The 6 Essential Attitudes for Next Generation Innovation
Summary of my speech at the 2017 TFF Summit in Amsterdam
Last week’s TFF Global Summit in Amsterdam was a surreal experience. Not only because I was reunited with my TFF global family (who happen to be some of the world’s most interesting, creative people who are making positive change in all kinds of amazing ways). But also because this time, I took the stage as one of the plenary speakers.
For the past five years, I have been analyzing and studying what makes our TFF Community so damn exciting and impactful. You see — without even realizing it, and just by doing what they naturally do, our network of 8000 TFFers in 130 countries have taught me a powerful framework for innovation and collaboration, which I believe can solve our world’s most complex challenges, starting with feeding and nourishing 9+billion people by 2050.
I call this framework next generation innovation. Despite the name, I want to make sure everyone understands: Every. single. person can tap into this massive opportunity — whether you’re a seasoned corporate leader with a few gray hairs or a wide-eyed millennial, zipping up your hoodie to head off to your startup.
What I’ve seen firsthand from my unique experience working with TFFers is that anyone— regardless the type of organization they work in, regardless of their age, expertise or location in the world — can solve the our most complex problems in new ways.
Anyone can do this. It’s just about attitude!
And, there are just 6 core attitudes that enable next generation innovation:
The first essential attitude to is a natural willingness to be open — and to embrace diversity and interdisciplinarity. This is because having an open mind and engaging with a wide variety of people, topics, ideas and industries creates fertile ground for innovation.
If you are constantly tapping into your existing network to think about things — well, after a while, it is like fishing in the same pond. You eventually exhaust that resource.
The winners of the future will be those with access to new and unexpected forms of insights and partnerships.
That’s why it is critical that we are always out there, exploring new ponds and working with new fisherman.
TFF is diverse and interdisciplinary by design. Every day, I get the chance to talk to all kinds of interesting people who are outside of the traditional food and ag domain: architects, engineers, designers, artists, data analysts, serendipity experts, hackers, astronauts, and more!
Next generation innovation is about being open to collecting insights from anyone, anywhere, on any topic — and finding ways to constantly connect these seemingly unexpected dots to create new ideas and breakthroughs.
Next generation innovators are born to collaborate. We thrive on teamwork and the ability to build connections.
Thanks to technology and our open attitude, a next generation approach to collaboration means that anyone can collaborate on anything, anywhere, and at anytime.
Take last year’s TFF Challenge winners, Kulisha, for example. Their team is based all over the world and were brought together by one shared connection — Viraj, who grew up in Kenya and attended Brown University.
Between connections made in his hometown, through his schooling and via an internship, he was able to bring together a diverse group of people with varied backgrounds from Costa Rica, the U.S. and East Africa.
As digital natives, the next generation have never known a world where you couldn’t collaborate with people on opposite ends of the planet, in real time.
So think about this: Right now, around 4 billion people don’t have Internet access. They’ve never bought anything online, or discovered how easy it is to learn a new skill for free with YouTube or taken a course the Khan Academy
But, all of this is about to change.
What happens in the next few years, when the Internet is ubiquitous, ultrafast and free, and smartphone adoption nears 100%? How do you think about diversity when wearable translators like Pilot and online plugins like Skype Translator let people who don’t speak the same language communicate in real time? I think about this one a lot, as I have two young boys…Will they even know what a language barrier is?
3. Beginner’s Mindset
Next-gen innovators have a youthful naivete and intrinsic curiosity that allows us to take an un-jaded, fresh approach to problems, free of preconceived notions.
Instead of forming opinions or dialing back an idea due to entrenched ways of thinking or doing things, we see something else, a new path, a new opportunity — and have an instinct to ask lots of questions: Why? What if? What would it it take?
This inquisitive approach is certainly refreshing, but it is also really, really important. Because history has shown that the best inventions and solutions rarely come from domain experts — they almost always come from outsiders who aren’t afraid to ask the “dumb questions.”
Many of you know the amazing story of FoPo Food Powder — our 2013 TFF Challenge Runners-up. This team of food innovation and product design students created a delicious and nutritious food powder that can be used for everything from molecular gastronomy and making smoothies, to humanitarian food aid and space missions.
Food powder is common in the food industry — so what did they do differently that got them noticed? They made their powder from almost-expired produce that supermarkets or farmers would otherwise throw away.
When I first heard them pitch this idea, I was struck by how elegantly simple this approach was… And, that no one had thought of it before!
They came up with a very simple, but very effective idea — all because they looked at the status quo, and found a better way by embracing their beginner’s mindset.
4. Entrepreneurial Methods
The next essential attitude that is integral to this approach is about adopting entrepreneurial methods. This means being comfortable with trying something even if only for the sake of learning, and embracing possible failure. It means understanding that in our world that is changing faster than ever before, it’s okay to be in constant “beta mode!”
What I have seen while wearing my TFF hat is that the next generation are always trying things, experimenting, sharing results, learning and then trying again. It’s kind of like the scientific method.
Some believe that this is a result of millennials growing up playing video games. In the gaming world, when you fail on a level, you simply get a new life, then start over with a different approach. And just like in a video game, in the world of entrepreneurship, failure doesn’t come with shame.
