Local businesses urged to innovate to beat economic gloom

Proactively seeking out new ideas and adopting an innovative approach to business can help local companies prosper, and grow, during the current economic downturn.

That was the theme of the second Invest Northern Ireland Innovation Masterclass event, which took place today and attended by around 100 local businesses from a wide range of sectors.

Held in W5 at the Odyssey, Belfast, the masterclass featured inspirational addresses and Q&A sessions with Lars Engman, Design Consultant to IKEA and many other companies, and Dr Alexander Osterwalder, Senior Partner with top Swiss consultancy firm Arvetica.

Tracy Meharg, Invest NI’s Managing Director of Innovation and Capability Development, said: “Following on from our successful Innovation Masterclass with Craig Sams in June, this event gave local companies the chance to learn from two of the business world’s most highly regarded innovators.

“Whether during difficult economic conditions or a period of relative stability and prosperity, businesses that innovate perform better and have more chance of achieving lasting success. This applies to all companies, regardless of size, sector or age.

“Innovation is not confined to high-tech, expensive R&D. It can be a seemingly small change to a product which could give it a new application, or a re-evaluation of a process in order to streamline it and shave off overheads. By always questioning the status quo and challenging conventional wisdom, companies can hit upon potentially lucrative ideas which help to secure their future.”

Mr Engman, who is also Director of the HDK School of Design in Sweden, set out how innovation and design can be used as tools when producing high-volume, low-value products. Using the example of IKEA, Mr Engman also highlighted how companies can profit from the development of functional products which demonstrate clear value and benefits to customers.

Revealing one of the cornerstones of his business approach, Mr Engman said: “Very often the best ideas can at first seem outlandish or even absurd. But it is essential to encourage all staff, not only those involved in design, to bounce ideas off each other in a positive atmosphere. This is central to the success of IKEA, ensuring that your people have the freedom to think and that the very best suggestions can then be developed into workable, marketable products.”

Dr Osterwalder presented his proven method for introducing innovation into business models, demonstrating how to nurture and embed a culture of creativity which can improve companies’ bottom lines.

Speaking at the event, Dr Osterwalder said: “At Arvetica we partner with some of the world’s top companies to advise them on how to generate ideas. Sometimes this can require us to instigate a sea-change in management attitudes in order to start the process, but the benefits are clear. By channeling the creativity of all staff, businesses find new ways of doing business and they identify innovative product and service ideas that give them a competitive advantage under difficult conditions.”

Ms Meharg concluded: “As we continue to highlight the need for local companies to embrace innovative practices in their operations, Invest NI will hold a further Innovation Masterclass in February 2009 which will feature international business consultant and bestselling author Kjell Nordstrom.”