September 10, 2019

What Happened at Inventures 2019: Calgary's Innovation Conference

The beginning of June saw Inventures 2019:Calgary’s conference that talks about a whole bunch of things but, at the end of the day, is really about innovation at its core (the name is a combination of innovation + ventures).

It’s a very special conference in that you meet, listen to, and interact with people from a myriad of industries because there’s no area of business (or life) that innovation isn’t essential to. With that said, some focus could be observed around the areas of smarter cities, artificial intelligence, blockchain, energy, agriculture, and healthcare, among others.  

If you weren’t able to come, or if you are sad you couldn’t be in six places at the same time watching all of the talks, rest easy because I am going to break down what happened in some of the spaces I was in over this three-day-long mic drop.

Firstly, a little bit about me and why I chose to attend Inventures this year. This year, I created Three Times True here in Calgary: a service and experience design firm that helps organizations who want to better connect with their customers to become more human-centred. This happens in a myriad of ways but can range from performing research to evaluate a company’s current user experience to organizing an internal workshop to help its employees to become more innovative. I truly believe that when companies take steps to fully understand the people they are making their products and services for, not only are people happier but businesses thrive. The spirit of Inventures is incredibly in line with my work which is often times the crossroads of logic and (perceived) magic.

In the interest of at least approaching the idea of brevity, I’m not going to talk about absolutely every talk I saw.In particular, I won’t go over the talks that most of the attendees would have seen (i.e., keynotes and opening / closing remarks). I want to cover some of the aspects that could have been missed, even if you were there, to make the information as accessible as possible. Additionally, it should be noted that, coming from a background doing innovation work in healthcare, and as someone who works in the space of improving services and systems, my attendance slants towards the talks and panels related to those topics. If you’re looking for AI insights, I apologize. This article will not include the droids you’re looking for.  

The Tyranny of Should

One of the first talks I saw was given by Greg Hart of Thin Air Labs regarding how when planners and organizers (among others) assume that people will do something because they “should” do it, that often that assumption proves to be incorrect. In fact, very few people do something because they should; our true motivations tend to be a bit less optimistic than that. I can attest to this as someone who spends a lot of time observing human behaviour: we humans actually tend to do things that are at the juxtaposition of what is easy and what is in our best interest, but with heavy emphasis on the former. Therefore, if you want people to do something, you have to make it the easiest choice for them to make. “Should”, to Greg’s point, is not enough.

Greg mainly spoke about examples as they apply to the design of cities, such as desire lines and shared spaces as they relate to urban roads. My belief is this kind of thinking that applies to the design of cities can be extrapolated to expand to all areas: technology, systems, organizations, etc. When we look at technology, how are people actually using it and how can that be made easier? When we look at organizations, does the structure match how people actually want to move within it?

It’s also interesting to think about this applied to some of society’s largest problems. For the most part, we all know that climate change is a serious issue that we need to address, and we know we shouldn’t be using that plastic bottle, bag, or straw, for example. We take steps to avoid it where we can but I’m sure we’ve all also been in the situation where we end up using one of those things out of convenience or need. However, if it was easier to not use any of those things, we’d do it every time. I often think about this in relation to labelling on garbage / recycling bins. Here’s an example from downtown Calgary that I saw the other day:

Walking up to these bins, most people will have the intention to put their garbage in the correct section but how easy does this signage make that? Most of the real estate of the sign is large text that reads “Waste Diversion Starts With You!” (essentially the sign’s equivalent of telling us what we should do). However, the actual information on the sign that would make it easy for me to choose the right bin is small, difficult to read, and located at knee-height. Is it any wonder that our recycling is contaminated with objects that shouldn’t be there?

This kind of thinking is so incredibly important to how we build out not only our societies but our companies. I will never stop talking about how understanding humans – how they think, act, and make decisions – is a major key to making any innovation work.

Building Radical Partnerships to Improve Health

Innovation in healthcare is both an incredibly fascinating and complex topic because healthcare systems can work so drastically different to everything else in our society. There’s a reason why your doctor still has a fax machine and it’s not a good one.

This panel featured perspectives from Bonnie Clipper of the American Nurses Association, Michael Petersen of Accenture, Sanaz Cordes of Value Prop Shop, and Catharine Young of the Biden Cancer Initiative. The conversation prompts all centred around the idea of building partnerships to improve healthcare in a myriad of ways. What I found interesting about this discussion is that, despite what your instinct may be when you think about “radical partnerships”, this panel spoke a lot about what it looks like when the patient is an equal partner and how important that relationship is.  

There is a lot of discussion in the healthcare space about being “patient-centred” – the equivalent of which is I believe is being “human-centred” in other industries. The idea of involving the patient’s perspective in how we innovate healthcare systems and technologies is vital and something that has been overlooked in a lot of ways in which our current systems are set up. This shift in perspective is definitely established but I believe there are sometimes issues with how it is executed. There are entire methodologies around research in human-centred design that can and should be extrapolated when we paint something with the “patient-centred” brush because, simply put, they work. It’s not enough to put a single patient on a decision-making panel with a bunch of doctors. That will only satisfy meeting that specific patient’s needs, not the needs of all patients involved. I encourage anyone working in healthcare to really dig into what it can and should mean to be patient-centred: it is perhaps, as these panelists suggested, the most radical partnership of all.

The Power of Design

Attending Chris McCarthy of Hopelab’s talk on The Power of Design was an exercise for me in confirming things I won’t stop yammering about anyways: organizations that make design a priority do better both for themselves and for the people they serve. He gave a number of great examples from the healthcare space and I urge you to look into his work in more depth. However, a major takeaway for me was the hard numbers that support this thesis.

