The view from the Innovation Edge

Innovation_edge In the 18 months or so since I’ve worked at Nesta we’ve hosted probably over 100 small events (by small I mean for around 50 and 150 people). Yesterday we cranked things up a couple of notches and then some, and hosted the Innovation Edge conference at the Royal Festival Hall in London.

Over 3000 people registered, I’m not sure how many people turned up in the end but needless to say it was a lot. Somebody said to me that there were 3000 people who didn’t really know why they were there – it was meant as a joke however on reflection I think that is strangely a good thing. What other forums exist to convene such a diverse crowd – I think we need more opportunities like that.

The highlights for me, and most people I think, were Tim Berners Lee, Bob Geldof, and even Gordon Brown, and the exhibition space too which was buzzing. They all managed to make a big meta subject like innovation very real and voiced strong opinions in different ways. Several people have commented that the panel discussions were less successful and I have to agree (though I only attended 2). It’s really hard to have an interesting and intimate conversation with 700 people in the room – a challenge for many big conferences and something we’ll need to learn from. Next time I’d be keen to combine the big name keynotes from the likes of Tim, Bob and Gordon (sounds like a Cornish folk band to me!) with a much more fluid and informal afternoon session.

The video and audio from these sessions and the rest of the day can be found here.

The whole day was also rather bizarre for me as I was manning the conference twitter account. Twitter, for those that haven’t heard of it yet, is a service for people to communicate through the exchange of quick and brief comments. You can see the outcome from the experiment here (though you’ll need to scroll back to posts yesterday). There were at least 150 people tweeting. I have mixed feeling about this experiment. I do feel strongly that social media are changing social dynamics at conferences, as they are elsewhere, and we should embrace them. However I don’t think I’ve seen it used brilliantly yet. It was interesting if not a little distracting to engage with it during the sessions. It can be, and unfortunately it was at times yesterday, used rather negatively. However I think we have discovered a new phenomenon of at least one reported case of post event twitter hangover. It did enable me to meet up with a bunch of twitterati in several of the breaks, none of whom I knew, but was a great way of networking at such a huge event.

We’ll now surely revert to hosting a series of smaller events as before, for some time including hosting Tim Berners Lee in person on July 8th, which I’m very much looking forward to (more details on that shortly). However, on balance, I think its good to have a big bold event like Innovation Edge once in a while and based on much of the verbal and virtual feedback I’ve seen today, I think we pulled it off.

As always, I’d be very keen to hear your views or opinions on the day, how it could and should be different next time round, and on the use of social media at conferences etc…


  1. I’d definitely second the idea of a mix of large and small events. Yesterday was an excellent, thought provoking and inspiring. However, smaller events provide better opportunity for peer discussion and learning, which can be a highly productive way of evolving best practices and understanding what specifically needs to happen across different areas to ensure that the UK does lead the world in innovation.
    I believe it can, by pooling our talents and working together, and as I UK business man, I am grateful for NESTA’s part in enabling that to happen.

  2. What the event flagged up to me above all else was the intense moment of social, economic and political change that we have entered and how unsettling this is for individuals and organisations learning to deal with the growing pains that come with it, everyone involved groping their way forward into a Brave New World while nervous of releasing themselves from the shackles of the past.
    This struck me particularly while thinking about the experiences of three groups during the event.
    From the twitterati (representing something new and exciting, a form of meta-conferencing providing a live check and balance to the rather outmoded conference format on the one hand, while immediately apologetic to the powers that be for challenging the established norms on the other) to NESTA (being the change it wants to see, putting itself out on a limb, taking a risk, encouraging challenge and transparency, while doing little to challenge the tradition of a coterie of elevated experts passing down knowledge to their passive audience, backed up by a perhaps overly pushy passage of PR and self-promotion) to the Prime Minister himself (on the one hand attempting to learn, move on, embrace the new world order of individuals and networks over centralised control, crack a joke even, versus the man who can’t – and perhaps shouldn’t – let go of the skills and behaviours that got him where he is today no matter how analogue that might make him).
    In many ways rather than being unsettled by these tensions, contradictions and uncertainties, I find them rather reassuring. Reassured that it is clear that not one of us has all the answers, that change is affecting us all deeply (from individuals to organisations to world leaders) and that the only way through it is together.
    And it is in their role as conveners, of stimulators of interaction and catalysts for conversation that events like Innovation Edge remain essential in providing a forum for us all to come together, to share our thoughts, experiences and fears, supporting one another and refocusing our efforts on our collective future.

