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Interview CON-X 2022 | BILL O’CONNOR, CEO Agents of Innovation

Bill is a Founding Partner of AOi (Agents of Innovation), an innovation consultancy based in San Francisco/Silicon Valley; he is also a faculty member at Singularity University, and an Advisor to the leading AI/Digital People company Soul Machines. The organizers of CON-X 2022 have chosen him to keynote the conference on May 31 in front of 250 of the world's top travel leaders. In this interview, Bill gives us some insights into his experience regarding the impact of innovation, expectations for CON-X attendees, and some interesting predictions for the world of travel.

  • What would you say is the definition of "spirit of innovation"?

There are at least two ways to answer that question. The first is with our essential definition of the word innovation, which is the art of establishing something out in the real world that is new or different and that has a significant impact. One of the most critical parts of that definition is the idea that if you don't bring it out to the real world and establish it, it's not really an innovation. Many people and companies define innovation as mere activity rather than achievement, so I would say that a big part of the Spirit of Innovation is the desire, the passion, to actually have a positive impact out in the world.

Another way to answer that question is when we think about the Spirit of Innovation as the Spirit of Silicon Valley, which is the unique approach to innovation that has characterized the San Francisco Bay Area for the past 60 years. As we know, that part of the world has been the innovation mecca for the planet, and one of the key characteristics of that place that we have identified as essential to all of the innovation that it produces is this attitude towards new ideas where they are considered good, first, unless and until they are proven bad. This is the opposite of initially considering an idea as "bad" until it can be proven "good." This "yes before no" approach seems subtle to outsiders, and they are often distracted by all of the technology, money, IPOs venture capital, etc. out in the Bay Area. But it's important to remember that all of that stuff that we identify as Silicon Valley has come directly from that yes before no idea positive attitude.

  • What kind of emerging technologies are driving innovation in tourism companies or in general?

Right now we are facing the greatest set of revolutionary technologies that human beings have ever encountered. I say this in the context of our Innovation Genome Project, where we have studied Innovation going back three and a half million years. So we don't make that claim lightly, but it is true.

Right now, the list of emerging technologies is super long, and if I had to pick a top set of technologies driving Innovation today I would certainly include artificial intelligence, the Metaverse, Web3, quantum computing, space and climate technologies, the internet of things, bio/health, and  mind machine interfaces.

  • How do great innovations happen?

Obviously that's a very complex question, but there are a few deep patterns that we have observed in innovations throughout the ages.

The first thing to know about great innovations is that they don't usually come from necessity which means that that famous phrase invention is the mother of necessity is not usually true.

Great innovations usually come from the mind of one person, initially, anyway, who has a vision for how something can or should or could be better. For example, when the printing press was being developed by Gutenberg and others there wasn't any kind of necessity to improve beyond using ink and paper for written language. Nobody was begging Gutenberg, to quote unquote solve this problem of ink and paper. He simply saw a better way to do something; and he, like most great innovators also had at least some clear glimpses of the second order ramifications that would come from the Innovation itself. For example, Gutenberg's printing press caused an explosion of literacy in Europe and eventually around the world, starting with the printing of the Gutenberg Bible. And, in turn, that explosion of literacy, of course, had incalculable effects on the modern world. I think that's a great example because, again, Innovation usually does not come from solving a problem or some stark necessity -- and this is good news for would-be innovators because it's not like you have to be working in a company that is in terrible shape to be an innovator. In fact, I would say that anyone, anywhere, who has the capacity to look at things and imagine how they could be better, could be an innovator.

And actually, we like the term "Innovationist" better than innovator, because that word, innovator, word has so much negative baggage. And I think that Innovationist also feels like artist, or anthropologist, or physicist, or guitarist -- it feels more like a respectable discipline that should be studied and evolved with care.

