Want to Win an Innovation Lion? Get Real. Seriously.

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The big Innovation winners at Cannes this year send a strong message: this festival of creativity rewards innovation that solves real problems sustainably, at serious scale.

The problem: Sea birds and turtles fatally ingest the plastic rings that hold six-packs of cans together. The (practical) solution: Boutique beer brand Salt Water Brewery developed a robust six-pack ring that feeds the creatures instead of killing them. Another example is Toyota. The brand exploited the popularity of its Land Cruiser in Australia, developing a retrofit device to create a radio network for emergency message transmission across the swathes of the outback —a region bigger than all the countries in today’s European Union combined — where there is no mobile phone coverage.

These initiatives are more than campaigns. The edible six-pack ring could become ubiquitous: if big brands adopt it too, the cost will become competitive with existing plastic rings. Having demonstrated its emergency radio network, Toyota is looking at making it a standard feature of its Land Cruiser, leading ultimately to widespread coverage of the country through natural replacement of its fleet.

Look at how many of the other Lions were awarded to work not done by brands as part of their marketing, but by ambitious, entrepreneurial companies on their own accounts. Erik Kim’s “Dot” Braille smartwatch is one of the best cases for wearables yet. And PrePex’s brilliant device stands a great chance of achieving its company’s mission to reduce the spread of HIV by enabling 27 million circumcisions in Africa by 2020.

“Dot” – the first braille smartwatch

What should brands look for? Certainly, problems that are real, not contrived. Problems where a solution can have large and lasting impact. And problems where the brand has something credible, beyond money, to bring to the solution. How should they respond? By thinking of business models, not campaigns.

The creative elephant in the room

But wait: did ING’s The Next Rembdrandt and Google Deepmind’s AlphaGo deserve their Grands Prix? Weren’t they one-off solutions to contrived problems?

ING’s The Next Rembrandt: inspired by Rembrandt; painted by a machine

They were. They deserved their wins because they demonstrate fundamental advances in mechanical creativity. A session presenter in Lions Innovation opened by defining an algorithm (wrongly) as “a set of instructions that lead to a predictable result,” and went on to show examples of work that allegedly couldn’t have been created by an algorithm. This was complacent at best.

The Grand Prix winners’ contribution was to demonstrate inspiring new ways for machines to be creative, made possible by combining computation and data at scale. When machines are active participants in the creative process — when they surprise us — they expand the horizons of human creativity.

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