Getting Combinatorial (2/3)

Combinatorial Innovation

We continue our conversation with Christy Davis from Asia P3 Hub and Ravi Varanasi about combinatorial innovation.Innovation

In your respective sectors, how do you apply combinatorial innovation – to your work, to a project, conversations – and have you had surprising results? Not necessarily a fixed solution, but maybe a different approach to how you thought about a challenge.

Innovation for GoodRavi: In the Kohler Company, we have something called the “Innovation for Good”. It’s a one-day workshop, that’s a striking example of combinatorial innovation within the Kohler Company. It’s a great initiative brought about by the employees themselves for them to make their profession and contribution to the world more meaningful.

Wisconsin USASo, what happens is that once a year, since we are present all across the globe, we invite people to travel to headquarters in Wisconsin where most of the company’s resources are available. In terms of combinatorial innovation, we talk about components and bringing together components. Headquarters in Wisconsin is where most of the components are available in terms of resources, and some people from regions which face major challenges are invited to travel over.

Simeulue Island water supply drainageDuring those couple of days, some of the world’s toughest challenges are put to a group of people, and this group of people consists of engineers, designers, marketing people, communications folks, HR, you name it, across functions. The toughest problems of the world are actually put to this group and they are expected to come up with a solution by working together on different ideas throughout the day.

Simple solution lightsAt the end of the day, the solutions are put forward and the lowest hanging fruit in terms of ease of implementation but highly impactful and beneficial is picked and then the company stewardship funds that solution into the commercialization phase. One of the innovations that came out from such a workshop is the Clarity Water Filter.

Close up of Clarity Water FilterWe are a luxury and premium kitchen-bath company. We are good at making products for toilets, kitchens and bathrooms, but we never imagined we could come up with a water filter which directly serves the bottom of the pyramid and which could have an impact in saving millions of lives across the planet.Langsa Floods

And that was what the ‘Innovation for Good’ workshop came up with, which is the Clarity Filter and it’s as economical as USD25 in some places of the world, and it helps save a lot of lives by turning bad water which is infected with bacteria and viruses into potable drinking water. It’s been hugely effective in disaster relief and in places where there’s limited water but that water is dirty.Cambodian Boy drinking clean water

That was something which was very surprising for us, because a company which never dealt with water as a resource for human consumption would come up with a product by having different stakeholders at the table, to manufacture it and distribute it. So that was something which was huge in terms of satisfaction for the Kohler Company and that is something we are very proud of.Clarity Water filters and package

The second aspect I would like to touch upon is, we’ve been working very closely with the Gates Foundation folks who are leading the global initiative around sanitation and open defecation, which is plaguing the world by polluting water bodies. Untreated domestic wastes from homes going into, receiving water bodies cause a lot of problems for everybody around the world, and the Gates Foundation has invested in identifying transformative technologies.Caltech toilet in India

So here is Gates Foundation, which is a part of a behemoth software giant Microsoft, which has nothing to do directly with sanitation. The components they bring to the table is resources and program management as in earlier point.

They have funded academic institution like CalTech, which works on cutting-edge technologies to come up with the technology for economically treating the domestic wastewater problem, got Kohler Company on board to help with the product concept and design (which the Kohler associates are great at) picked out around that technology, and handed it over to RTI who are actually good at on the ground execution and implementation.

RTI is a market research firm that provides some in-depth feedback and research around the pilots they implement for improving technology and product design. Right now, as we speak, four different organizations pooled their resources (multi-sector/multi-stakeholder) and are trying to work with the State Governments in India to implement the solution to prevent the problem of pollution and therefore save lives.Team work

That’s another example of combinatorial innovation that I can think of. But if you look at it from 35,000 feet, this is teamwork. This is exactly that, to put it in very simple terms, teamwork but it’s just not within one organization, it’s between people and organizations that want to make this world a better place for people to thrive and not just survive.Children playing with water

Christy: I think my most current personal example of combinatorial innovation is the building of Asia P3 Hub, which is perhaps not exactly the answer that one might expect.Combinatorial innovation team work

Ravi set me up nicely with his last comment – if you look at combinatorial innovation from 35,000 feet, it’s teamwork. It’s a bunch of people who come together, who want to make a difference, are willing to share what they have, what they’re good at, what they can source to be part of that “new thing”, that new solution, whatever it is.

Innovation computer and boatAnd so, when I think of Asia P3 Hub, we started as a concept on a piece of paper, purely and simply, and it seemed a good idea: the idea of bringing the sectors together, how can we work together in new ways to tackle old problems. Indeed, the whole premise was creating a neutral space that intentionally brings the sectors together. It was always envisioned as a multi-sector partnership space. Then, as we got underway we realized if we are not a group of very different individuals, we cannot create the type of unique, dynamic, inclusive space to achieve our mission.Symbolizing different people

We are intentionally diverse. For us, this means we’re all really different! We’re all different ages, we have different backgrounds, different nationalities, different skills, and talents. The core team spans business, NGO/not-for-profits, and startup/entrepreneur. We are also fortunate to have a team of advisors which represent all of the sectors and we value the role they play.Find a common language

It’s been a very hands-on, real experience to what it’s like to learn and try to find a common language – to successfully ‘get combinatorial’ to build Asia P3 Hub together. How can we communicate in a way that we can be understood in the way we intend? Sometimes we have to say, ‘what do you mean by that?’ or ‘I don’t understand’ because how I might use even one word is different from how somebody else might receive it.

team work designWe’re also exploring existing innovation methodologies, and looking at how we might apply design thinking and human-centered design to enhance some of those more traditional innovation processes into something that’s broader, more intuitive and supports a more natural combinatorial innovation process.

Asia P3 Hub logoI think the other great example of a non-traditional partnership is Asia P3 Hub and Kohler. We’ve been talking with Kohler in Asia for almost a year just exploring ideas of how we might work together. We’ve been exploring ideas before the Hub even launched which has been just a little over a year ago, and exploring how can we leverage the existing strong and longstanding global relationship between Kohler and World Vision in new, dynamic and creative ways in Asia.Kid drinking water

And so, as we explored, one of the things Kohler offered was their design expertise. We think of Kohler, as Ravi mentioned, as a Kitchen and Bath company. They produce lovely products, but one of the things that’s behind why they are lovely and why people are attracted to them, why are they aspirational products. They are nice to look at and, of course, they function really well. They’ve got a very thoughtful design component around them.Woman getting water from Clarity

This is a distinguishing characteristic – their strength in design. So Kohler offered design as a starting point – a core competency of the company. They said, ‘how about we partner with Asia P3 Hub and work with you to create a logo.’ Our wonderful, energetic and colorful logo was the first concrete outcome of the Kohler-Asia P3 Hub partnership, which I think is a very charming story and it’s just been wonderful for us to share.Christy Davis and Ravi Varanasi

From the very beginning, we had exactly the kind of identity illustrated through that logo that we would have wanted. So, thank you, Kohler, thank you, Ravi.

Please continue reading the third and last part of the interview. Click here.


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