Author Archives: Michela Magas

Introducing the Industry Commons

Since I wrote ‘7 ingredients to build a successful innovation ecosystem’ we have scaled our methodology to become what we now call the Industry Commons. In this video I address the theory behind it, and the challenge of constructing new kinds of mental models for the physical internet.

The development of the Industry Commons is the logical consequence of the original project’s impacts. By the time we rolled out our Market Testbed our project had hit 5.5 million impacts on social media, one of our startup teams had already filed a patent for heavy industry, agriculture and forestry; one hit the Forbes ‘top entrepreneur’ list; another received €1 million in follow-up funding; and partner institutions had several papers and book chapters accepted for publication as byproducts of the process. Industry had donated IP to our toolkit and some of the first transversal applications were created – and ported across to other industry verticals. Our methodologies were translated into high level innovation recommendations for the European Commission’s future research and innovation programme.

Since then, through the Industry Commons, we developed a way to safely bolt disruptive innovation on top of existing industry capabilities. 13th June 2017 saw the official launch of this idea with a keynote at the European Commission Open Innovation 2.0 conference and Industry Commons has since been adopted as a key recommendation for the future of European open innovation policy.

The above speech was delivered as part of the Worldwide IoT Day, to a Rotterdam meetup focused on Art and Imagination in IoT, on 9 April 2017.

Interview for the Woman Innovator Prize 2017

What made you choose to become an entrepreneur? 

There are things I want to create or make possible in the world that simply cannot be achieved in the context of conventional employment. The process of (re)invention starts from the ground up. I like to question how something is organised; what are the guiding principles; do they still reflect the state of technological progress; do they still fulfil their social obligation? Most traditional employment requires a narrow view, one that fits neatly into a slot and follows a linear progression without questioning its foundations. I find that real solutions to challenges often require a rethinking of the supporting structures, which may be perceived as disruptive by conventional standards. Becoming an entrepreneur is the result of this quest to find truly useful solutions from the ground up.

What advice would you give to a woman taking the step of setting up her own business?

Go for it! We need more of the female perspective reflected in our everyday business practices. Countries which insist on 50/50 female/male Steering Boards have registered greater prosperity as a result.

What does the term ‘innovator’ mean to you personally?

An innovator is traditionally someone driven by solutions to challenges, or by curiosity and discovery. It can be someone who imagines the world to be different and sets out to create that difference, or someone who experiments and discovers a different world. Both bring together creativity and science, and in today’s society neither can operate entirely alone. For me personally, an innovator is someone who knows how to join the dots between knowledge from different fields of research and industry, and a variety of cultural viewpoints. It is at the intersection of worlds that we currently find the most promising scenarios, and through knowledge collisions that we discover the best solutions.

Was the research and innovation funding helpful to you?

Radical ideas require validation before they can seek traditional funding. Where ideas are potentially disruptive, they can find resistance from investors because of the high level of risk attached and lack of clear business models upfront. EU research and innovation funding is uniquely placed to support highly risky but potentially game-changing initiatives. Especially where the social impact is notable, the EU funding can afford to take the long-term view and measure the impact beyond immediate income potential. For all these reasons the EU funding was an essential enabler for our initiatives.

Have you faced any prejudice being a woman in your domain?

I was once asked by a male professor in front of a large auditorium of hundreds of students, how did I feel about being a woman designer and entrepreneur – did I feel equal to men? I answered: “With no disrespect, I do not wish to be anything like you. I believe I bring a lot more to the table by offering a woman’s perspective.” An entrepreneur is a state of mind, not a gender.

How can Europe encourage more women innovators?

Our tests show that by opening challenges to creativity and experimentation we get a much better gender balance. We have a clear 50/50 gender split across our children’s workshops, as well as in our creative laboratories for professionals of all backgrounds. We have reached 33% female innovators in our industry testbeds.

Is there a symbol, a proverb, a quote, an idea, that has guided you throughout your professional or private life?

Since my early studies, back in 1990, I had Michael Faraday’s “All this is a dream – still examine it with a few experiments” pinned up on my desk. It has never failed me. The Dennis Gabor quote “The future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented” and the later version by Alan Kay “The best way to predict the future is to invent it” has become the motto of our community.

