Innovation as a driver of worldwide economic recovery and growth is the key theme at the Fifth Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) Annual Meeting, a gathering of top CEOs and world leaders that opened on Sept. 22 in New York and continues through Friday, Sept. 25. "We need new businesses to unleash new innovations," said President Barack Obama, citing the world's economic downturn in his address to the crowd on Tuesday evening. "We need new collaborations to advance prosperity." The President's speech was meant to help set the tone of the entire conference and followed on the heels of the White House's Sept. 21 release of a white paper outlining a national innovation strategy.
Only members of the CGI, a nonprofit, nonpartisan arm of the William J. Clinton Foundation, can attend the event. Membership, open only to those at the level of chairman, president, or CEO, imposes an annual fee of $20,000. Organization founder and former President Bill Clinton welcomed 960 guests from 84 countries by stating the event's four main themes: harnessing innovation; strengthening infrastructure; building human capital, and financing an equitable future. Attendees, including Wal-Mart (WMT) CEO Mike Duke, Coca-Cola (KO) CEO Muhtar Kent, and Goldman Sachs (GS) CEO Lloyd Blankfein, were asked to focus on specific, profitable ways to address humanitarian issues such as health care, climate change, and women's rights.
Innovation, listed first in all program materials and the theme of many of the panels and networking sessions, is clearly the top-of-mind topic. In speeches and hallway conversations, the word is name-dropped as a means for tackling the three other action items. The opening session of the first full day was a panel on "Approaches to Innovation," moderated by a BusinessWeek editor (and author of this story). The panel's initial purpose—according to the its organizer, John Kao, founder of the Institute for Large Scale Innovation—was to offer an "Innovation 101 bootcamp" for attendees.
"recombination" of ideas and teams"Innovation is a term that's used a lot—and often overused. But often it is not fully understood," Kao says. At the beginning of the panel, he defined it as "not just creativity. It is specifically about creativity that has value." He suggested that the pursuit of creativity with no regard for financial return could simply lead to glutted product pipelines.
Another panelist, Kathleen Eisenhardt, a Stanford engineering professor who co-directs Stanford's Technology Ventures Program and has advised leading companies such as Intel (INTC), Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), and SAP (SAP), identified specific practical tactics for implementing innovation. She first described "recombination," or the mixing and matching of ideas and teams. Without naming specific corporations, she cited advising clean-energy start-ups in Silicon Valley to borrow concepts and recruit staff from unrelated industries such as software development.
Kao echoed this idea by suggesting that multinationals and entrepreneurs look to products in emerging markets for ideas to adapt for the U.S. and other developed nations, a concept known as "trickle-up innovation" or "reverse innovation." The strategy is in use at top companies such as General Electric (GE), Procter & Gamble (PG), and Microsoft (MSFT).
Online, "everyone is a 'changemaker'"Eisenhardt also suggested rotating executives to work on various projects rather than keep them in place, to keep thinking fresh. "Bringing new people to a project can lead to them seeing what's wrong immediately and identify what can be fixed," she advised, "That can be difficult for people who have been on a project for a long time."
A third panelist, William Drayton, founder and CEO of Ashoka, an association of social entrepreneurs, added that for companies to remain both creative and competitive, they need to accept the 21st century model of invention. The Internet has lowered the bar for entry and removed the barriers of rigid corporate structures. A growing number of startup companies that were launched cheaply, with little more than an Internet connection, are finding success. "People have the capacity to believe that everyone is a 'changemaker,'" said Drayton. Fighting the change, he suggested, is not only pointless, it could actively prevent companies from thriving.
"Innovation is the key to solving the toughest problems in our world," said New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in another of the sessions that focused on investing in women in developing nations. The topic of innovation will remain preeminent throughout the four-day session. And Stuart Hart, a professor at Cornell University's Johnson School of Management who serves as the CGI's innovation topic head at the event, says the commitment will last far longer. "We are working on follow-up meetings to see how CGI will continue to address innovation after this ends," he said.