Obama, Clinton and CEOs on Innovation

The Fifth Annual Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting kicked off today in New York, a gathering of heads of state and CEOS such as Wal-Mart’s Mike Duke and Coca-Cola’s Muhtar Kent. They come together annually to discuss and then find solutions for humanitarian problems. The opening session, which included an address by President Barack Obama, focused on the importance of innovation in the world’s recovery from the current economic downturn.

Clinton said this was the largest turnout in the event’s history, which surprised him given the recession. He urged that everyone in the room had to go forward and prove that sustainability and the new business models that true sustainability requires are “good economics” to thrive. He turned to Wal-Mart’s Duke and Coca-Cola’s Kent for examples from the business world in the opening panel, which also included Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Chilean President Michelle Bachelet.

Duke said that to date Wal-Mart has sold 256 million compact fluorescent lightbulbs in the U.S. alone. He said one reason why going green worked for the company was that its strategy, first developed 3 years ago, was absolutely consistent with the core identity of Wal-Mart. The goal wasn’t just to pursue green products as a marketing ploy, but to make green affordable to appeal to its audience. He also added that Wal-Mart is currently working on a sustainability index and hopes that there will be global standard for environmentally friendly metrics for products to help consumers understand what they are buying.

Kent said that Coca-Cola is working to be “water neutral” by 2020 and has recently cut its water use 20% while growing the business. It’s innovating in the area of sustainable materials, and announced the company will start using a bottle made of sugarcane.

After the panel, President Obama took the stage.

He discusssed how his team is working on a new model of promoting innovation, referring to White House's just-released white paper on the national innovation strategy. He discussed "an innovation fund" dedicated "to find community solutions that work" and went on to talk about promoting "new businesses to unleash new innovations" to aid in economic recovery.

Interestingly, President Obama's approach to bringing about change in innovation policy seems to echo the discipline of "design thinking" promoted by companies like IDEO and academics such as Rotman's Roger Martin. Obama talked about how his staff listens and observes, and then works toward creating fresh collaborations "to advance prosperity."

It's no coincidence that Obama's Office of Personnel Management recently has been visiting IDEO and companies such as Facebook and Google to learn about inventive ways of promoting creative thinking.

Stay tuned for more reports from the meeting and how the topic of innovation, which is one of four key action areas of the event, plays a role.