Weekly Editorial

Fostering Innovation in Our Industry

Written By Rob Kirkbride, Editor-in-chief, OI Publications • July 17, 2023

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As the commercial interiors industry recovers from its post-NeoCon hangover, it is important to remember why 50,000 people gathered in Chicago for the all-important event. When you get down to the base reason NeoCon exists, it’s this: to celebrate innovation.

Innovation is the fuel that drives the industry, and not only ours. It is estimated that innovation is responsible for up to 85% of all economic growth.

All too often when we think of innovation, we think of product innovation, which is definitely important but not the only way we should measure it. Innovation also comes in the form of ideas — concepts that are presented and discussed, vetted and argued over. Read Bill Wittland’s excellent column in today’s issue of officeinsight magazine for his take on the topic.

I would argue this form of innovation is equally important to product innovation. The problem is that our society seems to dismiss new ideas and new thinking. Instead, social media siloes us into our own echo chambers. We read “curated” news on Google and social media sites that isn’t so much curated as it is tailored to appeal to what we already believe based on complex algorithms built from our digital habits.

This kind of innovation comes from healthy communication. We need to speak to each other more as an industry, not less, which is why I love events like the BIFMA 360° Leadership Conference and EdSpaces — both are events that focus on real joint learning and discovery. While the pandemic was a pain, it did give rise to Zoom webinars, most of which were well done and interesting. I’m glad a few companies have continued to host these online learning events. Still, it’s not enough. We need to connect more as an industry.

When I look at other industries, I see them embrace innovation in ways that I don’t always see in commercial interiors. Heck, even an industry as traditional as farming has embraced high-tech tractors that can plow or harvest a field using GPS, drones to monitor crops, and advanced sensors that can tell them exactly when they need to water or fertilize their fields.

Why are we behind when it comes to fostering innovation in our industry? I would argue that the size of our industry has something to do with it. We are a small industry. In fact, I used to joke that the office furniture industry is about the size of the cat food industry. That’s no longer true. Cat food is now worth $33 billion a year and we are stuck at $14 billion.

So what can we do to innovate? Here are a few ideas:

Create a yearly gathering of the industry that is focused on ideas, not products. As I mentioned earlier in this column, the BIFMA 360° conference is excellent because it is a gathering of industry executives to discuss topics that are only loosely connected to what we do. It is a discussion of ideas rather than things. Configura deserves credit for doing the same with its CET Experience, which focuses on space planning, but also includes speakers and topics that are only tangentially connected. I think the industry could use an event that is even more inclusive and not just focused on the C-suite or one aspect; a gathering of the industry to discuss how we can be better.

Attract and retain more young people in the industry. New ideas often come from new people. It was refreshing to see more youth at this year’s NeoCon. We must continue to promote the entire industry as a great place to work for young professionals. They see things in ways that those of us who are a bit older might miss.

Try faster and fail faster. The “cycle” in our industry lasts about a year. We launch new products and ideas at NeoCon and things remain relatively quiet when it comes to innovation until the next NeoCon rolls around. Sure, there are new products launched throughout the year, but the majority of innovation — both product and communication — happens in Chicago and then goes quiet. The industry has always followed this cadence, at least during the past 25 years+ that I’ve covered it. That cycle can and should happen faster. We should take a page from the residential furniture industry (and even fashion) that seems to try out new styles and products often and quickly kills what does not work.

We should gather more, talk more and debate more as an industry if we want to be truly innovative. I would argue that it is critical for the health of our industry. 47% of Gen Xers and 42% of millennials say they would leave their current job for not only more money, but also for a more innovative environment.

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