Thinking Outside the Box: Innovation

“Innovation” is a buzzword used in many circles from business to politics to the media. Defined on dictionary.com as “something new or introduced,” it is an important concept as we increasingly rely on technology and embrace a high-tech future. Fast Company calls young innovators in business “Generation Flux.”

I recently attended a guest lecture on social entrepreneurship and innovation from Tim Zak, an opportunity made available to me through the Voinovich School. Zak is a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and the director of the school’s Institute for Social Innovation. He defined three qualities necessary for any innovation: it must be new, substantially better, and able to sustain itself. Zak said an innovation must also have some combination of economic and social value.

To innovate, you have to find some way of “thinking outside the box” and differentiating your ideas from the status quo. This is something you likely will not learn from a standard degree program. But how do you learn to think differently or teach yourself to do so? I have wrestled with these questions recently.

I believe one of the best ways to learn how to think differently is by immersing yourself in the language of people who put innovation into practice. My favorite group of innovators is called “BCI: Biomimicry for Creative Innovation.” BCI is “a network of creative innovators, professional change agents, biologists and design professionals who work in creative collaboration with each other and our clients to apply ecological thinking for radical transformation.” They describe biomimicry as “the conscious emulation of nature’s genius” with applications for “applying ideas and strategies from nature to human products, processes, and systems to bring both inspiration and proven solutions that can help resolve the complex and dynamic problems facing business and society.” Sustainability, resilience, and values-led business are at the core of what they call a “business inspired by nature.”

Biomimicry and “business inspired by nature” are relatively new concepts. The term “biomimicry” appeared as early as 1982 and was popularized in Janine Benyus’ 1997 book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. However, I don’t see the term in mainstream discourse, and certainly not so in business. But the professionals at BCI are applying these principles to business, which is crucial if we are to meet the demands of a growing global population yet stay within the constraints of a planet with finite resources and limits to its assimilation of waste for human health and greenhouse gases for a stable climate.

Biomimicry has 9 basic principles:

  1. Nature runs on sunlight
  2. Nature uses only the energy it needs
  3. Nature fits form to function
  4. Nature recycles everything
  5. Nature rewards cooperation
  6. Nature banks on diversity
  7. Nature demands local expertise
  8. Nature curbs excesses from within
  9. Nature taps the power of limits

The principles of biomimicry bring me back to my original question: how do you learn to think differently? How do you make the connection between nature and innovation, and then between nature’s innovation and business? How do you know what the best ideas are to solve problems?

I’m not sure I have answers to any of these questions. Some of it is probably genetic ability, and perhaps part of it is simply taking the time to slow down in our hectic lives and think more. After reading about these cutting-edge ideas I now have a new career goal: to become a thought leader, change agent, and innovator. Before, I simply hoped to be a sustainability strategy consultant. Now I see I can do both.

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Long Lives

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of being invited to several events with Senator Voinovich and his wife, Speaker Davidson, and other distinguished guests. I dashed around town for two days in business attire so as to look presentable for these engagements. Looking back, I’m glad I dealt with nylons for 18 hours on back-to-back days; it’s good to be well-dressed for moments that change your outlook on life.

Both of these distinguished individuals have dedicated their working lives to this country as public servants. Then, because they hadn’t given enough, they retired and continued to advocate and advise others on behalf of their favorite causes. Not only are their records impressive, their knowledge and dedication are remarkable! I had the esteemed honor of sitting next to both of them through a meal, and I walked away from both occasions affected by the encounter.

With Senator Voinovich, I was inspired by the fact that he is going on 80 years old and still doesn’t feel he has the time to write an autobiography. He taught me to believe that it is possible to continue to “fight the good fight” long after you’ve left the capital city. The conviction with which he spoke about working for the good of his constituents could have roused hard-nosed individuals from either side of the aisle. In addition, he took a sincere interest in every student present, questioning each before handing over a certificate as if they were being interviewed for their own biography.

With former Speaker Davidson, I was awed by her sheer power of presence. She commands respect just through eye-contact. I felt myself striving for her approval and advice all the way through lunch, even congratulating myself after she praised me for having selected her meal of choice (without realizing it before ordering)! Never before has one woman’s praise/ suggestions meant so much to me in the space of an hour. Side note: she has her own leadership academy! I’m adding Davidson Leadership Program to my list of things to look into.

Lessons Learned:

  • Yes, you do use that tiny fork with your salad to start. Every time, no matter what meal.
  • Yes, you may talk with your mouth full as long as you are hiding discreetly behind the oversized cloth napkin. No, autobiographies are not just glorified journals of famous people.
  • Yes, I do want to have something other than a newspaper article written about me.
  • Yes, political history is fascinating. But, living and interacting with the individuals who have shaped political history is even better!

A Whirlwind Week

This week we I had some very exciting PA experiences.

First, myself, Dr. Ruhil and the other students in class (like fellow blogger Amanda Janice) traveled to Portsmouth to visit the Gaseous Diffusion Plant. Our public policy class has been centered around the repurposing of the plant, which the Voinovich School has been contracted to assist with. Out class has been tasked with coming up with policy background information (my group is working on the economic development portion). At the plant we toured the facility and learned the history of the plant. As a history lover, I really enjoyed learning more about the Cold War-era happenings and how the plant adjusted once it was over. It really gave me a different perspective on the project, as well as a new energy for learning more about it. (Check out the virtual museum here.)

Yesterday, Senator Voinovich himself visited my organization theory class to talk with us about public-private partnerships. During his time as mayor of Cleveland, he utilized public-private partnerships to makeover the city’s infrastructure. It was great to hear how it worked from the person who engineered it. I definitely suggest you check out the George Voinovich Archives oh the OU Library website.

In other news, we’re starting to get down to the wire with week eight just around the corner. I can’t believe the last quarter at Ohio University EVER is almost over, (as we are switching to semesters next year) it’s hard to believe.

Have a great weekend!