegas. Zappos added ROC (return on community) to its mission. Among other things, Hsieh is partnering with venture for America—like Teach for America, but for entrepreneurs—and offering free hotel rooms, which have led to serendipitous connections and collisions.

And then there were the obligatory precocious teenagers. Last year, 14-year-old mountain climber Matthew Moniz spoke of climbing the highest peaks on seven continents and all 50 U.S. states in honor of his best friend who has Primary Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension. This year, the public-spirited teens included Nicholas Lowinger, a 14-year-old who started the Gotta Have Sole Foundation to give shoes to homeless kids and Rachel Shuster, the 16-year-old founder of Kids Care HHH, which offers club models for public service.

To be sure, the young people are a bit confident for their age, but at BIF, they are more than just an affectation; they are the future of innovation.

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

Related Posts:

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 Midway and the Men Who Stole Dolph’s Dog” by Montserrat College professor Timothy Harney.



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