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

By John O. Harney

A few hundred people packed the Trinity Rep theater in downtown Providence Wednesday, Sept. 15, and Thursday, Sept. 16, with ears and minds open. More than a dozen entrepreneurs and artists told stories of how they used innovation and social technologies to help solve problems from protecting mothers in childbirth to cleaning up unwanted graffiti to turning grease into fuel.

Much of the Business Innovation Factory’s sixth annual collaborative innovation summit was based on the dying art of storytelling. Indeed, BIF boasts that the summit contains no powerpoints, no talking heads—just good stories. And they were inspiring stories indeed.

Among the highlights:

• Sayantani DasGupta explains that before doctors had CAT scans, they used their humanity. Now two things must be side by side in the doc’s black bag: the ability to read a scan and the ability to read a patient’s story. DasGupta tells her med students to dig up patients’ stories as part of administering care. Sayantani DasGupta

• John Hagel, co-chair of Deloitte LLP’s Center for the Edge, focuses on “passion.” Hagel’s research suggests that just 20% of U.S. workers are “passionate.” The larger the institution, the less the passion. People who lack passion at work, he says, try to move past unexpected challenges and get back to what was their regular task. Hagel started writing because he didn’t want to interact with people face to face. But people who shared his passions started seeking him out. The lesson, he says: You have to express vulnerability in order to build long-lasting trust-based relationships. John Hagel

Rita King began her career as a journalist reporting on the relationship between corporations and government and issues in digital identity. She is now Innovator-in Residence at IBM’s Analytics Virtual Center. She is working on a program called “Understanding Islam Through Virtual Worlds.” People think the virtual worlds are full of sex, King says, but as in real life: You get what you are looking for. She was looking for and found virtual places of prayer. She confronted questions such as: Is it OK to wear digital shoes in a mosque in a virtual world such as Second Life? Breaking through barriers is easier in Second Life than it is in physical life, she says, as she shows an image of a man setting himself on fire in protest. You couldn’t do that in real life without hurting yourself and others, she notes. Rita King

• Babson College President Leonard A. Schlesinger observes that infants view things with an open mind. As they learn more, they get better at predicting responses to actions, awareness gets narrower and deeper, and people begin to think they can optimize their lives. But then it just gets all screwed-up and we face unknowability. Rather than fight the current reality of fixed physical location and “170 people with lifetime employment,” Babson capitalizes on being ranked the #1 school for “entrepreneurship.” Babson’s method of teaching entrepreneurship is an antidote to centralized industrial planning, Schlesinger says; it creates jobs and advances social change for women and distressed communities. Leonard A. Schlesinger

Don Tapscott joined the gathering by Skype due to an injury. His latest book is Macroeconomics. Convinced that “the industrial economy has run out of gas,” Tapscott says we need to re-create institutions and pillars that grew from the industrial economy, just as people did a few-hundred years ago with the arrival of the printing press (which Martin Luther called an example of god’s grace). Moreover, the nation-state turns out to be the wrong size to solve problems, Tapscott says.

• Glen Merfeld, manager of the Chemical Energy Systems Laboratory at GE, has spent the past several years developing all kinds of batteries, but especially the sodium metal halide kind. This new type of battery promises to store three times more energy than an acid battery with five times the length of performance. While the battery may have potential use in passenger vehicles, it is currently being developed for a GE hybrid locomotive, which Merfeld calls a “200 ton Prius.” Glen Merfeld

• Peter Hartwell, a senior researcher at Hewlett-Packard Laboratories in Palo Alto, Calif., talks about innovating inside one of the world’s biggest companies. He is working to make a vastly more sensitive sensor that he thinks will save the world. This “Central Nervous System for the Earth” could collect data to give the polar bear a sensor so he can report that it’s getting warmer in his environment, Hartwell says, put a node on a tree to measure rainforest health, or put a sensor on an aging bridge to show it’s weakening. He notes that if we could outfit buildings with sensors to turn off lights when someone isn’t in a room, that would save more energy than switching incandescent bulbs to LED. He also suggests that 14% of energy in the U.S. is used in streetlights, and asks: Could we get rid of streetlights without compromising safety and security? Peter Hartwell

• John Winsor is co-founder of Victors & Spoils, the first creative ad agency built on crowdsourcing principles. Among other things, he created the intelligent bike rental companies now operating in some cities. His son is an airplane buff, sketching airplanes like a lot of kids draw firetrucks. When he insisted on sending his drawings to Boeing, the airplane giant shot back a cold, impersonal no thanks. Winsor wrote a blog protesting Boeing’s mistreatment of his son’s recommendation for plane designs and urging companies to open their minds. Social technology prevailed. Boeing apologized and changed its policy on accepting ideas from kids. But Winsor’s son by then had changed his passion (temporarily) to RVs.

