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International Conference on Systematic Innovation

Liverpool - Albert Dock

Revisiting an old haunt is always a reflective experience. I grew up 20 minutes away from Liverpool and one wonders what teenage me would have thought about the middle aged version visiting the University more than 30 years on to give a paper at a conference.

University of Liverpool were joint hosts of the 10th International Conference on Systematic Innovation (ICSI).  There were three full days of events – including keynote sessions / workshops and parallel plenary presentation sessions. There was lots going on and here are some thoughts about what stood out.

Keynotes & Tutorials

The first main session was run by Prof Darrell Mann – always good to catch up – and subsequently share a beer. It was a basic TRIZ tutorial / introduction workshop.  Despite teaching / using these tools for many years, it was still refreshing to sit as a participant and learn / re-learn a thing or two.  It was interesting to interact with fellow attendees, especially as a facilitator and help people “get it”.  But the key takeaway for me is still how so many people have simply never heard of TRIZ.

Professor Andrew Lyons of University of Liverpool gave an overview of a digital social / collaboration platform that has been trialed in the North West of England, primarily in the SME supply chain for aerospace.  It showed the benefits of enhanced communication and cooperation within a supply chain bringing designs through to production – including a social dimension.  It was encouraging to see work being done at the cinderella end of the innovation pipeline.  There is much more to do.

Professor Sheu of National Tsinghua University, Taiwan, gave a detailed talk about his research into integration of AI and SI.  It was interesting, but I was left with the feeling that it will be many years before this will lead to practical application.

The surprise of the keynotes was Professor Jonathan Linton of Sheffield University laying out how to position research papers to be seminal works in leading publications, bemoaning that the SI community has great content but never seems to get the balance right for the most influential journals.   He gave some insightful commentary and opinion about what journal editors find attractive, and how the journal system and peer review mechanisms work.  My conclusion was that should my paper on the Strategic Model of Innovation be well received, it could well qualify as seminal – if presented following these guidelines.  But maybe that is me being over optimistic.

This led into a panel discussion that was should we say “entertainingly tense”.  Darrell Mann was clear in his opinion that the academic / publishing system is slow and not fit for purpose. His view is to publish and let the readers do the peer review.  Not quite what the other panelists were going to find palatable.  But Darrell’s point was well made, things need to change. But on the other hand, having a paper published after a peer review process gives it academic weight and credibility.  Maybe it is a case of doing both, depending on the situation.  If a piece of work is to be truely seminal – it needs to play the peer review / publishing game, even if that game needs to change.

Parallel Paper Presentations

It is always difficult to know which session to pick when there are interesting papers in parallel streams. If you are presenting in one, you loose the choice.

John Draper summarised an initiative to speed up progress  towards commercially viable nuclear fusion. Current forecasts suggest this will be achieved around 2050, but by getting the global community to work together across socio political divides, it could be doable in the 2030’s.  John was looking for insight and support. Maybe SI can help. We shall see.

My favourite TRIZ case study came from INSA Strasbourg.  It was all about how TRIZ was applied to a tricky problem of machining carbon fibre. There is a problem, where the cutting face needs to be at one angle to give good surface finish, and at another to give good cutting speed.  This is a classic TRIZ contradiction, and using the method, a jagged twin angle cutting insert was invented which provided both characteristics. Positive results from trials were shown and the invention is now in the patent system. Great contradiction busting work.

Hannah Forbes from Liverpool presented elements of her research into social media based crowd sourcing. There are plenty of case studies where this approach works, and plenty where it does’nt. This paper led to lively discussion, including the famous case study of the BP deepwater horizon call for help, which was great for PR, and comedic value, but failed to find a solution. It is important to know when and when not to use this approach.

Another interesting paper presented by Melania Bause was about the impact of digital tech on Healthcare. This seems like a whole bunch of solutions looking for a problem.  With the rise in lifestyle related conditions, ageing population and scarcity of resource, this is a clear case of a potential disruptive shift.

And finally, still on the topic of healthcare, John Sainsbury presented he results of a study looking at the innovation performance of NHS staff in a small sample of trainees with and without TRIZ training.  This showed that even beginners can increase their creativity and problem solving capability using TRIZ – although the results cannot be considered fully conclusive given the small study size. But still, promising. 

