Dan Reus is part artist, part engineer. And these days, he is entirely focused on innovation. “Disruptive” innovation, to be precise.
Reus is a former marketing guy who, after losing his job a couple of years ago, launched a sort of ongoing series of conversations about innovation. It’s called “Openly Disruptive,” and it has covered everything from “Gamification” to the future of dead shopping malls.
Reus is “chief instigator,” and he emcees a mix of webcasts, lunches and other gatherings where members come and bounce around ideas, projects and whatever else they might be working on, and meet other people who can help make them into reality. The mission statement: “Openly Disruptive is for people who want to define the future, not be victims of it.”
If that all sounds a little squishy, well, it is. But Reus embraces that squishiness as a way of getting to the point of these exercises: Find ways to think differently about the complex problems businesses face, without all the expense — and risk — that goes into big corporate product development.
“This is like making an excuse,” he said. “Sometimes in a corporate setting you need an excuse to ask the question that nobody else can ask. Maybe you need a chance to test out an idea. You’re not going to spend $1 billion retooling. You just want to explore an idea. Openly Disruptive can be a somewhat harmless way to do that.”
We caught up with Reus recently to find out more.
What was the first one like?
We tried something we called “Sampling Space.” It’s possible now, for $8,000, to launch something the size of a coffee cup into space, like your own satellite. There’s one guy who sent up something that detects cosmic rays and turns them into sound, and he makes music from it. Other people send up someone’s ashes or whatever. So we asked, “What would you do?” and we launched a kickstarter fund to raise money for it.
I’d have an hourlong conversation with somebody and they’d be like “That’s so cool,” but there was no way to scale it up. So it didn’t go far, but in the process I got exposed to this sort of pro-am community of innovation. You’ve got all these people with ideas out there, but no money. And you’ve got the investment community, these businesspeople who need exposure to new ideas.
We’re all experts in our field, but we’re not expert in other fields. And your audience is not industry-specific. How do you make this stuff translatable across genres and disciplines?
Openly Disruptive is a connector. It’s like running a party. You wouldn’t just plop everybody down in the same room. You’d say, “Oh, you’re this really interesting artist that does sculpture, and this person is a chemist. And it doesn’t look like you have much in common, but here’s why I sat you next to each other.”
Say you get people from sustainable farming, biotech, medicine, what’s the common thread? You guys probably have something in common, let’s find out what that is and talk about it, and then, what can you talk about that will help you learn something from each other?
You must hear all sort of fascinating ideas. What’s the most interesting thing you’ve heard?
I was talking to a small team at Boeing about disruptive innovation and they said, “Well, we make airplanes. You don’t want to disrupt them.” So we did an exercise. We said, “Let’s assume that, for a year, you have no aluminum. But you still have to make numbers.” How would Boeing exist for a year without making an airplane?
They realized that there (are) all these Boeing planes already built that fly overhead every day, like every 20 minutes. And with weather and climate change there’s this huge need for real-time data. So what if you used those planes as sensor platforms? Take some of the cargo hold and use it for data sensors, and take all this real-time weather data and license it back to the people who need it. You’d actually have a fleet of Boeing products in the sky that would be the most effective sensor platform you’d ever have. What if Boeing became a data company?
Now, no one at Boeing’s saying this is their new strategy. And frankly whether that goes anywhere or not is not important. What we got these guys to do is stop thinking about being structural engineers and start thinking: How do I fit in the larger world?
Ideas are great. But it can be hard to getting from ideas to talking to products and jobs and revenue. How do you do that?
When we do our Disruptive Diner, we’re actually pretty clear: This is for people who are interested enough to do deals. We pride ourselves on saying “These are deals that happened because this person with a skill found this person who needed it.” The other thing: We are constantly reintroducing people, and finding connections between people. We know a lot about our members, and their needs. We need to have that network of connections.
What does it mean to the economy of a place like St. Louis to have these kinds of conversations here?
We accelerate it. We help people collaborate, and we aggregate them. We start by being a place where talent and people who need talent go to be together. We give a reason for those people to self-select and put up their hand and say, “Here’s what I’m interested in.” We force the conversation. Another thing we do is we bring in these ideas and expose people. And it goes both ways. The people we bring in know St. Louis. We start raising visibility.