• Twelve-year old Cassandra Lin of Westerly, R.I., explains the award-winning recycling program she and her friends created that generates fuel for needy people in her community. The recycling program, called Project T.G.I.F. (Turn Grease into Fuel), encourages residents to bring their used cooking oil to the town transfer station to be recycled. Cassandra Lin

• Ben Berkowitz talked about his experience getting local government in New Haven, Conn, to clean up graffiti. He set up a web-based map for people to use in reporting potholes and graffiti. Soon, he asked a group of workers cleaning up graffiti what it was that made them come clean up the scribbling now after all the years. “Our boss got an alert from this website,” one said. The lesson: If you see something that’s broken, say something and see what happens. Ben Berkowitz

• Dale Dougherty, GM of the Maker Media division of O’Reilly Media Inc., told the story of creating a mill in Napa Valley, Calif., in the 1840s. He discussed the Oliver Evans book, a 1700s user guide called The Young Mill-Wright and Miller’s Guide which lists the names of subscribers (supporters really) including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. “That list was a social network of its day … it told you who else had this information and cared about it … the Napa Valley didn’t have a Walmart to go buy a mill or skilled millwrights to build a mill.” Dougherty says it’s the same at O’Reilly Media where the publisher got to know who’s reading their books. Dougherty publishes a magazine called Make: technology on your time … a do-it-yourself magazine. Makers are “playing” with technology; this is how you learn. It’s a “garage band prototype” with no formal education required; you just get started with friends who are similarly passionate. Dale Dougherty

• BIF Exec Melissa Withers, acknowledging that her job doesn’t fit in a box, says when someone asks her at a barbecue what she does, it leads to a long story. Withers jokes that the pattern on her Scantron test meant to suggest careers based on answers to questions marked with a No. 2 pencil spells out “WTF”—a testament to the new 140-character limit. Withers shows attendees BIF’s guiding  principle: “Get off the whiteboard and into the real world.” She points out the the summit is loaded with students because “that’s how we roll.” In fact, through its Student Experience Lab, BIF has packaged its conversations with students and made them available free—a powerful way to reorient conversation in education around the student instead of around the institutions. Melissa Withers

• Bruce Nussbaum, formerly of Business Week and  now professor of Innovation and Design at the New School, wonders why designers complain about lack of respect instead of solving problems like health care. The design field, he acknowledges, has been expanded to include doing. Design has gone from art-oriented to “innovation” or in some ways, “creativity” or “social creativity” which anyone can learn. Bruce Nussbaum

• Contemporary abstract artist Marla Allison, a member of Laguna Pueblo, finds comfort in making her art and connecting with family, tradition and the inspiration her community provides. She shows an image of her work called “Tell Us a Story,” depicting a child amidst a melange of signs and a TV screen with static image, which Allison quips, as an aside, “you almost never see anymore.” So tell your story, she says. Marla Allison

• Next is rocket scientist Richard Satava. Among other images, he shows a high-tech appendix removal done without incisions with the organ removed out the patient’s mouth. He shows a robot that can move like a person, then reassemble itself back into a car. Richard Satava

• Kim Scheinberg, an editor, tells of an evergreen investment fund she and her friend started, which leaves it up to entrepreneurs to choose the second round of investments. Scheinberg turned down some deals and, in the process, realized she had integrity. Kim Scheinberg

Gerard van Grinsven, who was a Ritz Carlton vp for many years, spoke of the opportunity he’s had to change health care by creating a hospital that people would actually want to be in. He read the book Blue Ocean Strategies and realized he wanted to be the cirque de soleil of health care. Then he read The Power of the Purse about how powerful women are in purchasing decisions. In Michigan, he and partners built the hospital designed as a lodge with private rooms only, which he says speeds up healing, and a commitment not to wake patients between 11 p.m. and 5:30 a.m. He sent architects to northern Michigan towns to recreate the Main Street feeling, allowing nature into the room. No more cold feeling. Every day, hundreds of people who have no business at the clinic come to eat the top-of-the-line food. Gerard van Grinsven

• Responding to the lament that we’re taught you have to “grow, grow, grow,” Jason Fried says the problem is people don’t stop at the “right size.” For some, staying small and manageable means they can try more things. We don’t think we should hire in anticipation of needing people, but rather, we should feel the pain first. “People don’t go to work anymore to work,” he says. “They go to work to be interrupted,” he says. “So we built an environment that’s all about silence, like a library.” He prefers the word “startup” to “entrepreneur.” He adds that emulating chefs, who do cooking shows and write cookbooks, is a great way to get the word out. “Social media helps too, as long as you have something to say.” Jason Fried

• Jacob Colker describes how you get people to volunteer for nonprofits. With the amount of human energy we spend on Facebook, we could build 55 Empire State Buildings a day. Crowdsourcing for social impact works. We’re now adding tags to Library of Congress photos to make them available to general public. Also during the Haiti earthquake, we used Flickr comparing faces in photos with news photos. Jacob Colker

• Meg Wirth runs maternova. She notes that except for HIV, giving birth is the most prevalent way women die in Africa, Asia and much of Latin America. She says she needed an Evernote (but there was no such thing) on everything happening in maternal care, mapping clinics, showing tools, protocols, etc. She shows one image of a solar-powered vaccine cooler fitted on back of camel. She urges equipping docs kits with mobile phone chargers and headlamps for deliveries at night. Meg Wirth

• Hollywood writer and producer Jana Sue Memel now runs a class called “Hollywood Way” where she teaches corporate executives to connect with audiences through the use of stories rather than putting them to sleep with powerpoints. Her work ultimately won three Oscars, started 60 people out as directors and broke barriers for people of color and women. Jana Sue Memel

That’s innovation.

(Originally published Sept. 18, 2010 on JOH NEJHE Blog by John O. Harney.)


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