Just beneath his Ph.D. credentials, his long experience as a corporate turnaround consultant, and his current work as Executive VP of innovation firm Inno360, Matthew Heim carries a fiery passion for radically reinventing capitalism.
I interviewed Matthew this past week to get his insights on what it takes to innovate and on one of the next big trends in innovation – namely how organizations can now build their own customized online platforms to systematize their process of finding and collaborating with the right innovation partners. That in itself is a fascinating new option that enables you to tap into the massive, connected world of knowledge, talent, people, and ideas, also known as the “global brain.”
But what emerged in short order was a discussion not just on how to innovate, but why we are innovating in the first place. What’s it for?
I mentioned the recent Nasa study that concluded the utter collapse of human civilization will be “difficult to avoid” if we don’t change humanity’s current course. I asked Matthew if innovation is the way we can change that course – or if the opposite is true: is innovation itself fueling an even more voracious global appetite for consumption? Matthew was quick to respond.
“I think that if everybody’s income rises right now where you have everybody in China and everybody in India driving an SUV, that scares the heck out of me, that really scares the heck out of me” he said. “And we’re all headed in that direction. It’s the American dream, it’s the Canadian dream, it’s the Indian dream. It’s horrible.”
To say that the current path is unsustainable is an understatement, according to Matthew. What’s needed is a total shift in how we think, a shift in consciousness.
“We need to innovate in a different way. It’s not just product innovation, like finding greener technologies. It’s also about social innovation, i.e. applying innovation to the social realm, the social structure, giving people a say, enabling this bottom-up emergence of true ideation for what’s better for our society.”
“We have to get back to more simplistic types of innovation – so innovation is not always about the most powerful or the fastest. We have to address natural capitalism as a part of that.”
“We need to be going more toward bio-mimicry type of innovation – things that work in harmony with natural capital. We don’t address natural capital as a part of the overall capital structure” Matthew lamented. (‘Natural capital,’ a term made popular by the 1999 bestseller Natural Capitalism, refers to the full range of types of capital we actually use: the natural environment, human resources, social capital, and how they intertwine in ecosystems.) Instead of looking holistically at these, Matthew says “we look at monetary capital, we look at asset types of capital. Sometimes we look at human capital, but not to the extent that we should. We really need to be looking at natural capital.”
So how do we bring about this shift in consciousness? Matthew got a glimpse of the process when he taught young MBA students new ways of thinking:
“I used to teach at the world’s first green MBA program, and one of the things we instituted was that one of the first courses students would go through was systems thinking and critical thinking. We really started to ask questions about everything that we’ve been doing. And these kids would come out of the initial course and they looked like a ghost! You could just tell their awareness had shifted dramatically, where they just realized what they’ve been doing unconsciously because of the lack of awareness of what we’re doing.”
To teach innovation, then, Matthew says it’s a lot more than just teaching new skills. The first step is to teach three key ways of thinking: Systems thinking, critical thinking, and lateral thinking.
Systems thinking requires looking at how everything is connected, how things fit together as a system, so that you don’t end up destroying one thing when you pursue another. Critical thinking gets you to challenge the assumptions. And lateral thinking, the method initially pioneered by Edward de Bono, is quintessentially about thinking in new ways and connecting new dots.
Ironically, this major change in consciousness is both what’s needed to do innovation better and to reinvent capitalism. So, yes, innovation just could be what saves the planet and gets us back on a path of sanity. Let’s hope so.
Matthew Heim is currently Executive Vice-President of Inno360. He was previously the President of NineSigma, and is the author or co-author of five books, including the bestseller, A Guide to Open Innovation and Crowdsourcing.