Was it an easy road to arrive where you are now? 

I haven’t ‘arrived’ yet – I am still on a journey. It has never been an easy road, there have always been great obstacles and I am still experiencing many of those, but it is a tremendously rewarding journey when you are travelling in the company of a community of brilliant and intelligent people.

What future did you dream about when you were a child?

From a very early age, I was always inspired and fascinated by those people who received the Nobel Peace Prize. It seemed grandiose and far-fetched within the context I was living in at that time, growing up in what was then a restricted, and severely troubled country, about to embark into a war. I was mocked for being a child with big ambitions, but I wanted to be the sort of person who can make a positive impact of that kind.

How should we encourage young kids to become interested in science and innovation?

What we should be encouraging above anything else is the spirit of experimentation, in both the arts and the sciences. There are many ways in which children can meaningfully express themselves. Currently we are focusing almost exclusively on the written word, but modern technology offers children many useful methods of expression that can bridge language barriers and social divides. We need to allow and encourage them to create their own language and expression by discovering their own methods and building their own tools. In order to achieve this, just as with sport, children need some equipment, a place to play and some supportive coaching. With the help of wonderful coaches and role models from our community, parents tell us that their children have become ‘hooked for life’ on science, engineering and creative experimentation.

Are there any life events or persons who have changed your life and contributed to make you the person you are today?

All of the places and people around us make us who we are. I came from a place which is at the crossroads of several European cultures, and from a very early age learnt how to bridge between them. I also witnessed the horrors of civilian conflict and what fear of the unknown can do even to the most educated minds. It often takes just one person to have the courage to create a space where people can “suspend disbelief” and come to a place of common understanding, and this often happens through the arts. For us music has become the social glue – it attracts people from all cultural, intellectual and social backgrounds. It enables them to experiment freely with technology on neutral ground without the pressures of peer reviews or restrictions of jargon. Instead they become fascinated by the other’s knowledge and form strong, long-term bonds which allow them to combine disparate fields of knowledge to solve complex challenges. This not only serves to prevent future conflicts but the resulting innovations also make sound economic sense.

What else is there close to your heart that you would like to share with the readers?

Conflict resolution and economic advancement thorough innovation go hand in hand. Where fear is used to drive profits, this usually creates a short term cash injection, but long-term leaves entire nations poorer. Creating new ways to communicate and exchange knowledge is one of the most effective ways to enrich cultures and advance economies. We have witnessed entirely new methods of communication in our testbeds. The written word is a wonderful “method of translation” for ideas popularised by the technological invention of the printing press, but also presents cross-cultural challenges. New technologies allow us to rely less on the written word and more on gesture and signalling, the way that children do. A new kind of intelligent communication medium will emerge from this world (imagine it as a new kind of “Twitter”), and when it does, you will want to invest in it.

7 ingredients to build a successful innovation ecosystem 

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Last week Commissioner Moedas published a report on the direct impact that investing in innovation has on EU economy. While this analysis was being conducted, at Stromatolite we used 20 years of innovation experience – from earlier futures concepts for large multinationals such as Apple, Nike and Nokia, to the last 4 years of building a global community of 5000 innovators – to test some of our earlier observations and assumptions and put them into practice. In other words, we invested in hands-on building of an innovation ecosystem.

During this process over the past 15 months, we witnessed something extraordinary – the innovation toolkit we developed with EU research centres hit 1.5 million impacts on social media; 11 unique new product ideas using the toolkit were incubated to first level prototype, one patenting process was initiated in month 10; two new startups founded, the new R-IoT microboard has already been batch tested for production; and as a byproduct of the extremely fast knowledge transfer, several peer-reviewed papers and one book chapter were published. Two projects are now nominated for major international awards and several are being discussed with multinationals and global distributors for deployment.

Here is how we made this happen:

1) Place creativity at the heart of innovation.

