Davos08: Innovation

The theme of this year’s World Economic Forum meeting in Davos is innovation and a good thing that is. Can’t have enough of it.

The first session of the first day is a round-table (actually, a round-room with concentric circles of people facing in, confusing all the panelists at the center and making them dizzy as they talk — an innovation itself, I suppose). It’s about innovation and people at the center begin listing what they think are the best innovations of the last year. A few:

Kigge Hvid of Index in Denmark says that the basic first-aid kit has not been updated since World War I. She then tells us that the great danger for the injured is a blocked airway that robs us of oxygen. So she shows a tongue-sucker invented by students at the Royal College of Arts in the UK after the 7/7 terrorist attack. It’s a simple plastic tube with an orange bulb on the end that grabs the tongue and frees the airway, saving lives while waiting for the pros. A person in the room cautioned that this may complicate the simple instructions given to people in CPR; Keeley adds that sometimes we need “di-innovation,” that is, simplification is innovation.

Larry Keeley of Doblin says the Kindle is an innovation that could matter because if all the newspaper readers in America stopped reading on paper and started reading on epaper, the country would meet all the requirements of the Kyoto agreement. But then he says the design of the device is a failure and if more organizations had embraced the concept, it would have given us a more compelling device.

William McGlashan of TPG Growth talks about a bio company that is now producing fuels.

Kiyoshi Kurokawa, adviser to the prime minister of Japan, praises the iPhone and says there’s nothing new in the gadget; it’s all concept and design. Then he talks about programs that get people to make helping people part of life: Table for Two with contributions going to deal with hunger and One Laptop per Child.

Tom Brown of IDEO praises Walmart’s personal sustainability project and the Open Architecture Network, because both are enriched by the network effect of adding and connecting ideas.

And moderator Bruce Nussbaum of Business Week praises the new video conferencing telepresence systems that let us avoid — my words — innovationless airlines, wasting both energy and time, and empower collaboration.

Nussbam also tells us that a Business Week index of “innovation-driven” companies beats the S&P by 20 percent.

In the audience is Maylasia’s minister of innovation — isn’t that also nicely new — and he asks what government’s role should be. McGlashan says the belief in the U.S. is that government does not invest in innovation, though he says in health that’s not true. (Note that this is an issue for Davos: It ends up becoming America-centric; I’d rather hear new ideas of how Maylasia is doing it.)

A Japanese professor frets about how much a company should hold onto and not make open. Thank goodness Brown gives the obvious examples of the benefits of exploiting open networks, starting with Firefox. Keeley says what’s important to open up is the knowledge archive and the challenge archive — that is, what we need — and this opens the network effect by connecting people with each other and information. He also praises X Prize for giving innovators motivation without hierarchy. The professor then asks what countries should hold onto. Keeley replies that governments, such as Maylasia, must provide the infrastructure for networks and then “get out of the way and trust the talent.”

A member of the audience, Carl Bass, says that the thought years ago was that open source would be innovative but not robust, but as it turned out open source is robust but not very innovative. He acknowledges what he’ll say next is controversial but points out that most of the government-backed innovation in the U.S. comes from defense-funded research.

Another points out that the most important part of openness on the internet is “view source,” for that spreads the knowledge.

Just as the discussion gets good, the format gets in the way and we’re supposed to share our favorite gadgets with each other, one-on-one. Reminds me of hand-shaking time in church. My favorite, by the way, is bandwidth. We are told to mash-up and invent things together. After we hear a few, Brown says that what we should be sharing instead is the challenges for these attempts at invention are frankly banal. But hearing problems is what leads to real innovation. Innovation is a solution.