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Ambitious creativity

Uncovering the serious side of play

by Livia Murray

Through a sliding glass door and up a white spiral staircase, the entrance to Innovo’s two-man office in the Beirut Digital District is guarded by a miniature army truck alongside a satellite dish. Though they look like toys, they were actually designed in the office’s small lab as side projects that Innovo’s founder Jad Berro and colleague Ihab Hajj developed when they weren’t toiling on projects for the clients of their hardware and electronics company. 

The creative process

The Innovo team use solutions devised through their more playful projects to give a creative edge to problem-solving in their contracted work, which includes work for Touch, Kidzmondo and Emirati telecom company Du.

“Most of the time the stuff I do for fun is related to the stuff I do for work,” says Berro. Spending roughly 70-80 percent of their time on contract work, they can then turn to their own projects the rest of the time. And it seems they might be onto something with their model since their creative projects often go on to inspire subsequent solutions for clients, demonstrating that playfulness can fuel creativity in business.

Some of Innovo’s side projects have obvious practical applications, some less so, and some remain purely in the domain of fun — although which category each fits into usually transpires late in the process. The satellite dish by the entrance is one project that began as pure fun, but later proved useful in developing products for clients. The dish tracks satellites and planes, providing information on their position, and can also pick up international TV stations. Latterly some of its algorithms and design elements were incorporated into client projects.

Although non-disclosure agreements stop Innovo from discussing the specifics of current clients, ongoing projects include robots, infrared sensors and receivers, and photographic drones. For previous customers it has designed products ranging from interactive vending machines to amusement park flying saucers. 

Berro launched the company in 2009, at the time delivering technology products to just a few clients. But, as he worked on more and more projects, he gradually gained in reputation until clients began approaching him. “I don’t even have a business card, it’s just people telling people,” he says.

The company’s work really took off two months ago, when Berro was approached by Tarek Dajani, chairman and chief operating officer of digital media umbrella group DNY, to work on a project whose content Berro could not disclose at the time of the interview. Since then they have moved to their current offices, joining the rest of the companies under the DNY Group umbrella. DNY delivers clients to Innovo, while Innovo brings a degree of technological know-how to the group. So far Innovo has two staff members but, by Dajani’s calculations, it’s likely to grow to 10-15 employees by the end of 2014.

The DNY culture

As far as creative thinking goes, Innovo’s recent integration into the DNY offices is in line with the work culture within the group. Experimentation “has been very much part of the DNA across the board in the companies,” explains Dajani. “You find yourself in a discussion with the client and a problem arises, or a constraint, and you would dig into what you’ve done for fun.” DNY has been experimenting for some time with various technologies. Its work with radio-frequency identification, a wireless data-transferring technology, dates back to around 2004-2005. “We’ve done a lot of projects. If I show you the list of things that worked, things that didn’t, things that made sense, things that didn’t, you’d be shocked,” says Dajani.

Dajani received his first degree in architecture at the American University of Beirut, and often likens DNY’s creative business approach to the process of architectural projects. Business and product development, like architecture, can be approached from a design perspective wherein the outcome of the product is not based on pure numbers but on a creative approach. “In design, you can have the same brief for a [piece of] land for architecture, and you end up with millions of permutations and designs addressing all the same constraints. That applies to business,” says Dajani. 

The DNY Beirut office, where the majority of its 80 employees work (the rest are stationed in Dubai), is designed to offer tools that stimulate communication and new ideas among its employees. Glass walls delineating different spaces give it an open feel and act as a note board, covered in scribbled plans from brainstorming sessions. The offices also contain a room of products that were previously designed for clients, and which stay in the building so staff can continue to work on improving them. “It’s a tough culture here because we’re demanding — no one settles for the obvious. We’re irrational sometimes in our expectations, very ambitious in terms of what we’d like to see and very rarely satisfied with the end product,” says Dajani.

Design thinking

Creativity has always played a large role in the technology industry, with innovation most obviously necessary in the research and development phase of product development. “But I think innovation is not just a tech thing — it’s a way of looking at things,” says Dajani. “There’s this design thinking approach to everything, this kind of philosophy, looking at business and designing across different disciplines. That’s becoming more the norm in terms of how you look at the business model and financial challenges.”

Popularized by big names such as Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, and David Kelly, founder of international design and innovation consulting firm IDEO, design thinking dates back to the first Apple mouse. It’s the idea that maintaining a healthy, creative culture among employees in a company will lead to more disruptive innovations. This entails changing the process by which you think in order to innovate. Adults tend to self-censor their own ideas, inhibiting creativity, so playfulness is positively encouraged to help counteract this process.

Why make the case for design thinking? One can cut costs with a smart fiscal strategy, gain a greater market share through smart advertising tactics and marketing, and continue to test new products to keep up with the changing world. These are all important elements in the routine of a successful company. But companies that have really stood out are those which are able to incorporate revolutionary ideas into their products. These are the companies that made a mark, that disrupted markets.

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Livia Murray

Livia covers business, finance and economic policy for Executive.

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