But we did go to press knowing one thing in fairly certain terms: that the next few years are going to be some of the most challenging that many of us have seen in our heretofore relatively happy lives. The news at press time could hardly have been more plain, or more grim. Significant layoffs at sundry media companies. Magazines shuttering. Auto sales dipping to new quarter century lows. More than one friend who works in the media/advertising space told of "the worst week of my career."
The upside? Well, depending on your political affiliation, there would at least be some cause for celebration in early November. But beyond that, there's the knowledge that dark days breed breakthrough ideas like dark places breed fungus. Creativity is a key business driver. If anyone forgot that, they were reminded at this year's aptly named IDEA Conference (a joint venture of Creativity and sibling Ad Age). At the risk of doing that overly earnest cheerleading thing that I'm prone to, I must acknowledge that the speakers at the IDEA Conference did a bang up job of illustrating the creative imperative for businesses of any kind.
One of my favorites among the assembled luminaries: Grant Achatz, chef and owner of Alinea in Chicago (named by Gourmet Magazine as Best Restaurant in the U.S. in 2006 and recipient of any number of other significant culinary honors). Achatz is known as a molecular gastronomist, so one looked forward to tales of deconstructed food. But Achatz also talked about how he went about deconstructing the entire restaurant experience, from the front entrance to the tables to how the shrink wrapped limes used to decorate those tables were also meant as an accompaniment to a dessert on the menu. Anyone doing brand creativity would do well to tackle such a complete dissection of product and purpose. "It's about understanding your medium, breaking it down to its functional parts, challenging them, finding the essence in them and putting them all together in a meaningful, powerful way," said Achatz (who also talked of deconstructing the medical industrial complex when he was facing down stage four tongue cancer, which he appears to have beaten).
Another speaker highlight was Tom Szaky founder of TerraCycle, a thriving company that makes products (and product packaging) from other people's garbage—stuff that you typically pay to be rid of. The company was actually founded on worm waste, sold in cast off soda bottles. Since launching in 2001, the company has expanded its range of products; now, Terracycle asks consumers for their used food wrappers with which it fashions things like tote bags and pencil cases. "Can any product be made entirely from waste? I think yes," said Szaky. "After all...garbage is a man-made idea. It doesn't exist in nature."
Just about all the speakers talked in some way about design, about sustainability and the inextricable link between the two. In a talk informally dubbed "eco schmeco," Charles Renfro, a partner at architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro talked about the importance of incorporating the "pleasures of the body" into sustainable designs (while also showcasing some truly mind expanding projects and spinning amusing yarns on behalf of traditionally one dimensional beings who inhabit architectural models).
It was a heartening day for those who work in a creative capacity as speakers provided inspiring proof that while efficiency may necessarily be a watchword for the next economic epoch, it's creativity and innovation that spell long term survival and growth.