Another important contributing factor is that the costs associated with prototyping, experimenting and “failing” have gone down significantly. It’s never been cheaper or easier to take a risk in pursuit of a breakthrough — and this is even the case for science, including modifying food and plants.
The DIY bio movement is a great example of this. Hobbyists and non-experts are converging in basements, garages and makeshift labs to tinker and create new solutions.
Take our friend Sebastian Cocioba as an example. Sebastian dropped out of college and moved back in with his parents, turning an extra bedroom into a biology lab. He taught himself genetic engineering on the internet, gets his equipment second hand, and posts (almost endless) updates about his research on Facebook. He invites comments, questions and feedback from literally anyone.
A couple decades ago, this approach to science and research was simply unheard of. Back then, it was only labs at universities and large companies that had the capability to experiment.
But today, entrepreneurially-minded innovators can access and use powerful technologies that get better, faster, cheaper and easier to use every year. And because this DIY innovator community has a strong “pay it forward” ethos, we’re seeing that they publish their discoveries in open-source journals or on social media, so anyone in the world can effectively peer-review their research, duplicate and test their prototype, or integrate and build on their inventions.
This democratization of innovation also covers funding. Scientists no longer have to rely soley on research grants — they can also tap into more “open” models like crowdfunding, incentive prize competitions or teaming up with local accelerators.
All of this combined means that the ability to learn, understand, create and innovate is accessible to more and more people, and this is a really exciting thing!
5. Purpose before Paycheck
Research shows that that the next generation is highly purpose-driven, and that millennials are primarily motivated by meaningful work and the ability make an impact over higher pay.
Every single TFF project exemplifies this point. I’ll quickly call out a couple that stand out:
Team Biteback, TFF Challenge Runner-Ups (2016), developed cooking oil and butter from insects. They were motivated by the deforestation they saw every day from palm oil production in their home country of Indonesia.
Team Fruiti-Cycle, Take it to the Farmer Prize Winners (2016), saw farmers in Uganda struggling to get their fresh produce to markets, so invented a cold storage chamber that could be attached to the back of bicycles.
Unibiome, Kirchner Prize Winners (2016), are enhancing microbes to improve the nutritional value of fermented foods consumed all over the world, and are embracing an “open source” approach in order to reach more people.
It used to be that a person wanted a well-paid corporate job for the benefits and financial security. But, for many members of the next generation, the chance to make a difference and live true to their values is such a powerful intrinsic motivator that they’re willing to choose a different — and often even harder — path.
What this means is that we are living in an era where corporate social responsibility has got to be business as usual.
When you want to bring out the best in human creativity and capability, you must position what you are doing in a way that sparks the imagination and teases a grander possibility! Can you do this the “old way” by hiring people for a specific job and expecting them to stay in their lane? Perhaps. But, someone once said something like, “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.”
And doing what you’ve always done is a dangerous bet to place in our world of constant change.
6. Larger-than-Life Energy
Last — and certainly not least — is the critical importance of bringing magic into the “boring” and the ordinary — whether it is in a field like food and agriculture, or in our day-to-day lives.
TFF incorporates mega-doses of energy and optimism into everything that we do. We give people the feeling that “larger-than-life” is possible, that it is attainable, and that it matters to reach for it. We celebrate human potential to keep the dreamer in us alive — the part of us that knows that better is possible, even though it may be hard or may be forgotten about in our daily work.
Our TFF Summit closing keynote speaker Alpha Sennon said “TFF is like a drug I take once a year to give me energy and motivation to keep going for the rest of the year.” We couldn’t agree more — this is exactly the point!
As next generation innovators, we have a sense of audaciousness that allows us to think and act freely. We inspire each other, we quiet the naysayers in and around us, and we push ourselves to keep reaching higher towards our “moonshots.” We channel all of our passions and energies into experiences and friendships that revive us and propel us forward. Because of this, we never doubt the impact we are making.
I hope this short overview has given you a better understanding of the sheer power and importance of next-generation innovation. I have learned a lot about this approach over the past 5 years — it has changed me, become part of me and allowed me to make impact I never dreamed possible.
Our TFF community represent some of the world’s best next-generation innovators. We are approaching the toughest problems in our industry with an entrepreneurial mindset — combining disciplines, uprooting entrenched assumptions, and encouraging radical openness and collaboration — all to make a meaningful impact, while also having the time of our lives.
And we are just one community. Only five years in the making.
Where TFFers lead, millions more next-generation innovators will follow — because we are compelled to collaborate.
Now, it’s your turn. I encourage you to tune into these six attitudes and apply them to help us solve the biggest challenges in food and ag.
It’s important we do this — and always do this — because the world will continue to evolve and change. We need to always push ourselves to the the NEXT next-generation innovators.
I’ll be blogging more about these attitudes over the coming months. Stay tuned. And, in the meantime, please do share your thoughts, ideas and feedback with me anytime: firstname.lastname@example.org.
(p.s. Special shout out to Marissa Brassfield, Billy Murray, Peter Mandeno, Nadia Laurini, Richard Hylerstedt, Mike Gould, Marco de Boer, and of course the TFF team Kitty Leering, Jared Yarnall-Schane, Ali Connerty and Jose Silva for all of your help with this speech! Grateful for your friendship and support!!! ❤)