ABC Innovation Speaker Duncan Wardle

The Innovation Game

Duncan Wardle discusses why creativity is everyone’s job, how it can solve for both opportunities and threats and what it means to throw out the rules.
By Christopher Durso
January 30, 2023

ABC Convention 2023 speaker Duncan Wardle used to manage creativity for one of the world’s most creative companies. Since then, he has consulted across industries–and is convinced that people are ‘far more creative than they think they are.’

How does it work when you’re the head of innovation and creativity for a company whose entire brand is innovation and creativity? For Duncan Wardle, who served in that role for the Walt Disney Company, it was important to identify the right model for weaponizing imagination across the iconic organization’s diverse portfolio of creative divisions, including Imagineering, Marvel, Pixar, ESPN and Star Wars.

Wardle went through three models that yielded varying degrees of success: using outside consultants, creating an in-house innovation department and running an accelerator program for startups. Finally came the fourth model, deceptively simple but the one that stuck.

“I set about creating a toolkit that does three things,” says Wardle, who today serves as a consultant and speaker advising companies on how to innovate. “It takes the b.s. out of the word ‘innovation’; it makes it less ethereal, less intimidating. It makes creativity tangible for people who hate gray and ambiguity. Far more important, it makes the process fun—tools people choose to use when I’m not around; that’s when you know you’ve changed a culture.”

Wardle will explain how any organization of any size can use that toolkit during a keynote presentation at ABC Convention 2023 in March. In a preview interview with Construction Executive, he discusses why creativity is everyone’s job, how it can solve for both opportunities and threats
and what it means to throw out the rules.

How do you get people who are in jobs they might not think are inherently creative or innovative—say, in construction—to embrace creativity and innovation?

I define creativity as the ability to have an idea, and we can all do that. I define innovation as the ability to get it done—that’s the hard part. The challenge is, in the construction industry, you’ve been told since the time you were 16, “Oh, you’re in building—you’re not creative.” You’ve been told that so many times, you’ve given up and you don’t think you’re creative. I will prove—the audience will prove to themselves—in a very short period of time, they’re far more creative than they think they are.

So, this approach works for every industry?

Since I left Disney three years ago, I’ve worked with the automotive, food, agricultural, pharmaceutical and engineering industries. What you learn is that insights for innovation often come from looking outside of your industry—not within your industry.

Look at the building industry. We don’t know yet what 3D printing will become. You didn’t have touchscreen technology 15 years ago. Fifteen years from today, 30% of what you buy on Amazon will not be delivered by a drone, you will print it in your living room. If I can print anything I want, on demand, 15 years from today, will I still need a hammer, a chisel or a saw? I don’t know.

Look at the issues we’ve had with distribution for construction in the last two years during COVID-19. If I can print everything I need onsite, surely that distribution issue goes away. Will I be able to print my own house? Will I be able to create a pattern? “I want Cinderella’s castle.” Print. Boom. “Oh, look, here’s my house.” If we’re printing houses in Houston, Texas, today, in less than five days for the price of an iPhone—gosh, where’s this going to take the industry?

And then, if you think about the construction industry, what are the threats? What are the weak points? You must always ask that when you’re at the top of your game. In 2016, after Ebola and bird flu, we [at Disney] asked the question, what if one of these went global, we had to close our theme parks around the world and nobody could go to a movie theater? Had we not asked that question, we wouldn’t have said, “Wait a minute, what if we went to the consumer?” Do you have Disney+ at home?

I do.

Well, there we go. Now multiply you times the rest of the planet. Disney is in 85% of the countries they couldn’t be in before because they challenged the rules of the industry.

What if the metaverse replaces the need for physical buildings? What if I never go to an office again because I never have to? We’ve already proved that we’re more efficient working from home than we were in the office in the first place. What if carbon emissions mean I don’t have to fly to conferences? In fact, I shouldn’t be flying to conferences five years from today, ethically and morally.

What does this mean for the future of construction? For example, I’m doing work for the NBA now. The chairman believes that virtual basketball revenue will exceed real basketball revenue by 2040. Well, why would I need a stadium to play a bloody basketball game in, then, if the Orlando Magic can only command 14,000 people on a good day (and that’s a very good day)? We piloted the virtual New York Knicks against the virtual Orlando Magic three or four years ago—there were 84,000 people in Madison Square Garden, 3 million people online and we sold $275,000 of virtual merchandise that didn’t exist in three hours. Do I need stadiums? Will I need construction? I don’t know. We don’t have to worry about it today; but we should be looking at it because it’s coming. And think about our own behavior. Two years ago, we used to go to restaurants, gyms, shopping malls and offices. Today, that is Netflix, it’s Instacart, it’s Uber Eats, it’s Peloton. What will all of this mean for the future?

Are there any creative challenges that you, personally, are still trying to unlock?

Oh, my god, yes. I’m working with, let’s just call them the world’s largest snack manufacturer, and their short-term goal that we were working on recently was, how might we extrapolate oil and salt from the food-production process within three years and still make the chips taste as good as they taste today? Their moonshot goal is, how might you print your own snacks at home on a 3D printer?

There’s another project with the pharmaceutical industry I was doing recently. It was all about how to help people that suffer from arthritis. This was a company that makes not only prescription pills and medicine but also consumer products, and I suddenly looked around the room and thought, “Nobody in this room suffers from arthritis. How can I make them feel more empathy for people with arthritis?” So, I went out to a local bank and bought rolls of pennies and I put scotch tape around each one and I stuck two rolls on each finger. They had to wear them for eight hours. Well, now they can’t write, they can’t open a door, they can’t go to the bathroom. And so, suddenly they felt so much more empathy for people with arthritis. They ended up coming up with a new product that they could sell that enabled people with arthritis to open and close objects—just by giving them more empathy.

The great thing about working in different industries is you learn something from one industry that you can apply to the other. I know with the construction industry, everybody’s going to say, “We work in a very heavily regulated industry. We’re guided by OSHA.” I’m going to give them a tool that could be really great for this industry, which is, hypothetically: What if the rules no longer applied? What if I could metaphorically break the rules of the construction industry to help me come up with totally and utterly new ideas? 

by Christopher Durso

Chris leads Construction Executive’s day-to-day operations—overseeing all print and digital content, design and production efforts, and working with the editorial team to tell the many stories of America’s builders and contractors. An experienced association magazine editor, writer and publications strategist, he is a graduate of Saint Joseph’s University and lives in Arlington, Virginia.

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