New Areas of Innovation: Healthcare, Education, Products for the Ageing, Mega-cities

Back from the Collaborative Innovation Summit in Providence, RI, the third annual conference held by the Business Innovation Factory. The lineup was impressive: from Clay Christensen, Harvard professor and author of the seminal book The Innovator’s Dilemma, to Mark Cuban, the entrepreneur who has successfully leaped from investing in pioneering tech way back in the 1980s to professional sports and now to appearing on the TV show “Dancing with the Stars,” no less. (He showed up in a stretch limo, accompanied with an entourage wearing “Vote for Mark” T-shirts and was greeted by paprazzi.) What struck me was a consistency of a couple of themes that ran throughout the summit: one, that collaborative innovation (between public and private sectors, between academia and industry) is what will help the United States find solutions to the healthcare and education challenges we face today, specifically. Not to mention inspiring discussions on new areas where to apply business-innovation strategies, namely to creating appealing new products and services for older customers (consumers in their 50s, 60s, and beyond) and researching global megacities (Mumbai, Cairo, etc.) in more depth.

Christensen, for example, revealed that he is currently working on a book on disrupting the healthcare system to innovate how we are treated in hospitals and doctors’ offices, via “precise diagnostics.” This I understood to be products, processes, and systems that will better uncover what health problems we face so we can be more efficiently treated. And Paul English, founder of the popular travel site, is currently working with Harvard researchers on launching the Global Health Delivery Project, which will involve providing online collaborative tools for health workers around the world to benchmark and share treatment and research data, primarily in poor communities.

Another eye-opening theme that ran through the conference was a focus on innovation in the realm of services and products for ageing baby boomers and the elderly of the future in general. Joseph Coughlin, founder and director of MIT’s AgeLab, discussed a device developed by P & G called the “personal advisor,” basically a scanner that elderly consumers could take to the supermarket and scan products with. The gadget, which features uploaded health information on its owner, and after having scanned products, provides advice on how a food or beverage or other product might be harmful or helpful in terms of the consumer’s health. Even Mark Cuban discussed the ageing population as one of his new targets; Cuban recently bought the Landmark chain of movie theaters, and is planning on marketing them to 60-somethings raised on cinema and live performances.

While so many companies (and, admittedly, journalists) keep focusing on 20- and 30- somethings, as well as teens and tweens, as the targets of innovative products, it was refreshing to be reminded that the ageing population should not be ignored as a powerful market.

Of course there were many other fascinating speakers, too many to mention here. They included Richard Saul Wurman, the original founder of the TED conference, who discussed his new project (in collaboration with Larry Keeley of Doblin and others), a five-year research initiative called 19.20.21, that will standardize economic and other data on the 19 cities that will reach populations of 20 million people in the 21st century – a boon for corporations looking to better understand their global markets. And a particularly engaging and inspiring speaker was Denise Nemchev, the president of Bostich, which makes the Hurriquake Nail, a sort of screw-nail hybrid that can withstand intense national disasters. It's a truly simple innovation that has the potential to save thousands of lives and millions of dollars.

What was so wonderful about this conference was the relaxed, unpretentious atmosphere both on and off the stage. While there were no question and answer periods after presentations and panels, the speakers were easily approached at informal receptions between and after each session. It will be interesting to see how the summit evolves as word gets out – if it stays as an intimate incubator of ideas or if it grows into something larger and slicker as more and more attendees share with friends and colleagues news of its refreshingly laid-back and yet dynamic atmosphere.

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