Innovative Approaches to Big Issues

Patterns and Take-Aways from BIF-8 (Business Innovation Factory’s Annual Confab)

September 27, 2012

BIF-8 was the eighth annual conference held in Providence, RI, by the Business Innovation Factory. The format is story-telling punctuated with long networking breaks where random encounters are encouraged. These year’s storytellers included passionate innovators, entrepreneurs, and intrapreneurs, technologists, artists, musicians, actors, and teens—all people who are changing their corners of society and business. Key themes: transforming cities, healthcare, and society. The most interesting pattern that emerged was that grass roots innovation is alive and well. Nobody is waiting for governments or large institutions to effect positive change. Instead, people with passion of all ages are rolling up their sleeves and coming up with new social movements and innovative approaches to complex issues.


The Business Innovation Factory in Providence, Rhode Island has nurtured a vibrant community of innovators and social entrepreneurs. Each fall, there’s a convening of the “tribe” at the Trinity Repertory Theater in downtown Providence for two days of storytelling and conversations. This was the eighth year; hence the conference is called BIF-8.

I find these gatherings to be a great place to discover new case studies and to spark new relationships while rekindling others. I plan to dig deeper into many of the stories that whet my appetite at BIF-8 over the next few months. The purpose of this “trip report” is to give you a sense of the patterns that emerged in my nervous system as I immersed myself once again in the BIF experience.


Design for Serendipitous Insights & Connections

Richard Saul Wurman (the creator of the TED conferences—“Ideas worth sharing”) consulted with Business Innovation Factory founder Saul Kaplan on the design of the two-day BIF events. I’ve been to two of the eight annual forums, and I loved both of them. Like TED events, they’re designed to stimulate all parts of your brain. The format of the BIF events does a great job at keeping the participants enthralled, engaged and networking in the following ways:

  • Four blocks/day of four storytellers each.
  • The stories are almost all personal stories in which the speaker talks about his/her childhood, what makes them tick, and why this thing they’re talking about is important to them. What all speakers share is their passion about their story.
  • The stories range across many different topics—business, science, society, culture, etc.—and shift you from left to right brain, by having musicians, artists, actors, as well as kids present.
  • No Q&A after the presentations; Richard explained that he found most questioners at public conferences were boring and self-serving.
  • 45-minute to 90 minute breaks for networking; you can talk with the presenters and network with one another.
  • A lot of emphasis on “random collisions,” so you feel fine just barging into a conversation or striking up a new one.
  • A long cocktail party.

Frame the Conversation with Urgency

In his introductory remarks and video, Saul Kaplan said, “People do what they’re passionate about. Innovation is a team sport. We help people who are passionate about transforming their world to form intentional networks. This is a killer trend: self-organizing purposeful networks. We know that institutions are not going to lead the way. We’re already in the second decade of the 21st century. A decade is terrible thing to waste. This decade screams for more transformational innovation.” This was a great way to frame the two-days of storytelling and networking. It gave each of the participants permission to think about our passions and to find kindred spirits and resources.

Highlights from the 1st Four Storytellers at BIF-8, September 19, 2012 Graphic Recording by Dean Meyers

(Click on image to enlarge.)

Copyright  Dean Meyers

1. Saul Kaplan, founder of the Business Innovation Factory, kicked off with a video emphasizing the core competencies of BIF and of the members of the BIF Community: among them, the power of storytelling, self-organizing purposeful networks, and the serendipity of random collisions. The first speaker, Carne Ross, who founded the world’s first “diplomacy-for-hire” firm, described why a new form of diplomacy is required now that governments are stuck in an outmoded model while global change is being led by movements of people acting as change agents. The second speaker was Robin Chase, the founder of ZipCar, who described her new person-to-person car rental network venture, Buzzcar, which has now launched in France. The third speaker was Andrew Hessel, a self-proclaimed genomic futurist, who described the ways in which genomic science will transform our planet and our economies. Finally, Darrell Hammond introduced us to Kaboom!, a not-for-profit organization that helps communities build much-needed playgrounds.


There’s no “topic” at a BIF conference. The presenters are hand-picked because they have interesting stories to tell. There are themes, however, that characterize the kinds of people and topics that Saul and his BIF team like to showcase:

  • Change Agents: people of all ages who are passionate, committed, and successful in transforming society.
  • Social Entrepreneurs: people who start organizations designed to transform society.
  • Internal entrepreneurs/intrapreneurs: leaders who create start-ups within existing organizations.
  • Activist Kids: kids who become social activists, spawn networks of peers and supporters, and often create their own not-for-profits in their teens.
  • Artists, Musicians, Actors: creative people who use the arts to catalyze innovation and/or to change society.
  • Technology Visionaries: people who are able to predict how emerging technologies will change the world.
  • Masters of Metaphor: people who are skilled in using metaphors to convey concepts and to stimulate dialog.
  • People with Stories that Inspire Others: many people can tell a good story, but not all stories are inspirational. BIF stories are.
  • Recent Authors: many of the people who come to tell stories have recently published books.
  • Innovators in Healthcare: BIF’s own team works in healthcare a lot, so they are tuned into many of the people who have been innovating in that space.
  • Innovators in Government: Saul Kaplan has logged personal experience in helping to transform local government, so he’s always interested in finding others who have been successful.
  • Innovators in Education: people who are changing the way that education is designed and delivered.
  • Good Storytellers: people who are willing to reveal a good deal about themselves as they describe what they learned or discovered in a compelling way.


Throughout the sessions, there were some patterns that stuck in my mind…

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