The Possibility Club

Cross-sector innovation.

Richard Freeman looks beyond the obvious for inspiration.

Swap luggage for sushi

In December, I was invited to deliver a workshop by a city chamber of commerce, exploring the concept of cross-sector innovation.

We spent some time looking at product and service development, and the unlikely inspirations that we take for granted. For example, who would have thought that airport baggage carousels would one day change the face of Sushi restaurants. Or that Owen Maclaren, a fighter plane engineer  would solve the problem of cumbersome baby pushchair and bicycles by borrowing ideas from the collapsible wheel carriages of Spitfires.


Credit: Ramon Vullings & Marc Heleven

Characteristics (not details)

But in the 21st century, innovation is not just the process of invention by trial and error – it is the acute understanding of the characteristics of a problem first before you even think about the detail. In service and product design, are the problems we’re trying to solve about communication, infrastructure, skills or customer experience? These are common challenges in every corner of private, public and voluntary sector business development.

My workshop focused on the incredible resource that is people you don’t normally talk to. In my work, I have the privilege of spending time with teachers, engineers, surveyors,  technologists, social workers, artists, bus drivers, pharmacists, children, people with complex needs – I could go on and on. But when we are looking to solve problems in business, our instinct is usually to turn to the trusted inner-circle, or the well-thumbed manual, or the first page of Google.

Make friends with a stranger

I think we need to build networks of strangers whose characteristics will add a new dimension to our thinking.

If you need to translate a complex set of ideas to a room full of people with competing needs and a lack of prior knowledge – tap into the skills of a primary school teacher.

If you need to catalogue a massive inventory of stock or data or ideas – ask for help from a librarian. Sounds obvious, but a lack of shared language often prevents this from happening.

Poets, dentists, architects, games designers, police officers will all have had to solve problems with the same characteristics as yours. Their suggestions might help you find an edge that you can never get by obsessing over your competitors. Candlemakers were too busy looking at other candlemakers to notice that Edison’s lightbulb was about to put them all out of business.

How do you use cross-sector innovation in your mission? We’d love to hear, so email us at

You might enjoy our interviews with business, culture and education pioneers who have some unique perspectives on creative innovation and problem solving. Pete Heat is a problem-solving magician (literally); Steve Wells is a futurist and consultant on the future of industry; James Turnbull is using virtual reality to re-invent story-telling; Brett Griffin believes that teachers have the skills to be the greatest entrepreneurs.




Richard Freeman is CEO of always possible and Founder of The Possibility Club.

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