  3. I was confined to home for the day, so I enjoyed the Twitter stream, especially those from people like, who provided short, almost instantaneous, quotes from speakers.
    I agree with Dominic, that we’re learning how to use these new technologies and to grapple with the changes and potential changes they bring. I’m fond of Twitter, mainly because it’s so easy – and mobile; but I’m only just beginning to develop ideas about the many different ways it could be used.
    Back channels like Twitter were used very successfully at LIFT ( in Geneva in February 2008, with delegates enriching the experience by , for example, researching and linking to relevant web pages. Skype seemed to be the most successful channel as in some way it was robust enough for everyone to stay connected.
    LIFT was great, but I won’t be lugging my laptop around again. It wasn’t necessary – every presentation was filmed and put online (hurrah), a multitude of people were live blogging, making my puny efforts superfluous, and it was possible to contact any and every delegate there through the Conference website. Far from frenetically multi-tasking, one could relax and become absorbed in the experience of listening and reflecting.

  4. I attended as a business woman, but actually found I was most engaged as a mother, by the education section. It was interesting to hear of the panels agreement that we need to introduce some additional R’s to the education system, including the teaching of resilience and risk taking. My 6 year old son (and most of his friends) have resilience and risk taking naturally already (otherwise we would never have survived as a species) and it appears to me that the current education system is designed to remove that from an early age. Based on what I heard yesterday, we need to move, in my opinion, towards an ‘organicizing’ (great new word) of the education system similar to what happened in the food industry. I think we are currently in the turkey twizzler stage of education_ over processing our kids until all neutrients are gone and then frantically trying to work out how to put that goodness back in again. I want to see more ‘organic’ kids whos’s natural resilience and risk taking is loving nurtured and encouraged in the safe environment of the education system. And whilst I’m here….education system? We need to change the name_ how about enabling system? Whether we like it or not, these kids will be creating the world in which we all live, so we’d best start listening to them now. Ahhh…now back to work_ need to remove mum head for a few hours.

  5. I think for me the success of the Innovation Edge conference was in its ambition and atmosphere – it really did feel like we were all gathered under the roof of the RFH to do something, although perhaps not entirely sure what!
    The thing that didn’t work so well – reiterating what many seemed to say – was that the afternoon sessions were more pedestrian by comparison after the big picture stuff at the beginning of the day.
    I liked the idea of the networking posts linking people by interest through the online element that went on beforehand, but thought this could have been made much more of. After all, going to this kind of event is all about the people you connect with just as much as the new ideas you connect with.
    Maybe could look at combining the larger scale keynote sessions with micro-sessions on a huge self-organising scale? Then having nothing ‘seminar-sized’ inbetween. Could be exciting!

  6. Amazing comments all thanks. Can’t do justice to them all here but I love the combination/contradiction of the big brand, big name conference and the growing murmer of the audience amplified by twitter. The twitter thing didn’t cost a penny and we didn’t give it much thought – it’s the experimentation that’s important – not the chat. Certainly not claiming to have the answers – perhaps convening a conversation is enough. I liked the ambition too and the wierd juztaposition of being in a concert hall – only Bob really rose to fill that stage but i guess that’s his background. Thanks all again.

  7. It was great to have a conference that large devoted to innovation. But it also felt as if there should be a lot more space for a large “fringe” of smaller exhibits and meetings as well as opportunities for people to meet up around themes at the beginning and end of the “mainstream” day.
    Twitter i think is potentially great but we need to get better at using it. As a session chair would have been great to have some way to drawn more easily on comments/questions or to get the twitters to do something collective.
    Roland we shd experiment a bit more with how we can use twitter at and around these events…
    Maybe there shd be a way for people to jointly elect a temporary Twitter conductor/moderator who might either represent views or orchestrate them…?
    Just a thought…

  8. I’d agree there – we need new models for chairing that bring in the back channel – and help capture the questions from the floor as well – as I felt quite often in the panels questions from the floor delivered by standing up and speaking were getting as lost as questions on the twitter back channel.
    Having a second person tracking questions and answers – able to feed those to the main chair would be well worth exploring.

