In the last years the world has witnessed a perfect storm. An unprecedented combination of interlocked global crises took place: an environmental and energy crisis about to cause serious climate change issues - triggered by a social emergency linked to rapid urbanization – accelerated an unusually long combination of an economic and financial crisis.
So the approach needed in tackling those challenges needs to be unusual as well.
First of all, the nature of the problems ceased being complex – something you could try and tackle with linear problem solving – and became wicked, therefore requiring a non-linear problem solving approach. According to Alessandro Vespignani at Northeastern University, the scientific progresses made in the area of meteorology in the last 20 years provide us with a good reference case for this: linear thinking is a poor guide in the understanding of complex systems, so extensive studies and models related to how a large number of interactive units give rise to cooperative phenomena, were applied to meteorology.
A multidisciplinary approach led then to the development of new systems and processes that now allow us to predict with a fair degree of certainty most of the meteorogical events happening around the globe. Meteorologists, climatologists, mathematicians, software developers and many others came together to tackle this issue. I often wonder why a similar approach could not be applied to forecasting pandemic diseases or an economic crisis, or to develop a new solution to climate change.
Secondly, the development of new approaches needed to tackle the economic, social and environmental issues of our time leverages more and more on an open innovation approach. Henry Chesbrough of the Center for Open Innovation at UC Berkley, claims that “open innovation is a paradigm that assumes that organizations can and should use external ideas as well as internal ideas, and internal and external paths to market, as they look to advance their technology. The central idea behind open innovation is that in a world of widely distributed knowledge, companies cannot afford to rely entirely on their own research, but should instead buy or license processes or inventions (i.e. patents) from other companies”.
Whether we look at the development of a new technology platform for sustainability in California, at a new financial services construction in Hong Kong or at an innovative urban redevelopment approach in Brazil, the nature of the work and of the skills needed is changing as well: new collaborative and network-based enterprise models, based on what Thomas Friedman’s defines the micro-multinationals phenomenon, provide a flexible alternative to traditional innovation linear processes. Small and agile organizations, each specialized on a given element of an innovation value chain – knowledge creation, research, development, products and markets – collaborate and often outpace large corporations. As a consequence, the skills of the innovation thought leader change as well.
When I graduated in Milan 20 years ago the most precious job profiles for an executive in the technology sector were engineers with a business specialization. Today and in the same sector, a combination of design, engineering, economic, sociologic and even anthropologic skills is probably the right mix. As usually those skills cannot be found in the same individual, collaboration and orchestration skills become a new element in the mix as well.