Innovation for Extremes : What is Innovation?
The 5th Innovation for Extremes 26 September 2007
Held at Lancaster University Management School, the event was organised by Mike Parsons (OMM Ltd and Honorary Fellow Institute for Entrepreneurship and Enterprise Development – IEED), and Mary Rose, Professor of Entrepreneurship, IEED.
Speakers and panel members from business and academia travelled from Europe, North America and Australia to explore what innovation meant for the outdoor trade in the twenty-first century. Bryan Gray, Chairman of the North West Regional Development Agency (NWDA) opening address emphasised collaboration and the combination of areas of knowledge to achieve innovation.
Sharing and exchanging knowledge involves crossing boundaries, building bridges of understanding which can stimulate innovation. Yet often there can be communication barriers in a company which prevent innovation. Rick Watson of University of Salford in his presentation Incubating and Embedding Innovation- Innovation Cell™.
Combining knowledge and skills old and new or along the supply chain lie at the heart of Polartec’s success. Doug Lumb, the Innovation Vice President of Polartec , showed Polartec could not have been developed if knowledge and history from wool hadn’t crossed over into synthetics. This really was the case of past informing future at every point in the development of fleece. Doug was also clear that innovation was very much about what is needed and what is possible and that this could not be achieved without collaboration. Doug’s presentation was called Form and Function = Innovation and throughout Doug showed that what he wanted was to engage with his customers to understand what he needed. For Doug innovation was rarely achieved unless 2 complementary companies – such as garment makers and fabric makers work together and he vividly recalled working collaboratively with Gordon Davison at Berghaus and Mike Parsons at Karrimor in the 1980s. For him innovation is very much about what is needed and what is possible : ‘ True innovation comes when there is a need from a customer and we have done enough testing to meet this need’.
In a presentation called ‘Reading the Product’ (pdf) Chuck Kukla focused on linking innovative products, customer need and activity. Chuck Kukla is an innovation researcher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology which he combines with advising the outdoor retailers REI. He discussed user- innovation tracking the development process through the supply chain. He showed how especially in larger firms there can be a real knowledge gap between those developing and designing and those selling and even greater with those engaged in sport. He also demonstrated that there were often gaps between the activity knowledge of retail staff in large retail chains and the particular activities of a region, meaning they didn’t always know what to recommend and why. Outdoor sports companies have a long history and tradition of engaging with lead users. By engaging with lead user customers in the design process helps embed generic activity knowledge into designs.
Terry Love also looked at knowledge, innovation and design. Terry began his career working with Tony Howard and Paul Seddon at Troll in the late 1960s before doing an engineering degree at Lancaster University. He is a researcher at from Curtin University of Technology in Australia currently runs his own web design consultancy. His presentation ‘Leaks in outdoor clothing design’ (powerpoint) looked at the design knowledge in outdoor innovation processes and the lags in getting functional designs to market.
There are many myths about innovation and Graham Thompson – TRAIL gear editor and Mark Taylor, Performance Clothing Research Group, University of Leeds showed that while we all think breathable boot linings were hot and sweaty we are wrong. Their presentation ‘Are boots with waterproof linings hot and sweaty?’ (pdf) found that while many manufacturers and gear reporters regularly described lined boots as hot and sweaty there was little to choose between leather boots and fabric boots with breathable linings. In doing this piece of research they showed how easy it is to fundamentally misunderstand a piece of gear. They looked at the possible contributory factors such as other boot features or individual physiology and carried out lab tests followed by field tests and all results confirmed that actually very little difference between leather boots or boots with breathable linings . Makes you wonder how many other myths have developed about familiar products.
Nigel Lockett of InfoLab 21, Lancaster University’s hi tech incubator demonstrated some of the applications of GPS, mobile phones and RFID being developed by combinations of researchers and hi-tech companies. Many innovations involve taking what is there and seeing a new application. His presentation was exciting because it invited the audience to do just that with combinations of technology. It may be a case of watch this space.
The origins of the Innovation for Extremes conference lay in the replication of the 1924 Mallory Everest clothing replicas which began in 2003. George Havenith of Loughborough University tested the replicas using a heated mannequin. The results given in ‘Benchmarking Historical Clothing’ (pdf) confirmed that the clothing was adequate for a quick summit bid in calm conditions it would have been a problem if there had been a change in the weather or an accident, confirming the assumptions of the Mallory project team.
So what is innovation and what does it mean for the outdoor trade?
The expert panels drew the discussions from across the day together with a return to the fundamental question of what innovation is. This led Peter Lumley (Outdoor Industry Trade & Industry) to a collection of old gear and question whether there is really anything new? An interesting one since so often innovation combines old and new or uses something that exists to do something novel. Examples could include W.L. Gore and the application of PTFE, or teflon originally to cables and then to fabrics to develop Gore-Tex®. Those kinds of innovations really do involve crossing boundaries. Knowledge developed in one activity and applied in another seems every bit as innovative as something truly radical.
Doug Lumb said it all when he commented that ‘Imagination begins with individuals and flowers in groups’
Other questions included:
What prototype gear have you believed in but has not taken off?
Why no new innovations?
The impact of offshore manufacturing?
Levels of R and D in the outdoor trade?
Sam Fountain, designer of Shewee.
Award winner of The James Dyson Product Design Award 1999 and British Female Inventor 2006)
“It was a brilliant day, very insightful and a great opportunity to make some good contacts. I will definitely be recommending the next conference”
Ralf-Stefan Beppler, contributing editor WSA
“Great conference. Every minute was worthwhile”
Graham Thompson, Equipment Editor, TRAIL Magazine
“It has been very useful for the media who went along, as we were able to update ourselves on technical trends and at Trail we are currently making use of the various talks to let our readers know of current and future developments.”
Peter Lumley editor, Outdoor Trade & Industry
“Technical, revealing, educational….definitely not a conference too far”