All Images Courtesy of The Economist
What is it with 'ideas conferences' these days?
Inspired by leading forums like Davos and TED, there is an oversupply of cross-disciplinary events that clash writers, futurists, executives and entrepreneurs together. The perceived value of taking time out to absorb unusual ideas and hobnob knows no bounds.
In spite of their popularity, it hasn't gone unnoticed that many exhibit a certain intellectual vagueness, lack of focus and elitist undercurrent. This year's Big Rethink, although backed by The Economist's clout, followed this trend with a woolly program on the importance of ideas to business.
Whereas last year's event offered up design thinking as an approach for leaders looking for new solutions, this year's event turned the mirror on business to demonstrate its understanding of the world today and the new approaches being taken to generate and implement game-changing big ideas.
So how did they fare? In short, just as there was little actual design thinking on display last year, the big ideas at this year's Rethink were few and far between. I was left pondering two questions: why are big businesses not better at re-imagining what they do; and what role do designers have to play?
David Butler (Coca-Cola) and Vijay Vaitheeswaran (The Economist)
Implementation over imagination
In contrast to the day's premise, speakers from P&G, Diageo and Coke declared that they weren't much in search of big new ideas—instead operational and incremental improvements were offered as sources of inspiration.
Coca-Cola's Vice President of Design, David Butler explained how his team has concentrated on the pragmatic task of creating systems that add to the bottom line. From ensuring faster and more effective management across markets, formats and variants with its design machine; or establishing an efficient system of coolers that can be customised to local retail contexts; design here is firmly rooted in better implementation.
While there's nothing wrong with incremental improvements, they're hardly a big rethink. From the executives on stage, it seemed that innovation has been reduced to 99% perspiration. Big new ideas, are optional. The established global players are not being compelled to rethink how they operate. But for how long, it remains to be seen.
Watch out—the ideas are coming!
Predictably, the rise of emerging markets was high on the conference agenda. The Economist shed new light on the issue. We are, Robin Bew explained, entering a brave new world of 'hyper globalisation' that marks a genuinely new era in the flow of ideas and competition.
On one hand, a wave of 'frugal innovation,' is being spurred by the drive to raise living standards for the developing world's billions. This trend is epitomised by many go-getting Chinese medical manufacturers like MicroPort, who have developed new devices that are redesigned not only to cut 90% of costs, but leapfrog established rivals through use of latest technology.
On the other hand, Western players are increasingly fostering new ideas abroad for re-export back home. 'Pulpy' is Coca-Cola's newest billion-dollar brand. A low-cost fruit juice with distinctive taste, it was first launched in China in 2005 and now leads in 18 markets and is set for launch in Europe.
While innovation in emerging markets is in itself not new, the speed with which successful products are rolling back to developed markets is. There was an overwhelming sense that the centre of gravity of innovation is not here in Europe. Time for a real rethink.
Peter Schwarz (Global Business Network)
We need a new mental model
What role do designers have to play in this context? Should we have a seat at the table, or leave it to the executives to ponder? Before launching headlong towards potential clients with our latest process or big idea, one speaker fired a warning shot.
Peter Schwarz, the grand-daddy of scenario planning and one of the standout guests on podium, compelled organisations to first admit to their own failures of imagination before asking for new ideas.
He likened the prevailing Western view of current global business context to that of the Jesuit missionaries who thought that California was an island due to outdated Spanish maps. Our mental model is wrong, he declared. Is it still valid to refer to China as an emerging market when it ranks as the world's second largest economy? Tellingly, it took the Spanish 160 years to update their map. How long will it take us?
At a corporate level, Schwarz asked, why didn't Sony initiate the revolutionary multi-platform user experiences that Apple has? Despite having the content and hardware pieces to invent it, they failed to imagine a human-centred view of how technology could develop and a strategy to implement it.
Only when organisations are open to ambiguity and the possibility that their mental model could change, can a distinctive point of view on the future be developed. In short, it takes leadership before design can come in and help envisage new scenarios.
Beware, the emperor's new clothes
If designers have a role to play in articulating business leaders' visions, we need to up our game and get better at explaining what we do and how we do it. Several presentations were instructive on how to (and not to) do it.
One consulting firm condensed the process of generating ideas into an elaborate game-show format; the audience being asked to vote on which passing consumer trend a brand's future should be bet. Crowdsourcing, flashmobs or street art, anyone? The in-conference Twitteratti was soon alight with comment on how the slot's superficiality was out of kilter with conference ambitions. New, it seemed, does not always mean better.
Peter Schwarz, in contrast, took us back to the 1970's heyday of scenario planning. In leading the audience through an ambitious exercise, he compelled us to be less data-driven and spend enough time generating alternative hypotheses on the future to stretch thinking and inform strategy.
Neil Taylor (The Writer)
Back to the present, Neil Taylor of language consultancy The Writer, laid down the gauntlet in one of the most engaging presentations of the day. He asked his audience to be more conscious of the language used to express ideas and processes. During a particularly hard-hitting aside, Taylor declared "If you use the terms 'ideation' or 'thought leadership' in your company, you are communicating that you are scared to have an idea." Ouch.
The current language of innovation actually inhibits us from thinking bigger, Neil argued. People have learned what to expect, and have become disillusioned by the surplus of 'ideation', 'blue sky thinking' and 'imagineering' sessions invading their diaries.
Yet more than this, vague language often masks unclear thought. Jargon acts as a substitute for clearly defined process. To increase their impact, designers can get better at defining the business relevance of their approach in clear and simple terms.
How to succeed at a loser's game
For businesses looking to re-imagine what they do, there was no greater incentive than history. In one revealing exchange, conference chair Vijay Vaitheeswaran recalled that since the birth of the S&P 100 Index over 100 years ago, almost none of the companies have survived. Innovation he said, is a "loser's game."
The good news is that business can get better by being conscious of what designers tacitly practice. From looking beyond historical data and imagining new scenarios to starting small with ideas; to creating room for iteration along the road to implementation.
For those at the front end of design looking to help companies envisage new contexts and articulate visions of the future, the lessons too were plenty. For one, surfing the latest technology and lifestyle trends won't do, providing only limited tactical impact and little brand differentiation. Second, indulging in a linguistic arms race to differentiate your approach from colleagues or competitors does no one a service. Thirdly, there is no substitute for structure and rigour to situate and sell your big ideas within a wider context.
There is though one alternative to playing the loser's game—jump ship and take on the big guns.
The young founders of Whipcar led the way. The world's first neighbour-to-neighbour car rental service that turns idle cars into money-making machines has a fleet of 1000 cars after six months. They have a clear vision to break the hegemony of the global car rental market with their inviting user experience.
Now that's a big idea.
About Iain Aitchison
Iain is a Director of Plan, a product strategy consultancy based in London.
He has consulted to Lenovo, Samsung, Yamaha and many global consumer goods brands, developing processes that help them develop their product portfolios across multiple markets.
For the rest of Core77's coverage of the Big Rethink 2011:
+ Small is Beautiful
+ Connectivity and Network Innovation
+ Economically Driven Innovation
+ David Butler on the Value of Design to Share Value