The USC Annenberg Innovation Lab – a growing powerhouse launched less than 17 months ago – hosted its first Innovation Summit at the Ronald Tutor Campus Center on March 30.
A standing-room only crowd, with others viewing the proceedings online, was treated to an all-day gathering of talks, panels, music, technology demonstrations and networking that was as varied, vigorous and vibrant as the Innovation Lab itself.
Summit participants included Paul Miller (aka DJ Spooky, That Subliminal Kid), hip hop hero and globetrotting music-maker, writer and public intellectual; Kati London, keynote speaker, USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism Innovator-in-Residence and Zynga New York executive producer; and Henry Jenkins, USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism professor, senior research fellow and chief adviser to the lab.
“Today you are really in for a great treat,” said USC Annenberg dean Ernest J. Wilson III as part of his welcoming remarks. “During the summit, you’ll get a peek at some of the big ideas that our colleagues here at the University of Southern California have been working on.”
Those colleagues included students and faculty from seven schools across the campus in addition to the lab’s roster of national and international corporate, public utility and nonprofit partners.
Early on during the summit, Innovation Lab director Jonathan Taplin explained its ethos. “We have taken ourselves to task,” Taplin said, “to try and inculcate a culture of innovation.”
Taplin also told the attendees who hadn’t been inside the lab about the signs posted there that read, “Fail Harder,” “Move Fast and Break Things” and “What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid?”
The Innovation Lab’s aim is, in part, to be “a leading innovator and adviser on transformational changes happening in our participatory culture.” With that in mind, Taplin said he and his colleagues are asked by corporations how innovation strategy be taught? His reply? Something he and Wilson heard during a Silicon Valley visit to Apple headquarters: “Culture eats strategy for lunch, every day.”
The Innovation Lab sets out, as Wilson put it, “to create an environment where creativity can be created and sustained.”
The dean also provided a recipe for innovation. (“I do believe there is a secret sauce,” he said.) Ingredients included maintaining multiple and interconnected networks and making certain to hire people who don’t fall into traditional silos.
“You need to hire weird people,” Wilson said, a theme other participants echoed throughout the day.
The lab particularly focuses on finding and spreading intriguing uses for analytics – ingenious uses of data were presented throughout the summit. For example, Innovation Lab senior research fellow and USC Annenberg and USC School of Cinematic Arts professor Anne Balsamo oversaw a breakout session titled “Rethinking Urban Settings.”
“In some respects we are thinking about the city as a network of flows,” Balsamo said by way of introducing the four Innovation Lab projects that followed. “The city not as built environment but as a set of flowing channels.”
That thinking was clear in the “Video Traffic Analytics” project demonstrated by a team that included Cyrus Shahabi, Innovation Lab research fellow and USC Viterbi School of Engineering professor. His project set out to meld traffic and weather data with route mapping.
By 2020, Shahabi said, access to improved location data could save drivers more than $600 billion per year, presumably by increasing work productivity while decreasing commute times.
Other projects included “ParTour,” which blended social engagement with mobile media technology to better understand civic spaces; “LOONG Table,” a digital, interactive interface projection; and “CrisisConnection,” a real-time communication tool designed for use during emergencies.
Gabriel Kahn, the Innovation Lab senior research fellow and USC Annenberg journalism professor who conceived of and leads CrisisConnection – presented a live, real-time interactive online video and social media demonstration of the project’s immediate utility.
Students involved with the project took up positions around campus. The students then play-acted the discovery and community response to a mock gas leak. The students provided location-based details and other information on the disaster. They also offered and delivered help to each other when appropriate and ultimately gave a digital all-clear signal.
In the room next door to where “Rethinking Urban Settings” took place, Jenkins presented “Experiments in Participatory Cultures.”
During this breakout session, attendees were encouraged to imagine a society whose people actively shape the way they experience news, learning and entertainment. Jenkins said the move toward such a participatory culture is ongoing but incomplete.
Four projects then were discussed as examples toward fulfilling that promise. These included the lab’s popular Twitter sentiment analysis work led by USC Annenberg associate professor Francois Bar; Innovation Lab creative director Erin Reilly’s and Jenkins’ signature research on “PLAY” (“Participatory Learning and You”); the “Second Screen” project, which studies the increase in the use of additional screens (i.e., iPad and iPhone) while watching television or a movie, changing a monologue into a dialogue; and the “Flotsam Transmedia Play Experience,” which examined experimental learning and 21st century storytelling as represented in a book by David Wiesner.
The Innovation Summit was packed with other intriguing sessions. One participatory plenary was titled “Game-Changing Ideas” and encouraged a fun, collaborative analysis of the day. Other highlights included a panel discussion among representatives of the “quad” – private sector, government sector, university sector and nonprofit sector.
Paul Bricault, co-founder and managing director of the startup accelerator Amplify L.A., was joined on the quad panel by Steven L. Canepa, IBM general manager of global media and entertainment; Amy Heibel, Los Angeles County Museum of Art associate vice president of technology, Web and digital media; and James A. Ingraham, vice president of strategic planning at EPB, the public energy utility that installed one of the nation’s fastest fiber-optic networks in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Ingraham discussed what that greater speed and bandwidth meant to customers (shock, followed by happiness) and to the city in general (increased economic opportunity).
Also announced during the summit: the winners and runners-up of a student design challenge.
Participating students were encouraged to work for the good of society on teams that featured a “hustler,” a “hacker” and a “designer.” First place went to Meryl Alper and Saranyaraj Rajendran for “Theia,” a project to assist the visually impaired with a handheld e-reader that translates the written word into audio or Braille.
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