Case Studies on Innovation through a Recession

Perhaps the only thing these days as common as comments of woe and catastrophe, are comments on how the recession is an ideal time for investment and innovation. Numerous organisations, including my old employer NESTA, have released reports on innovating through the recession.

We have recently been asked to put together a set of case studies on companies which have survived and thrived through a depression or recession. In particular, our client is interested in cases in which a company has emerged from a recession a stronger organisation due to some form of innovation (writ large).

We’re looking to write ten of these case studies, and I’d welcome any suggestions or thoughts from those of you Out There. These are the time periods and themes we’ve thought of thus far:

Time periods for consideration:

  • C19 Recession
  • 1930s Depression
  • 1970s US recession
  • 1990s UK recession
  • 1990s Japanese recession
  • 2000s Post .com recession

Business model innovation themes for consideration:

  • Moving into new markets
  • Switching from product to services provider
  • Customer experience strategy
  • Disintermediation / Partnering / Leveraging across value chain
  • New staffing models / wage cuts / organisational model / innovative staff relationship
  • Ownership structure
  • Industry consolidation
  • Investment in R&D

Any other ideas on these (and demonstrable case studies) would be greatly appreciated. Thoughts?

Some words for NESTA Investments

In a recent TechCrunch article, Nick Halstead of wrote some observations on the government’s new debt-related support interventions for small and medium businesses.  For odd reasons, though, he concluded the article with a brief “scathing” criticism of NESTA Investments.  Amusingly, this last paragraph seems to have generated more debate than the substance of his article.  As an ex-NESTA employee, I felt obliged to join in the fray.

A few words in defense of NESTA: as a CEO of a web 2.0 start-up, I certainly sympathise with your frustration.  However, it would be arrogant of us to assume that “Technology” only includes Web 2.0 developments.  Indeed, Web 2.0 activity in the UK only comprises a fraction of technological development, and associated investment into this space.  As a technology fund, NESTA Investments actively pursues and manages a portfolio of investments in ICT (particularly high-tech hardware), biotech, and cleantech.

Additionally, as NESTA funding currently originates from the public purse (technically, from lottery proceeds) as taxpayers we should be pleased that they are investing their resources on areas in which they have solid expertise (and accordingly, can make more intelligent investments and provide meaningful support to their portfolio), rather than pouring money into whatever technology seems ‘hot’ at the moment.

Furthermore, as can be seen by the popularity of the myriad web 2.0 networking events, there are a number of other investors, both angels and institutional players, now active in the Web 2.0 space.  While there is certainly room for additional investment in this realm, it seems entirely appropriate to me that NESTA spend its limited resources on areas where there are fewer private sector players (and accordingly, a more significant equity gap).  Don’t get me wrong – I’d be overjoyed if they launched a web 2.0 fund – but I do understand their rationale for not having done so yet.

Finally, just because NESTA Investments is not active in Web 2.0 work, does not mean that NESTA is not involved in the social media space.  Indeed, they have an entire programmatic stream, called Web Connect, devoted to investigation and support of highly innovative applications of web 2.0 concepts.

Coming from a country (the US) with no real analogue to NESTA, I’m constantly amazed that people so harshly criticise having a quasi-government agency focused on technology, creativity, and entrepreneurship – or, in other words, the future.  I suppose that fact that it is the subject of growing debate could be seen as a sign of its growing significance and repuation.  I certainly have my own thoughts on how NESTA might improve and evolve into its next incarnation, but they are based upon experience and analysis of the organisation and its activities.  And despite such reservations, as a UK resident I can only consider myself luck that such an unusual and forward-thinking organisation exists.

Pushing the Innovation Edge?

After much eager anticipation, yesterday I attended Innovation Edge, NESTA’s moderately annual flagship event and exposition of all that is innovation in the UK. In a growing discussion of the event on Roland Harwood’s Connect blog, I made a few comments which seemed appropriate for reproduction here:

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.