I walked ten blocks north from my office, along the Hudson River on Manhattan’s west side, to get to Fast Company’s Innovation Uncensored New York conference. It’s a lovely walk—particularly on a spring day—and it knits together different threads of the city. The river is on one side, industrial facilities, some decaying, loom over the shore, while the occasional loft conversion drew my eye like an early flower. Walking back, after a day of high-test inspiration, the landscape recalled the nature of innovation itself. Refreshed by a flow of new ideas, innovation happens amidst the life we live now.
Here are 7 memorable themes that bubbled up at Innovation Uncensored. Not one of them is entirely new. But like a loft in a hot neighborhood, they’re some of the most valuable things you can hold on to.
Authenticity is what you do and whose interests you serve. It’s not what you say. We seek it out in friendships, relationships, and as consumers. It is simply irrational that we aren’t behaving accordingly as organizations. Being authentic leads to the development of the most successful and enduring personal and corporate brands. Both Mario Batali and Diane von Furstenberg offered up personal reflections to the audience, and both have built a brand that is bigger than themselves or the products they sell. Diane von Furstenberg is still learning to grow into the brand DvF has become.
Nancy Lublin, CEO of DoSomething.org, made it clear that in the world of social good, the days of supporting a cause based on the ‘CEO Wish’ are over. Corporations need to get involved—both authentically and tactically—with causes that mean something to their business, employees and consumers. Young people are hungry to have an impact on the world around them, and if your consumers care about something, you should too. Co-founder and Co-CEO of Warby Parker, Neil Blumenthal, predicted that in 20 years, you will not be able to hire decent talent if don’t put community ideals above your own. I don’t think it will take that long.
I joined in a collective sigh of relief the moment it happened; even though there was no name calling, bad digital and mobile ads received a public shaming. The lesson: don’t hate the player, change the game. Care about consumers’ experiences; don’t aim to disrupt what they’re trying to do. To that point, don’t expect an exchange of value in order to get a consumer to disclose personal information to the brand. If you are getting information from a consumer, use it to improve his or her experience. Don’t cannibalize the relationship being established.
Brands can be drivers of social innovation as well. Alexa Von Tobel, LearnVest CEO, tackled the taboo of personal debt, the cost of secondary education and the inaccessibility to financial planning tools for those who need it most. The conversation turned to social change, youth culture and equality, topics were opened up and buzzwords were slaughtered, which was all quite refreshing and effective.
Great innovation is a balance between the brainpower inside big organizations and the agility of the fearless. Matt Kingdon, Co-Founder of ?What If! Partners, requested that all flowcharts be left at coach check. Innovation isn’t about fitting into existing boxes and processes. In order to grow, organizations must play it a bit loose–not just tolerating creativity, but encouraging it.
Matt Kingdon reminded us that innovation is often triggered by those too naïve to be aware of why something can’t be done. Actively listen to team members with varying levels of experience. Innovation is cultural, and as with any culture, it must be supported, reinforced, passed down, and fostered.
After some contemplation, Brian Wong of Kiip showed to us that his abilities and talent at such a young age were borne out of traveling the world, meeting different cultures and that most ideas are a subconscious culmination of his experiences. In a similar thought Kingdon reminded us, via the a simple exercise of folding your arms the “wrong” way, that we need to endure discomfort to break habits, both physically and mentally.
“Learning by doing” is perfectly acceptable. Sometimes it is the only way. If the emergency responders on the East Coast had only relied upon approved, established channels during superstorm Sandy, the devastation could have been even worse. By adapting in real time, finding means to reach those in need through Twitter and using other lessons from previous disasters from the Google crisis team, the Sandy social media response forced a rapid digital evolution of emergency response.
Innovations happen when you take beta concepts live, sometimes by necessity, sometimes by opportunity.
As Jack Dorsey, Creator of Twitter and Founder and CEO Square, pointed out, technology is a great equalizer; it levels the playing field and opens up competition based on merit. Technology is merely the canvas. It is up to the creativity of users to put it to use. Gratitude and humility are essential to learning, collaborating, pivoting, and adapting.
Consumers don’t care about industry models. Individual needs win, every time.
David Droga reminded us that brands can no longer rely on buying attention. Just in case anyone didn’t realize it, most television technology these days is being developed in an effort to avoid the advertising industry.
Dove’s Fernando Machado revealed that the best content is developed from the purpose of a brand. Brands must engage through meaningful experiences, be that content, events, communications, or anything else we can dream up.. As proof of concept, Dove’s latest project “Real Beauty Sketches” brought tears to the eyes of many audience members, who gravitated toward the cultural insight that only 7% of women think they’re beautiful. Dove’s sensation, “Real Beauty Sketches,” is the work of a brand that understands where its consumers live.
As Dove’s transformative content shows, brands don’t have to invent social challenges to solve. With attention to authenticity and curation of relevance, a thoughtful brand can make an impact beyond the bottom line.
Every company is being forced to look in the mirror. If it doesn’t like what it sees, no amount of marketing magic can change a fundamental business issue. But authentic social magic is a different animal. Making money and doing good are not competing principles; in fact, they are very much the future of business.
Abigail Marks (@nycabby) is Director, Strategy & Operations for OgilvyEntertainment