  9. Excellent comment by Dominic. I quite agree.
    As a NESTA alumnus, I was extremely proud to see the extraordinary turnout on the day; a real contrast from the comparatively more muted event of 18 months earlier (which, at the time, I also found impressive). It was a testament to the evolution NESTA has gone through over the past 2 years and the positive, catalytic, impact it has had on the broader innovation community. Perhaps even greater was the event’s impressive indication of the immense hunger this nation has for exploration and debate on the variety of subjects threaded together under the ‘innovation’ moniker.
    Nonetheless, given this was held by an organisation championing innovation, I can’t help but feel that the event was a missed opportunity for something significantly more innovative in its objectives, scope and structure.
    This is perhaps an unfair criticism. This was the first event NESTA has held at any such scale, with an immensely diverse audience and a very broad remit. Applying a classic conference approach (i.e. plenary keynotes, medium-sized ‘breakouts’ with panels, a bit of networking) was an entirely rationale approach. It was, without a doubt, a logistical and networking success. Given such constraints, perhaps it is inappropriate for me to have expected even more than that.
    Nonetheless, expect more I did.
    Let’s think about this. NESTA had well over *1000* people passionate about innovation together in one place. There was a Prime Minister, Ministers of State, policy-makers across fields and regions, leading venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, social media mavens, entertainers, architects, designers, scientists, educators, and practitioners from across sectors — all under one roof. What incredible expertise. What a collection of ideas. What massive potential.
    Just imagine what could have been tackled by such an accumulation of interdisciplinary acumen, political authority, and financial capacity, if we had but tried to harness it all towards something more specific: a major social issue perhaps; new forms of interaction or public engagement; maybe even the future of UK itself (a la the impressive event recently mounted in Australia).
    Would that have been difficult? No doubt. Would there have been a significant chance for failure or media criticism? Absolutely.
    But such is the price for innovation, and I can’t imagine any other organisation better suited to pay such a price, take such a risk, and launch such an adventure.
    I eagerly look forward to Innovation Edge ’09.

  10. I liked Dominic’s comment enormously and share his enthusiasm for the day.
    It is also interesting to see that there is an increasing requirement to look at formats for these events, not just the subjects and speakers and all the factors contribute to how things are put together, not least the number of people, breadth of discussion etc.
    I personally took part and followed the Twittering in Charlie’s seminar which was an experience I have felt the need to discuss with several people since. The dynamic of hearing an audience’s opinion, while the discussion is taking place, is really compelling, and it stimulates a desire to participate that I haven’t experienced at other similar events without twitter.
    Watching the twitter back discussion is also diverting (I missed a lot), possibly disrespectful to the speakers themselves, distracting to people sitting next to or near you and can, I think, possibly, in some of us, but not all, draw out our more childlike aspects.
    But how exciting to be twittering. How lovely the thought that a question could reach the conversation without having to stand up with a microphone.
    We just need to work out how to introduce new ways of bringing in that excitement and contribution that comes with participation, and minimising or managing the less positive aspects of live connectivity.
    And well done to NESTA for creating spaces where these interesting experiences and discussions can be held!

  11. Again, enjoying all the contributions here. re: an additional moderator to monitor twitter/social media activity I think this is the solution in the short term and I prefer this to the potentially very disruptive broadcast approach where all comments appear on a screen for all to see. Re the potential of Innovation Edge 09, Mitch, I like the scale of your ambition – we’re learning as we go but all your feedback and support are genuinely appreciated.

  12. I thought the event was wonderful considering the scale and it was great to see an innovation conference being innovative itself even if it didn’t always work perfectly (twitter / breakout sessions) it is nice to see an organisation without a fear of failure!
    I am very surprised however that more conversation hasn’t been dedicated to the exhibition companies which I thought were excellent and I had an amazing time speaking with these individuals.

  13. I echo Dominic and Mitchell above. I was surprised and pleased by the scale and breadth of participation but a little disappointed in the format and content (which did not quiet work for me) and left me feeling that NESTA was not too sure what it wanted to achieve from the day. Part flag-waving, part thought leadership, part annual conference, part justification, part social experiment, part networking, part investment showcase – it is hard to achieve all of these (and more) in any one (day) event and I feel NESTA should re-think its objectives next time around and structure around those. More can be achieved to move the innovation agenda forward and tap the willing participation and thirst for knowledge and sharing that was evident. I would suggest “Think, Play, Do” as useful tags for the next one – I look forward to participating in its success!

  14. I really enjoyed the Innovation Edge Conference. I have been described as a bit of an inspirational leader myself, and I am very easy inspired by the work of others.
    I found the talks by Bob Geldof, Sam Pitroda, Lord Puttnam and Jeremy Leggett particularly
    interesting and I thank them.
    When Bob Geldof spoke about failure, I thought about myself learning to walk again after a nearly fatal road accident in 1985. My injury effected by balance – so I had to fall and stumble literally thousands of times.
    Here I am though, now 23 years later with 1 beautiful teenager, 1 B.Sc degree and and a business idea.
    My basic idea is to produce power from passing traffic – if any one out there is interested please blog back.
    Thanks NESTA

  15. Think Play Do sound like an excellent mantra for such a day and David Gann and his team’s book of the same name are definitely a big influence. And yes, Rachel, I quite agree, the exhibitors were the unsung heros of the day. Finally, Theresa, very pleased you found inspiration at the event. Thanks again.

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