Mitchell Sava
Leon Hovanesian

FEI Conference Recap: Design and innovation come together

It’s our belief that design and innovation are increasingly intertwined. All of the hallmarks of modern innovation – agile and iterative methods, being open to ideas and inspiration from the outside world, and applying a human-centered lens – are also central to what designers have been doing for decades. All of these hallmarks were on display at the recent Front End of Innovation (FEI) Conference, where innovation practitioners and thought leaders from around the globe convened to compare notes, spot trends, and seek support from fellow birds-of-a-feather.

At the end of the day, it was gratifying not only to see our perspectives gaining traction in the greater world of innovation, but to hear anecdotes directly from organizations small and large about how innovation is maturing as a discipline and design is moving center stage.

From Things to People

Grounding innovation in terms of the user, rather than the technology, was one of the major recurring themes (although not yet entirely pervasive) we heard at many of the sessions. Like Mars and Hasbro teaming up together with Walmart to drive growth with the idea behind “Big Night In.” By grounding their work in real human insights, and involving users from the outset to co-create solutions, the group ended up with an idea with massive power. Hasbro games and M&Ms were prominently displayed together in Walmart stores in the family-friendly promotion that tapped into genuine human desires and shifted perception of M&Ms as an impulsive guilty snack into something which can enable togetherness, comfort and (non-digital!) family fun.

From Thinking to Making

“People” may have been a hot subject, but “doing” was the meta-method du jour. Different words were used – prototyping, testing, experimenting, trying things out, etc. – but all conveyed the general zeitgeist that although prototyping has long been a component of the innovation process, it needs to be brought further forward, and done in a much more iterative manner.  In the words one of the speakers, the quickest way to test assumptions, explore ideas, and learn from failures is to “get something in the hands of the user.” Question, make, test, and repeat.

From Workshop to Makeshop

As we reported in our day-by-day posts, our own mobile Makeshop brought this to life during the event itself. We converted our booth into a space for joint exploration of method and subject. We ran a three-day design study on shifting minds from things to people with an evolving set of questions to participants, which invited them into our way of thinking and doing, to test hypotheses and generate insights – and translate these into service concepts.


The design study process was further amplified in our session: “Flip your Thinking: Shift from Things to People.” Rather than deliver a conventional presentation or panel, we decided instead to harness the collective capacity of our packed room. We quickly put people to work in a three-part exercise that gave participants a taste of service design in just 45 minutes.

From Misfit to Agent

There were many keynote speakers during the conference that addressed the methods or processes of innovation. One in particular, Alexa Clay, struck us as quite “Fjordian” for her divergent approach to uncovering insights of the “Misfit Economy.” She describes herself as “culture hacker and innovation strategist,” using these skills to reveal concepts both emergent and prescient. The Misfit Economy explores the fringe side of innovation with gangsters on the corners of rough New York City neighborhoods, young hackers on the digital frontlines, and even pirates of the 18th century high seas. Her talk centered around how to think like some of the underworld’s most creative, innovative and forward-thinking individuals. She propositioned new personas for innovation provocation such as “the whistleblower” for network creation, “the gangster” for recruitment and retention, and “the smuggler” as R&D for trafficking (global supply chain management). This was brought to life during a captivating work session featuring Antonio Fernandez (aka “King Tone”), former leader of the Latin Kings, on whom the New York Times once authored a piece titled “Man of Vision or of Violence.” He spoke about his initiatives to end long-standing violence with rival gangs and extending civic outreach. Corporate innovation directors and executives were hanging on his every word to learn his secrets to change.

From Managing Risk to Leading Change

A final theme centered on the relationship of innovation to “risk and change.” Keynote speaker Vijay Govindarajan – author of innovation-mainstay “Reverse Innovation” and recently the “Three-Box Solution” – put it eloquently: “To achieve change for innovation, we must fold back the future, not push forward the present.”

A powerful statement, but also a rousing endorsement for design-led innovation.

Mitchell Sava
Leon Hovanesian

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