Rethinking Innovation

Neri OxmanRiveting innovation stories were told during the Business Innovation Factory conference held in Providence, Rhode Island. In its fifth year now, the conference attracted brilliant people from all over the country hungry to learn and discover. Over twenty speakers from different industries, professions and backgrounds were gathered to share how they have ‘innovated’ in their own unique way and created an impact. I made my way to Providence full of curiosity.

Here is where I ask you to broaden your definition of innovation. I think we’ve become too accustomed to think of innovation as an effort that either reduces the bottom line or enhances the top line. Innovation is not only about processes; it also encompasses radical diversions of existing products, ideas built from scratch as well as bottom-up social change.

Neri Oxman’s story was unique, astounding and opened my mind. Oxman, a designer and researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, looks to nature to for practical design answers. Through understanding nature’s relationship with things around her, she is able to visualize new and better structures. Her work has been described as “establishing a new approach to design at the interface of computer science, material engineering and ecology.”

Simply, Oxman’s mission is to change the world by proving how technology can live in harmony with nature. Oxman studies the form, substance and behaviour of a leaf and how these attributes change with the environment. Then, moving from the scale of natural world to the scale of human design, Oxman envisions a building which will endure various environmental conditions in ways such as bending like trees in strong wind to avoid collapsing.

One of Oxman’s ingenious innovations is a chair that shapes itself into a human body. This, to me, gives a whole new dimension to ergonomics. Her work is displayed in the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York.

Oxman is a thinker who challenges our definition of innovation. Is innovation only about increasing efficiency, lowering costs and making improved versions of existing products? Or is it about changing the way we think and ask questions – from “what can we do to make something better”, to “why has something always been done in a certain way.”


Vyoma KapurA marketing professional turned entrepreneur, Vyoma avidly supports and practices open innovation. Earlier this year, she founded Colspark LLC (www.colspark.com), a crowdsourcing platform to help companies tap into student talent for ideas and solutions.

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