  • What are the methods for true innovation?
The most universal methods we've identified/developed are part of the Five Essential Innovation Techniques from the AOi Innovation Genome Project:
      • Innovation Landscape: the development of a company’s innovation map and challenges at large; focusing on four core parameters: the company, its customers, its competition, and its context in relation to technology;
      • Innovation Targets: generation of a set of innovation targets or ambitious goals to help focus the innovation efforts;
      • Innovation Ideas: creation of a wide range of innovation ideas using the “Seven Essential Questions”/LUMIAMI technique;
      • Innovation Priorities: prioritization of these innovation ideas on a Wild/World Matrix;
      • Innovation Projects: finally, the development of actual innovation projects that the company can start working on right away
  • In TravelgateX we always say that we are in a paradise similar to Silicon Valley, because of the innovation in our islands, what are the ideas that you can transfer to us from Silicon Valley?
Well, I've already talked about the spirit of Innovation or the spirit of Silicon Valley, which is taking a yes before no idea positive approach to new thinking. We have a visual that shows the seven characteristics that make Silicon Valley so much more innovative than other places, and one of them is the idea that we love things that are new, different, and creative, more than things that are powerful and established. This love of novelty, of creating something that has not been in the world before, is something that is easy to understand, but hard to replicate. The exciting thing is, however, that this is really a mindset that theoretically could be adopted anywhere.


  • What do you think about participating in CON-X 2022, what are your expectations, what can you propose to the attendees?

Well, I'm very excited to participate in this conference. I think that the folks at TravelgateX are real visionaries. And I don't use that word lightly. Believe me, who really wants to look ahead into the future of the world and the future of travel. And to use that vision, that new perspective to change the way they work and change the travel industry for the better. I also love that they are what we love to call in Silicon Valley conveners people who are gathering all kinds of other smart people to address these issues. I know in this crowd there will be some of the best minds in travel in Europe. And it's exciting to bring them all together because I know some great things will come from it

My expectation is that I will meet all kinds of cool interesting people and that I will learn a lot from them about their work and their perspectives in the travel industry and in general. And I also hope that my perspectives on Innovation from the Silicon Valley point of view will be fun for them to experience and even more important, hopefully easy for them to apply, even while we're still at the conference.

In terms of proposing things to the attendees, I would suggest that they adopt even for the length of the conference, the spirit of the llama, the spirit of Innovation, the spirit of Silicon Valley mentality and when they hear new ideas, even if they might seem crazy to start with. Yes, and that sounds great. How can we build on that is probably the best thing I could suggest for going into a conference like this. A radically positive, forward looking helpful mindset towards other people and their ideas.


  • What can we learn from this "rebound of the century", in the travel sector?
If I'm understanding the question, it's the rebounding of travel after these two years of COVID. And if that's true, I think one of the things to remember in terms of Innovation is that the people who can look ahead and see what will be in the world in general, are often the best people who can also take that context and dream up things that should be in their own specific work. And worlds. So I'm sure that whomever is innovating or trying to innovate, during this bounce of the century, was able, even a year or two ago to look ahead and imagine what this bounce would be like, so that they have some plans or ideas or products that are ready for that context in a similar way. That's one of the goals of this conference, to look ahead at those big developments that we can possibly see or imagine on the horizon, just as people a few years ago could have seen the bounce of the century, even back then.


  • What attracts you most to Mallorca and to TravelgateX?
Well, as I said, I love the TravelgateX people and I love the TravelgateX people. And they are actually very San Francisco Silicon Valley in some ways because they're always saying yes, let's do it. Let's try it. Why not? All that good stuff. So I really hope to be working with TravelgateX in whatever wild ways we can figure out for years to come. In terms of Mallorca, I've never been there. But it looks absolutely beautiful. And like most human beings on the planet, I'm a fan of Rafael Nadal. So I've heard about Mallorca being his home and his training round and things like that. So I'm intrigued, especially because I was a varsity tennis player in high school to see this tennis Mecca in this beautiful setting.


  • What do you hope to share with CON-X participants and speakers?
I want to share our perspectives on innovation, and how it happens, including the innovation insights and methods from our Innovation Genome Project.
I'm especially excited about sharing our practical frameworks and techniques for innovation, so that this very innovative crowd can try them out, even starting at the conference itself.


  • Why is the figure of the MC so important in the events? How will your participation in CON-X be innovative?
I would say that even if you have great speakers at a conference, as we do for this one, it's really helpful to have someone who can sort of tie things all together and to create links between the presenters and their ideas.
They can also take a big picture view of the event, and write up, as I will do, an overview/summary of the best ideas/discussions from the event.
Re: my own innovation, you'll have to wait for the event to see that!