Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Innovation in the Cafe

Greetings from table 24 at the Vanilla Bean Cafe for InnovationACT in 2010. at "spacedock" (aka John Curtin School of Medical Research), Australian National University in Canberra. Tonight's Seminar is a Panel Discussion hosted by Lighthouse Innovation on "The Innovation Mindset" with: Glenn Dickins and others.

Normally the innovation sessions start with drinks in the foyer of the medical research building and then we move into the lecture theatre for the formal presentation. This evening I was surprised when everyone went the other direction and instead filed into the cafe, on the other side of the foyer. This is my second favourite cafe on the ANU campus, after the Purple Pickle. The panel session is being held cafe style, with the MC at the podium in front of the drinks cabinet and the panelists on a sofa. The audience is at tables.

It may seem unusual to hold a university innovation session in a cafe. However, for many years I have done some of my most productive work in cafe, the informal atmosphere combines with a concentration of creative people. As an example, to day at lunchtime I was called over to a table the the Purple Pickle and introduced to someone who has $1.4M in government money for a project in an area I am working on. In addition "cabaret" style is a recognised type of education room design.

The setup this evening could do with some improvements. There are microphones in place but these are only used for the video recording of the event, not for sound reinforcement in the room. The presenters are in front of the drinks cabinet which has a noisy refrigeration system. It would work better to place the speakers at the opposite end of the room, which is quieter.

The audience are as interesting mix of people as the panelists: there are students from a wide range of areas from both the ANU and University of Canberra, as well as staff. One of my students came up to me and I was worried they would ask about the mark for their last assignment. Instead they asked about how the might implement the web interface for the innovation project they are developing for Innovation ACT. Another ex-student is working on e-government with NICTA.

After typing all that I have tuned in to what the panel are actually saying: "Never overvalue the time you sent on an idea: if it is not a good idea it is worth nothing." Glenn Dickins has just commented on the difference between two technology development: the super-capacitor and the iPad. He argued that the super-capacitor is revolutionary but will not be visible to the end user, whereas the iPad is an evolutionary development of existing technology but will appear revolutionary to the user. An interesting question from the audience was "Where are the women in innovation? All the panel and most of the room are men.". The moderator is female and commented that most of the innovators they see are male. However, they commented that women tended to produce social innovations, rather than strictly technical ones. This is an insightful comment, with many real ideas being about how to do something together, not a gadget to do it with.

I asked the panel if the Californian silicon valley culture translates around the world. I have been to Google Sydney's office and found that it was set up very much the same at Microsoft Cambridge Research Labs (UK). The panel commented that different cultures will have different needs (Microsoft Zurich Labs will be different as it is in a Swiss culture). The moderator then asked about the "Innovation Room" and the panel all nodded, but no one explained what this was all about. But I did find the book "Secrets from the Innovation Room" (Kay Allison, 2004).

The moderator suggested that to test if you really understand your innovative idea, try to explain it to your grandmother.

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