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Innovating in Times of Crisis - The XXXI ISPIM Innovation Conference

Updated: Jun 29, 2020

How did we managed to put together a virtual conference in the space of 11 weeks?

At the turn of the year, the world was a quite different place. We were looking forward to another good year that would include major sporting events such as the Olympics and EURO 2020. We were planning our largest ever conference that was due to take place in Berlin in June. Then everything changed and the coronavirus pandemic confined us to our homes. 

As a response, we took the decision in early March, only 11 weeks before the planned start of the conference, to run our first virtual conference under the theme of “Innovating in Times of Crisis”.It is worth remembering that a conference is usually a couple of years in the planning, and this time our community chose to come together in an entirely new way in under three months. 

Never mind the uncertainties and risks that everyone has felt, we must be extremely proud. Proud about the presentations and contributions from a staggering 400 people over the 4 days running in up to 17 parallel sessions involving 630 people from 53 countries. And everything was delivered live without a safety net, with little past experience and under the constraints of confinement and significant stress for many.

So how did we make this work?

From 1-4 March we ran a conference in Bangkok which was badly affected by the pandemic. We lost 50% of our conference delegates but took the decision to run the conference anyway, given that many people had already booked their flights and there were very few confirmed cases in Thailand at the time. We did, however, take the necessary precautions recommended at the time including measuring all delegates’ temperatures on a daily basis and having hand sanitiser and face masks available at all times. We also allowed presenters to send in pre-recorded presentations if they were not able to attend in person.

Whilst in Bangkok, we discussed a contingency plan for Berlin. On our return from Thailand on 8 March, it became increasingly clear that we would not be allowed to hold the conference physically as things had escalated very quickly in Europe. We contacted our venues and were able to agree dates in 2021 so we quickly decided to postpone the Berlin conference and run a virtual event instead.

When we took the decision to go 100% virtual, we had no idea really how we were going to do this. We learned in Bangkok that pre-recorded presentations did not go down too well so we took the decision to do the conference live, if possible.

We researched a number of different platforms and were quoted some hefty prices. In the end we decided to go with Zoom as it offered the best functionality and it was within our budget. Remember, as a not-for-profit association, we rely heavily on the income from our main conference to survive.

Having decided on Zoom, we needed to figure out how people would access the conference and decided to use the desktop version of our conference app, Eventsential, provided by RD Mobile. This required our delegates to register for the app separately as this was the only way they would find the links to the 203 separate Zoom sessions we had set up. On the whole, people managed this very well and so now we had our “virtual venue” in place.

We then needed to figure out how to run the event. Fortunately, we already had 11 laptops, as we always insist on using our own laptops at our events. We set these up around a dining table with each laptop assigned a Zoom account which was, in turn, assigned to a series of “meeting rooms”. We controlled all sessions technically from one physical location and relied on a facilitator and technical support person to run the sessions virtually.

We organised a dry run the week before where we ran all sessions exactly at the times scheduled for the following week. Had we not done this, the conference would have been a disaster as we learned so much about how to run the conference and people also learned the difference between a Zoom Meeting and Zoom Webinar. One unforeseen but positive outcome of doing this was that presenters were able to meet their fellow presenters one week in advance which actually led to more cohesive and engaging sessions during the actual conference. This is something we will endeavour to do for all future events.

We also found that we were able to attract some high-level speakers who were willing to give up 30 minutes of their time to present virtually. This is something we would not have considered in the past but will for future events as this has now become acceptable. It also means that we do not have to fly people in which is going to be better for our budget and also better for the planet.

So that’s how we did it.

The ISPIM team is proud of our community coming together in this time of crisis. Proud that we all chose to accept the challenges, take risks and step forward. Standing by with the message of "sorry, see you next year" was not an option - crisis always requires action, dedication and acceptance of new ways of doing things.

As individuals in our community we have learned about ourselves, and we've learned many things about the possibilities and limits of virtual interaction and the role of technology in our lives. With these new skills and insights, we are well-placed as a community to embrace the opportunities that a "new normal" world might give us.

A huge thank you to the following thought leaders who gave up their time to support and inspire us in these turbulent times:

  • Ravi Arora - Vice President, Innovation at Tata Sons

  • Sabine Brunswicker - Director, Research Center for Open Digital Innovation at Purdue University

  • Tamara Carleton - CEO at Innovation Leadership Group

  • Henry Chesbrough - Faculty Director, Garwood Center for Corporate Innovation at UC Berkeley-Haas

  • Robert G. Cooper - ISBM Distinguished Research Fellow at Penn State University

  • Tom De Ruyck - Managing Partner & Head of Insight Activation at InSites Consulting

  • Nils Duelfer - Managing Director at IMP³rove Academy

  • Oliver Gassmann - Professor of Technology Management at University of St.Gallen

  • Gary Hamel - Director at Management Lab

  • Tim Jones - Co-Founder and Programme Director at Future Agenda

  • Braden Kelley - Director, Innovation & Human-Centric Problem-Solving at Oracle FUEL

  • Zayna Khayat - Future Strategist at SE Health

  • Florian Kohlbacher - Vice President, Strategic Planning & Business Intelligence at Coca-Cola Japan

  • Carsten Linz - Author of Radical Business Model Transformation

  • Nabil Malouli - VP, Global E-commerce at DHL

  • Rita McGrath - Strategy Professor at Columbia Business School

  • Yonoshin Mori - Partner Emeritus at Arthur D. Little Japan

  • Gina O'Connor - Professor of Innovation Management at Babson College

  • Sarah Pearson - Deputy Director General, Innovation & Tourism Industry Development at Queensland Government

  • Frank Piller - Professor of Innovation Management at RWTH Aachen University

  • Christian Rangen - Founder, CEO at Strategy Tools

  • Steve Rader - Deputy Director for the Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation at NASA

  • Fabian Schlage - Head of Ecosystem Engagement at Nokia

  • Paul Sloane - Founder at Destination-innovation

  • Frank Stephenson - Design Director at Frank Stephenson Design Studio

  • Rohit Talwar - CEO at Fast Future

  • Natalie Turner - CEO at The 6 ‘I’s®

  • Tony Ulwick - Founder and CEO at Strategyn

  • Gijs van Wulfen - Founder at FORTH Innovation Method

  • Roberto Verganti - Professor, Leadership & Innovation at Stockholm School of Economics & Harvard Business School

  • Eric von Hippel - T Wilson Professor of Innovation Management at MIT Sloan School of Management

  • Ramon Vullings - ideaDJ at

  • Jonathan Tsuen Yip Wong - Chief of Technology and Innovation at United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP)

For more details, please visit the conference website at or contact Iain Bitran at


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