The two-day Business Innovation Factory "conversation" has officially come to a close, the second day another impressive lineup of storytellers and mavericks. Saul Kaplan opened this morning, citing the ongoing theme of "doing, translating ideas into action." And while each of the presenters was a case-in-point for walking-the-walk over talking-the-talk, it's hard not to wonder whether the hundreds of attendees would be inspired to do the same (the "curse of the conference" persists-- where talking abounds, despite goals of changing the world). That being said, today's stories were rooted in inspiration, and one can only hope that the conversation translates into not just action but impact. Read on for a few of today's best moments and musings. And be sure to check out all the additional information, articles, and resources on the BIF-4 website.
The hands-down highlight of the day was when Dennis Littky, educator and founder of the Met School and The Big Picture Company invited two of his students to tell their own stories. The Met School is one of 75 Big Picture Company schools nationwide, each of which serving as a new model for student-centered education that encourages expression and exploration through a rigorous academic, internship, and college-prep program. Lucy, a 15-year old junior, told of her difficult family life, in which she is the primary care taker for her two younger brothers, and spoke of her academic pursuits and senior thesis project in which she is designing a curriculum for at-risk and low self esteem teenage girls. It was perhaps the most personal moment, no business agendas or mention of innovation, but proof that unique and adaptive educational programs can produce real impact, as told by Lucy and her classmate Melvin. Dennis was also the only presenter today who asked attendees to "act after the fact," passing out cards that listed concrete ways to get involved in the community-based educational programs through Big Picture Company.
David Rockwell followed in a conversation with Bruce Nussbaum, promoting architecture as experience over edifice. He told of one of his first restaurant designs, in which he re-imagined the sushi bar in a lightning bolt plan that encouraged new moments for communication and storytelling between chef and diner. His newest group of projects includes reinventing the playground, which he proclaimed have been bastardized by insurance and other entities. His first playground concept, Imagination Playground, opens in 2009 in New York, inspired by the ways in which children naturally communicate and build communities. The humble Rockwell is always an inspiration, one part "starchitect" and one part average Joe who is as good a speaker as he is a listener. The casual conversation with Bruce broke up the day nicely with a "fireside chat" about design as a platform for telling stories and enabling clients and users to play a real part in shaping their own environments.
Tony Hsieh, CEO of online shoe store Zappos.com, talked about the importance of "culturefit" as a corporate core value. "If you get the culture right, great customer service happens naturally on its own," he said. Zappos' hiring process includes a month-long training program, after which new employees can "take the money and run," so to speak, cashing out with $2000, no questions asked. The "short money" option weeds out those who might not fit the company's 10 core values and culture, providing incentive for both employee and company to not waste the other's time. "Customer service is the whole company, not just the call center," said Tony, who also told an anecdote about a call center employee who helped a caller find local pizza delivery restaurants in the middle o the night. Core values "don't read like a press release," he said. They include less lofty, committable goals like "create fun and a little weirdness" and "be humble." The light-hearted approach to corporate culture was refreshing and approachable. It begs the question, though, how personal can a huge company really be? How much does personal identity matter? Zappos seems to have a good recipe, in the meantime.
The conference, whose focus was innovation, brought to light both the problem and potential of buzzwords (the word "innovation" MUST have been uttered more than 1000 times over the course of 2 days, leaving me to wonder whether we really know what it means anymore). Mid-day, it was David Yaun of IBM who put it into perspective. He said that technology is too often equated with innovation, and that it's not innovation that's important, but innovation that matters to people. While we usually associate innovation with invention and technology, it's the human element and the user engagement that makes innovation successful-- the small improvements that help us individually and collectively reorganize and improve the way in which we live and produce.
The afternoon closed out with stories from Joshua Klein from Frog Design, author, and designer of the Vending Machine for Crows, which trains crows to find and collect loose change in exchange for peanuts. Jeffrey Hollender, President of green cleaning company Seventh Generation questioned "is less bad really good enough?," and Cat Laine contributed a dose of optimism. As the Deputy Director of the Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group, Cat spearheads projects that bring green technology and energy products to the world's poor. The offerings are service based, providing maintenance and repair along with delivery, a key component of designing for the greater good that many neglect (who's there to fix that XO laptop when one of the antennae breaks off in the middle of Kenya?).
After two full days of stories ranging from heart-wrenchingly inspiring to the uber-corporate, the Business Innovation Factory 4 conference will hopefully, as Saul Kaplan put so eloquently yesterday, "serve as a catalyst to start a reaction."