At the 2019 Front End of Innovation (FEI) Conference in Boston earlier this month, International Space Station (ISS) U.S. National Laboratory Associate Program Scientist Dr. Kenneth Savin spoke about how the ISS National Lab provides an excellent opportunity for companies to find new partners and approach challenges in new ways. The FEI Conference, which is part of the Boston Innovation Festival, brings together research and development executives from around the world to discuss innovation in technology and to encourage the development of new and diverse partnerships.
Over its 17-year history, the FEI Conference has developed into a program focused on technological innovation and product design. The main theme for the conference this year was to innovate big—don’t just work on small steps, look for opportunities to achieve bigger-scale and more impactful innovations. As one of the conference organizers said, “No one goes to a party for the mild salsa!”
At the conference, I spoke about the advantages of working with partners from different industries. This is particularly relevant for the ISS National Lab, where a diverse group of partners and organizations comes together to advance space-based research and development for the benefit of life on Earth. These diverse partnerships provide many opportunities to learn from each other, which can lead to valuable innovation.
Read more about how the ISS National Lab finds power in partnership in the links below:
There are many challenges to overcome in every industry, and for years, the mindset that “it hasn’t been invented here” has made it difficult to bring in new ideas. However, it is important for industry leaders to change the way they think and to instead view challenges as something that may have already been approached by someone else in a different industry. This “already invented by someone else” approach to problem solving can lead to breakthrough innovations in one’s own industry at little cost in time and money.
A highlight of the conference was the keynote fireside chat between Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and John Valentine, founder and host at The Early Stage Podcast. Wozniak talked about meeting Steve Jobs, making friends, being a nerd, playing pranks, and starting Apple. He stressed that one’s priority should be doing the things you love and that are important to you. He also talked about how the way in which technology is developing inspires him, especially in robotics, and how we should not be frightened by it. He said, “It is the way that one breakthrough leads to the next and sparks new thinking and new directions that excites me.”
Read about ISS National Lab programs that leverage partnerships with private industry and other government agencies to solve big problems or address global challenges:
Several other speakers at the conference also discussed the importance of doing things that are meaningful to you. Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, talked about the speed of technological innovation and recalled that years ago, when the internet was just beginning, he and his friends in Japan wanted to get involved. They needed a server to provide internet access, so he scavenged for parts and built his own. The server was the size of a room (it filled the bathroom in his apartment) and failed often, but it pushed him to get into the action and be a part of the revolution that was happening.
Mike Hatrick, group director of IP Strategy & Portfolio at Volvo Group Trucks Technology, spoke about the future of autonomous trucks for hauling goods. During his talk, Hatrick discussed culture change, innovation in big companies, and how organizational dynamics are both influenced by and influence innovation.
One of the last talks was a given by Henry Chesbrough, faculty director of the Garwood Center for Corporate Innovation at the University of California, Berkeley, who coined the term “open innovation.” Chesbrough discussed the trends in innovation and how technology is enabling innovation to be not only faster but to reach into areas of the world that have otherwise not been touched by such advances, pointing out that there are countries where people have better access to cell phones than to modern toilets.
Chesbrough ended his talk with a guest speaker, 13-year-old Vitale Diamandis, who scavenges for parts and creates innovative gadgets. Diamandis has used scavenged parts to build an electric skateboard and a gas-powered bicycle, and his latest effort is to make an electric car out of parts he finds on the internet and from junk yards. Using Diamandis as an example, Chesbrough made the point that the way innovation is done, the speed at which it is happening, and the people who are doing it are changing, and with all of the new opportunities come challenges that must be part of any innovation plan.
Although the FEI Conference focuses on technological innovation, it also pushes you to consider the human over technology. You are more likely to develop an attractive product or service if you design it to solve a real problem, perhaps even one that you yourself are dealing with. Inspiration comes from real life and a desire to do more and be better—and partnering with and learning from others outside of one’s industry can spur innovation that may not have been possible otherwise. As Steve Wozniak said, “Doing things that you like to do and are important to you is where the real breakthroughs will come—revolution intended or not.”