As a service design and design research practitioner, it can sometimes be a struggle to communicate the value of my practice. Each result of engaging with users and each design solution presented can be so radically different from project to project that it can be difficult to tell a client exactly what will happen. I can really only say that including conscious human-centred design and research into your business will help it. I don’t know how until I get in there. So, thank you so much to Chris for highlighting this initiative from the Design Management Institute (DMI), Motiv Strategies, and Microsoft. They analyzed the performance of companies “committed to design as an intergral part of their business strategy” against the performance of the S&P Index. As you can see from Chris’ slide, the index they created of design-led companies outperformed those in the S&P by 228%.

Two HUNDRED and twenty eight percent.

I’ll just leave it there.

The Future of Smart Airports

I’m definitely biased (which I’m sure you’ve realized by this point), but I see the application of human-centred design in virtually every talk I attend, and the panel on the future of smart airports was no different.

This panel was moderated by Patricia McLeod of Alberta Innovates and featured Chris Avery of First Air, Rasmus Kaster of Copenhagen Optimization, Tara Mulrooney of Edmonton International Airport, and Roland Coppens of Air France and KLM. The discussion centred around how airports and airlines can play a pivotal role in the customer journey of a traveler. What does that really mean? Essentially, better outcomes and quality of life for the communities that are served.

I appreciated points around how solutions with technology are not always the answer. Indeed, sometimes the best as most innovative solutions don’t involve technology at all. A point that this panel made was that some airports simply can’t expand geographically. Technology isn’t going to be the only this that solves that problem as those particular airports will almost certainly require innovation regarding how their space is planned. Similarly, you can have the best technology in the world, but if no one is using it (or they don’t know how to), then it doesn’t count for anything.

How to Keep Culture Front of Mind as You Scale

As an avid proponent of creating conscious cultures in the workplace, I enjoyed hearing Rebecca Troelstra’s perspectives on her learnings regarding the culture of her company, AvenueHQ, as it has grown. Particularly, I think she hit the nail on the head when she made some points about our perception in society of what culture is. Here’s a quick tip: putting a ping pong table in your office is not culture. And, as Rebecca said, neither are events or other initiatives that try to make things “fun” without anything else behind them. That doesn’t mean that those things can’t be a part of your office but simply that those actions, devoid of any deeper consideration, won’t culture make. Similarly, Rebecca pointed out that we often expect the office culture we want to come naturally. This assumption usually gets thrown out the window when things are going less than stellar and you realize that “culture” you thought you had can’t weather the storms.  

There’s an interesting juxtaposition between this perspective and what is said that younger generations tend to value in the workplace: a sense of purpose and belonging above traditional motivators like salary and title. Additionally, having worked in many teams, some of which really clicked and others that really didn’t, I can tell you that the work you produce in a strong team is much higher quality. I believe this also trickles into relationships outside of the company: with clients, stakeholders, and customers.

So, how does Rebecca propose you intentionally set your culture? In short, shared values, shared goals, and shared diversity notably not set from the top down but by the team itself. It’s shared responsibility and decision making. No company or team is perfect, but at least this way you know you’re all in it together.

SHEInnovates Alberta: Women Entrepreneurs Making a Difference

The SHEInnovates panel on female entrepreneurship moderated by Judy Fairburn of The51 with additional perspectives from Lindsay Taylor Wood of The Helm, Emily Hicks of FREDsense, and Yvonne van den Berg of Ingu Solutions.

Can I just say how proud I am of Alberta with regards to how we’re leading the game on female-led startups? The number is 30%. Of course, I would like that to be even higher but it is a testament to the entrepreneurial spirit here that encapsulates everyone and the women in this community are no exception. That being said, there’s still a long road ahead when it comes to inclusion and diversity in business and this panel touched on a lot of issues facing our society in this regard.

In general, a lot of discussion regarding this topic focuses on company cultures, access to opportunities, parental leave, etc. These are all areas of issue when it comes to women’s equality and should be addressed. However, this panel spoke a lot about another topic in the space that I think is rarely discussed as it relates to women: capital.

Only 2.7% of venture capital goes to female-led initiatives and women seeking funds are met with a barrage of misogynistic hurdles that men are simply not subjected to (see this article I wrote in 2016 on the subject). Remember how I compared design-led companies to the S&P index above? Well the same can be done when looking at companies with female CEOs. Between 2002 and 2014, equity returns were 226% better than the S&P, according to a study done by Catalyst. (Note to self: invest heavily in design-centric organizations with female CEOs…). When unpacking this a little, this panel made the point that men invest and women can have a tendency to give their money away. To me, that means two things need to happen: men need to consciously invest in women and women need to start embracing an expectation of RETURN.

In short, stop telling women to lean in and start giving them money.  

On another note, the room was completely full and many were crowded at the back because they were unable to get a seat. Let’s stop relegating events like this to the smaller rooms. Put them centre stage. Make them keynotes. As usual, maybe 95% of people in the room were women and, while we can be inspired and influenced by attending, I’d argue that men need to hear the messages in these talks even more.  

I also think it needs to be said that during the whole of this conference I saw several panels that contained proper diversity but some others that, rather unfortunately, did not. Panels without diversity of both gender and race automatically are about half as useful and insightful. No disrespect to the speakers as they all made good contributions but it’s simply no longer acceptable to have panels at conferences that overlook this. It can certainly be difficult to find speakers, but it is too important to ignore. It’s not enough that most of the panels that I saw were diverse: ALL of them need to be. No excuses. We can’t share the best perspectives and ideas if only a portion of us are given a voice.

With all that said, Inventures is truly a fantastic conference and I was truly shocked to find out this was only the second iteration. I’m stoked to see how it continues to grow and help to shape the Albertan entrepreneurial landscape. Dates are already set for next year – I’ll see you there!

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