The Big Rethink: The Redesigning Business Summit, Day 1

Thursday March 11 was day one of the Economist Conference The Big Rethink: The Redesigning Business Summit and, having spent the day there I'm wondering a) what I learned, and b) was it worth the time and money investment? It's a bit early in the process to make any judgment on either. I've found that on this type of learning event it's what sticks in my mind several weeks later that gives some indication. At this stage I'm guessing about what might stick in my mind.

On immediate recall – I was not very happy on two housekeeping accounts a) there was no postal address for the venue on the program. King's Place, London is not easy to track down. b) when I got there I didn't appear in their register of attendees, and having given my name I was asked "Are you sure that's your name?" Fortunately, I have the receipt and the name on it is my name. But not being listed may explain why I didn't get any venue or other details (beyond the receipt). UPDATE on this. Day 2 the same thing happened but was sorted out by the conference Logistics Manager who apologized for the error and offered me free attendance at any future Economist Conference.

So, onto the content. Speakers tended to focus on either innovation or business models. Roberto Verganti, author of Design Driven Innovation, was interesting on his model of interpreters – people who "step back from users and take a broader perspective" asking the question "how could people give meaning to things in this evolving life context?" He suggests that many actors are asking the same question in relation to the same set of circumstances. So, for example, how do different companies answer the question 'what meanings could family members search for when they home and are going to have dinner?' A food production company might answer differently from a cooking stove producing company, from a tableware producing company" but how each answers the question informs the types of products or services they produce.

Verganti made the point that in a cost cutting environment it should be costs that are cut and not meaning, giving as an example a Fiat car where the designers took out the back seat of a small SUV replacing it with a hammock – thus cutting costs but retaining the meaning of an SUV.

Steve Evans, Professor of Life Cycle Engineering at Cranfield University, talking of innovation, gave the example of a manufacturing company trying to save waste – their innovation was to drill a hole in one corner of their recycle skips so water drained out keeping the waste dry and thus recycleable! A good, low tech example of ingenuity.

Thin on the ground were the new business models that I was hoping to have found at the conference. Speakers about Samsung and Microsoft offered very little that was either innovative or re-designed (our host Vijay Vaitheeswaran, introduced them as representing the dinosaur companies, so we'll see what happens to them). However, two speakers from start-ups offered a little more in both business model and innovation terms. Riversimple's purpose is to "To provide a sustainable transport service whilst working systematically towards the elimination of the environmental damage caused by personal transport" the company designs and builds hydrogen fuelled cars. Their business model is elegant and simple, built around seven principles. (These are not shown on their website).

Another startup PACT manufactures underwear and showed fetching pictures of people wearing mult-colored knickers that cost quite a lot. But the point was that the business model is built around telling stories of the wearers, supporting non-profits (10% of every item sold goes to a non-profit), and having items shipped in cotton and compostable bags rather than plastic.

At this point I seem to have learned that startups can be innovative but established companies are ever hamstrung by their legacies. Not a new or startling revelation. But one thing that did surprise me was the fact that every one of the 12 speakers of the day was a white male. I hope that I did not learn that women and other races are not perceived as innovative and also have no capacity to redesign business. My other thought on this was that the speaker line up was a design fault and showed lack of innovation. However, I see that tomorrow there are two women speaking and one black male. So maybe I'll get a different slant on innovation and new business designs.