Creative thinking is the fuel for an enthusiastic exchange of ideas. In our case the project is called #MusicBricks because music is our social glue. It attracts experts from far afield into a neutral space for an extremely fast knowledge transfer. The Music Industry provides an excellent template for experimentation in the new IoT-enabled innovation space: it thrives on big data; it relies on cloud services; it attracts communities; it provides fast feedback loops for experimentation; it allows for quick prototyping and cheap testing of technology ideas; and it allows to port tested ideas successfully to other industry verticals (if this last claim arouses suspicion, feel free to jump directly to point 7).

2) Enable an extremely fast knowledge transfer.

We build toolkits which interface between research and innovation communities. In January 2015 we set out to create the #MusicBricks toolkit by turning the excellence from EU music tech research centres into APIs, GUIs and TUIs (Tangible User Interfaces). By the end of May 2015, they were ready for deployment and testing with our community of creative developers and early adopters over challenges of accessibility, health and communication. By month 9 we had 11 product prototypes built with the toolkit, by month 10 the first patent being filed.

3) Set up open innovation IP parameters. 

Our Consortium Agreement was completely rewritten to enable interfacing with Background IP, deployment of newly created Research IP with adopter-friendly licenses, and creation of a layer of Innovation IP to motivate the wider community of innovators and early adopters.

4) Bring the best brains into the room.

A range of different literacies of digital making such as those shared within ad hoc teams that form within innovation ecosystems, seldom lie exclusively within the domain of a single individual or organisation. We are privileged to have access to some of the most brilliant researchers and innovators from varied fields of expertise, age groups, gender, cultural backgrounds, skills and interests. We embedded #MusicBricks into our Music Tech Fest community platform, where we set out to unite art and science, and academia and industry in a space of common understanding. When our close community surpassed 4000 members, our call response rate registered 25% regular engagement. At our first creative testbed we achieved 33% female innovators. The healthy mix of knowledge and engagement makes for an extremely vibrant ideas ecosystem.

5) Get your hands dirty. 

Our community do not read peer-reviewed papers to each other. They literally show each other how to do things. The experimental ‘hack’ is not simply an intellectual game, but a material practice – an act of thinking out loud, embodied in physical and working objects. IoT-enabled gesture-driven and audiovisual-signalling feedback loops are becoming sophisticated tools for communication in this context.

6) Give ample support to valuable ideas. 

Regular supply of knowledge and funds are both key to enable growth of innovation ideas. Hitting knowledge barriers can seriously affect timely delivery: direct access to an expert is key at those times. We spent 662 hours in face-to-face, Slack and Skype conversations with our incubatees, and this investment generously paid off. Motivation quickly drops if cashflow stops, and efforts are diverted to alternative sources of income. We ensured microfunding was available for first level industry prototypes and partnered with local incubators to provide further support.

 7) Plug ideas into a network. 

Ideas do not exist in isolation. Within innovation ecosystems research and developer teams are able to place their findings into the hands of people who will test them to their limits, and situate theoretical and intellectual results within real world environments to adapt their tools and make them more flexible, more robust and ultimately more useful to a variety of markets. With creativity at the heart, at Stromatolite we are trained to understand the wider context of an application, and spot the next serendipitous ‘Post-It’ note discovery. From the beginning of our project, we were scanning the horizon to identify verticals and markets for lateral deployment. As an outcome of the patenting process initiated in month 10 of the project, we are in talks with a multinational in the forestry and agriculture sector with the aim to streamline their heavy machinery operations.

As Commissioner Moedas places emphasis on investment in innovation, we have demonstrated that by using these 7 core ingredients even modest investment in creative innovation can radically impact industry verticals. Think what you could achieve in a large scale pilot using these principles…

 

Aside from building Innovation Ecosystems through Stromatolite Innovation Lab and its spinoffs Music Tech Fest and #MusicBricks, Michela Magas is currently co-chairing Innovation Ecosystems Group for the EU Alliance of Internet of Things Innovation (AIOTI), and co-writing the CAF Innovation Advisory recommendations for the H2020 Work Programme 2018/2019. 

The image above is from FindingSomEthingBondingSoUnding – a project which uses EEG readers and the R-IoT microboard to detect neurofeedback in reaction to gesture, incubated to first level prototype through the #MusicBricks project. #MusicBricks has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement 644871.