Lift14, continuing to push the envelope on the innovation debate

Feb 10, 2014
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Each year in February the center of gravity of innovation discussion and debate shifts to Geneva for the annual Lift Conference. The Lift experience is quite different the one you may have at other well-known tech oriented conferences in that it fully immerses its attendees in the question of how to make ‘innovation happen’.  Sometimes answering this question takes the workshops and sessions in an unexpected direction, touching upon everything from biohackers to space exploration to how counterculture affects tech innovation.

Here are some of the big highlights for me from this year’s edition:

The Seedstarsworld Final Competition

For the first time this year, Lift cosponsored a pre-Lift kick-off event with Seedstarsworld.  If you’re unfamiliar with Seedstarsworld, it’s the global startup competition for emerging markets and fast-growing startup scenes. Last year when I attended Lift Seedstars, the organizers of the competition, were still at the early stages. Within in a year they’ve grown into a real force in spotting tech startup talent in markets that many of those in the West are just now starting to take note of.

Regional winners of this year’s competition came from a highly diverse set of countries including Azerbaijan, Ghana, Rwanda, Thailand, Singapore, Mexico, etc. The top prize ended-up going to South Korean startup Flitto, a crowdsourcing translation app that already has 3 million users from 170 countries and more than 800,000 translators. Flitto CEO and co-founder Simon Lee presented his app on the main stage at Lift’s Venture Night and wowed the audience. Of course there are other crowdsourced translation apps around, but this one really stood out in terms of quality, intuitiveness and translation clarity.

Logitech: pivoting from the PC to mobile and connected devices

Kicking off the conference portion of Lift was relatively new Logitech CEO Braken Darrell. As Logitech’s business as essentially centered around the PC since their founding, Darrell told a very compelling story about how one innovation, namely the iPad, fundamentally shifted their approach to innovation. While still holding a leadership position in PC accessories and devices, Logitech has refocused its innovation energy and resources on mobile and connected devices which are rooted in elegant and intuitive design. He noted that this strategy has been a big success for them thus far as 4 out of 6 of their top products are in categories in which they weren’t event present two years ago.  One of their biggest stars is the connected speaker the UE Boom which was their #1 selling product last month and as I learned attending a Logitech event here in Paris a couple of weeks ago, is sold out at FNAC in France.

Darrell’s talk illustrated that innovation and nimbleness doesn’t need to entirely rest within the startup realm. If large organizations have strong leadership that sets clear direction and motivates their employees to follow, they can continue to produce game changing innovation.

Social models need innovation too

Last year Lift tackled the inspiring story of Iceland that was working towards a new citizen driven constitution. This year they invited Che Wagner a political activist and proponent of driving entrepreneurship through establishing a Guaranteed Monthly Income for all citizens. His thinking is that by giving all citizens of a society a basic minimum salary that they receive regardless of their employment situation, people would be more inclined to take risks, try new things and innovate.  Of course, there are all types of questions that this type of model raises, but it interesting to see this type of idea linked with driving innovation.  Wagner and other liked minded activists even gathered 125k signatures in Switzerland to a petition on the subject, enough to trigger a referendum on the subject. The referendum and the subject more generally is making the rounds now in the media, having been picked up by the Economist, the New York Times, BBC, and Fox News.

Who’s the top ecommerce retailer in the world?

That would be Alibaba, who since it’s founding in 1999 now do more gross sales than Amazon and Ebay combined ($170 billion in 2012). The Lift team was unable to get the mighty Jack Ma, but they certainly had the next best guy to tell the Alibaba story, ex-Alibaba VP Porter Erisman. In his talk he underscored that one of the key elements that drove Alibaba’s rise was their ability to overcome one of the challenges all online players face, namely bringing the human experience into e-commerce. In addition, putting in place systems to facilitate payments and guarantee buyers against fraud was also a key part of their value proposition to buyers, particularly in the early days of online commerce in China. From his perspective, the story of Alibaba’s beginnings and development is not all that different from what he’s currently witnessing in other emerging markets. His point-of-view was that in e-commerce, perhaps more than other sectors, there really are two distinct models – the developed and emerging market models.
We should be looking at the Misfit Economy 

To close out the conference, they tackled the subject of the Misfit Economy, which was namely how counterculture has fueled technological innovation in the past, present and will do so in the future.  Alexa Clay, culture hacker and co-author of the Misfit Economy laid out a compelling case for how those who society often considers ‘unsavory’ can often be those most driving innovation.  From hackers to hippies to gang leaders, all of these types whether consciously or not have pushed innovation and technology forward in their own way.  In fact, by 2050 she claims that 2/3 of the world’s citizens will be working in this ‘informal economy’. While most of us don’t fall into these groups (or not longer do :-), Clay is hoping to inspire people within organizations, a group she refers to as a League of Intrapreneurs, to positively shake up their organizations from the inside.

Another thing to check-out if your in Berlin is the Holzmartkt which basically transformed itself from a deluxe squatter community / rave into a thriving, self-sustaining community that has now has wide-spread government and citizen support. The founders told a really inspiring story about how when faced with the threat of eviction, they managed to pull the community together to reimagine their community, raise funding to both preserve the land and support its build-out, and create a democratic system of governance for the community.

Finally, while most people know from his auto-biography and, of course the movie, about Steve Jobs’ experiences with LSD, Co-Editor and Managing Partner David Pescovitz at Boing Boing laid out how the hippie movement and recreational drug use help to fuel the post-war development of the tech sector. Innovations around graphic arts, hardware, artificial intelligence, augmented reality, were heavily influenced by this counter-culture movement.

A very different kind of conference experience

The above is really just a snapshot of this conference that I personally look forward to joining every year. There were of course several hands-on innovation workshops, Venture Night highlighting the hottest Swiss startups (winner this year was device tracking startup Qipp), and lots of cool connected hardware on display.  If didn’t get the chance to attend this year’s edition, there’s always Lift’s Marseille conference which takes place in October. Otherwise, sit tight for Lift15!