Thoughts on Innovation Edge 2008

In trying to get to grips with the NESTA Innovation Edge conference I’ve kept returning to Tim Berners-Lee‘s appearance early on in proceedings. Berners-Lee himself didn’t offer anything groundbreaking, but made a series of sensible comments on innovation, the potential of the web, and providing space for creative people to get on with exploring their ideas. But his comments were rather awkwardly juxtaposed with a claim in NESTA’s video introducing him that he could have become rich beyond measure from the web had he not chosen to give it all away.

That statement, offered as fact, is pretty hard to back up. It ignores the open source origin of much of the key web infrastructure and the key contributions of a wide range of people who have helped make the web what it is today, in sum the significant potential that if HTTP and HTML had not become open standards, the web would never have taken off in anything like the way it has. Beyond that, it tapped into one of the key dichotomies of the conference, in the tension between desires to stimulate innovation and to grow global brands.

During the morning a series of speakers provided some insights into the ways innovation disrupts, the key challenges facing us today (climate change and global poverty being the two most significant) and ways we might begin to address them. Bob Geldof—despite his usual fluidity about facts made most obvious in a claim that the web brought about the end of the Cold War—was perhaps the most stimulating, but I particularly enjoyed the contributions of Sam Pitroda who gave the whole thing a more international and more realist touch, helpfully asking us all to remember that “innovation” doesn’t always mean “high tech.”

The afternoon’s panels, however, didn’t seem to live up to that introduction. I only made it to two, but talking to others who attended a few other sessions there seemed a general sense that despite claims to be talking about innovation there wasn’t nearly enough time given to disruptive innovation, technologies of change, or a business landscape that may well be shifting away from the corporate behemoths that have dominated in recent decades. In particular the panel on “Where the UK leads…but for how long?” seemed far too driven by questions about how Britain can grow brands as big as Google or Yahoo, without space for much challenge to the preconceptions about the necessity of such huge brands or whether that is really what innovation is all about.

I suspect some of the problems with the conference were growing pains. Having leapt massively to 3000 or so attendees meant the “expert seminars” were too large for much meaningful panel/audience interaction, and it was difficult to allow for the vastly differing levels of knowledge and expertise around. In that I definitely resonate with Lloyd’s mention of Cognitive Surplus which became more evident as the day progressed.

Innovation Edge was a positive event. It is always exciting to see a large group of people gathered to talk about changing things for the better. But there was a lot of space to dig deeper, to explore changing contexts for innovation and business, and to challenge more of its audience’s preconceptions.

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