Ideas out of Thin Air – An Innovative Innovation Event

by Pete Foley

Ideas out of Thin Air - An Innovative Innovation Event - Innovation ExcellenceI am a huge believer that most innovation results from repurposing, recombining or adapting existing ideas in new ways and in new contexts. Often this is unconscious and implicit, as the late great George Harrison discovered. He had no idea that his song My Sweet Lord borrowed extensively from The ChiffonsHe’s so fine, but he still ended up in court.

Sometimes we make these connections explicitly and deliberately. Dyson very deliberately borrowed and adapted the cyclonic separation technology used in sawmills to create his Dyson vacuum. George de Mestral deliberately reapplied the hook and eye structure of a bur to create Velcro, and in so doing became a pioneer of biomimicry or bio inspired innovation.

So in general I am not a big believer that ideas come ‘out of thin air’, but there is at least one exception. I just returned from the Thin Air Innovation Festival in Park City, Utah, and I came back inspired and full of ideas that I literally grabbed out of ‘Thin Air’. There are a lot of innovation conferences out there, and a lot of good ones. I personally owe a lot of my personal growth to Pop!Tech, and to some of the extraordinary people I met there who have inspired me over many years. But that for me is the point.

If I am honest with myself, much of the long-term benefit I get from conferences comes not so much from the talks.  Instead it comes from the interactions with the diverse and brilliant people that I am lucky enough to meet there, and exchange ideas with.

And those connections are the gift that keeps on giving, as these connections often live and flourish long after the conference ends. It’s not that talks aren’t useful or inspiring, it’s just that I personally get more from meeting people, and the connections that occur over dinner, coffee, or a glass of beer.

That is why I felt the Thin Air Festival was so cool, and so innovative. The emphasis was very deliberately shifted from a storytelling event to a story swapping event. An awful lot of effort went into creating a context where those informal discussions and meetings could take place. There was a lot more time between talks. There was a physical location, open all day and all evening, where you could go, grab a cocktail and a snack, and spend quality time talking to other participants. I’m not talking about an opening or closing reception, or a sponsored happy hour, but an ‘open all hours’ marketplace for the exchange of ideas. Of course there were excellent talks, and brilliant, diverse people. I was lucky enough to spend time with people who lead innovative response in disaster situations like the Syrian refugee crisis, satellite designers, and innovators at the cutting edge of drone utilization.

I also exchanged stories with more modest entrepreneurs, who are living the concept of taking existing ideas and reapplying them in smart ways. In that context, I have to give a shout out to Bluapple, who are taking simple technology that has been established in the food service industry for years, and bringing it into people’s homes to reduce food waste.

But what I loved was that I not only had time for those important, informal discussions, discussions, but that the format was designed to catalyze them, and to provide space for them to grow, during the conference. Often, I come back from conferences inspired, but needing a vacation, and struggling to put all the pieces together. This time I’ve come home bubbling with ideas, but also ready to charge ahead with my next project. There was space for the pieces to fall together in real time. Why didn’t I think of that?

image credit: business.utah.gov

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A twenty-five year Procter & Gamble veteran, Pete has spent the last 8+ years applying insights from psychology and behavioral science to innovation, product design, and brand communication. He spent 17 years as a serial innovator, creating novel products, perfume delivery systems, cleaning technologies, devices and many other consumer-centric innovations, resulting in well over 100 granted or published patents. Follow him @foley_pete

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