Other papers covered business innovation in Tea production in China, the effects of age and diversity on creativity, collaborative design tools and even plans for a large port in Pakistan to open up logistics routes into Western China. An eclectic, global mixture.

The Strategic Model and Learning from Teaching

This was the first time presenting the Strategic Model in its latest form to a wide audience in the innovation community. It has been 16 years in the making, so it felt like a watershed moment. The Learning from Teaching paper was more of a footnote.

I was in the final presentation session of the week in the morning after the previous evenings gala dinner and celebrations. Fortunately, there was a room full and everyone seemed fully awake, surprisingly.  I had 30 minutes for both papers. Several other of the presenters had found it difficult to deliver their presentations in 15 minutes including questions – it is tricky.  I had compounded the problem by having to both explain the strategic innovation model and to show how it could be applied to a case study, and present the lessons I have learned while teaching TRIZ. It was like delivering three papers.

Being in the last session had the advantage of being able to reference other presenters work, but the disadvantage that many people left straight afterwards reducing the chance to get into further discussion and receive feedback.

The strategic model is designed to apply to any innovation setting, so I was able to highlight the following points in connection with many of the themes of the conference :

  • The importance of gathering sufficient relevant knowledge – which is why crowd sourcing fails when the crowd does’nt have access to this knowledge.  
  • Disruptive innovation requires the breaking of contradictions, often simultaneously, emphasising the importance of TRIZ.
  • The innovation process includes the end user / customer – bringing in the importance of crowd sourcing, design thinking and customer engagement.
  • The impact of innovation includes the net effect on the environment and sustainability, as well as intangible factors that are not currently measured, as they are considered not measurable.
  •  Jumping from one S Curve to the next requires an element of “creative destruction”.  The financial engine of innovation – the “operations” needs to be stretched past breaking point, which is why step change innovation is so difficult to achieve from within a current system.

The number of questions arising suggested that the presentation had had the desired effect. One slightly unanticipated comment from a professor was that “people” should not be a mechanism in the IDEF0 model. I definitely stand by my definition on that point but the discussions had to be cut short of their natural course to be able to get to the second paper.

The thrust of the “Learning from Teaching” paper was to suggest that the 9 windows tool needs to be taught in two modes – “historical” and “process sequence”. The more controversial point was a plea that the ideality equation needs to avoid the word “benefits” in the numerator as it confuses students, especially non-native english speakers. Many papers in the conference used the ideality equation – including the “benefits” word – so I was expecting some push back.  If there was any disagreement, there was no time for questions, so I got away with it.  But someone did put their hand on my shoulder as I sat down and said -“I agree with you totally”.

What was encouraging was that several people took me to one side afterwards and said that the strategic model had given them a fresh insight into the innovation process and even that “it was the one main thing they would take from the conference”.  The conference organisers seemed to agree and placed it among the prize winners in the best paper competition, which was great news, even if only third place.  But considering the top two were by eminent professors of large Universities I will take that as a win!


This was a well organised, truely global conference. It was encouraging to see TRIZ still making headway, especially when one of the leading organisers has a team 50 Professors teaching TRIZ in China. (I don’t think I misheard that number).  But I was left wondering why the same scale of TRIZ commitment is not apparent in Europe.  There were few industrial TRIZ based case studies presented which perhaps exemplifies the problem that TRIZ has. Samsung are known to use TRIZ as an embedded approach within their development community, and often attended conferences like this presenting case studies and their approach.  However they have stopped this, presumably for reasons of commercial competition. To a sceptical traditional Western mindset, suffering from methodology saturation, proof is needed that TRIZ is better than the rest.  The best evidence – successful case studies – ideally presented in peer reviewed journals, are unlikely to come to light as there is no self interest to do so.

I am hoping that the Strategic Model can help to tackle the issue in a different way. By applying systems approach which highlights the need for breaking contradictions, and how TRIZ contributes to doing so, this should create an interest learning how to do it.  But also why TRIZ alone is not a magic bullet for successful innovation – it is a whole company thing.

I enjoyed the conference, and wish to thank the organisers and hosts for giving me the opportunity to contribute.

The next step is to find other conferences to present the model, and formally submit the paper to the International Journal for Systematic Innovation, which is SCOPUS indexed. So who knows where this could lead.

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