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Can innovation be learned? How a CEO and a conductor turned disaster into opportunity

In 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic transformed the way we work, play and communicate. However, it's at times like these that we see some of the most brilliant examples of innovation, particularly by entrepreneurs or small and medium-sized enterprises.

Can innovation be learned? How a CEO and a conductor turned disaster into opportunity
Pic: Rutger Verhoef
 
As we’ve all seen on social media, many people have used lockdowns and time working at home to create, innovate, and learn new skills. Some have performed concerts in their living room, while others have started businesses delivering groceries and other essential goods.
 
The Local has teamed up with GetSmarter, which provides online education courses in collaboration with leading universities such as the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), to take a closer look at how innovation thrives in adversity.
 
Need some inspiration yourself? We spoke to two readers of The Local – the CEO of a car-leasing company and an orchestra conductor – about the bold ideas that have allowed them to adapt. 
 
 
Driving a deal (no matter what)
 
Rutger Verhoef saw the writing on the wall as reports of the seriousness of coronavirus became more prevalent last year. As the CEO of car-leasing firm Gowago, based in Switzerland, he knew business could stall. Once it was clear that it would be difficult for customers to access car dealerships due to public health restrictions, he and his company quickly shifted into gear. 
 
Firstly, they established a cross-departmental taskforce to look for solutions. “Here, we highlighted all the problems we saw and could foresee, prioritized the biggest ones and started brainstorming,” says Verhoef. “We saw that doing the whole process online, including home delivery and automating the process were very important.”
 
Through clever use of commerce platforms, automation and networking, Verhoef and his team adapted to ensure “a customer can get a car without ever having to leave their house”. The CEO says this makes things much easier for customers by removing “complex processes and difficult face-to-face meetings with dealers”. “It also allows customers to get great deals at dealerships far away from their home,” he adds. 
 
Photo: John Axelrod
 
This pivot to digital has paid huge dividends. “Due to our transformation, we had a 60 percent month-over-month car sale growth on average last year since May. In terms of dealership growth, we had a 200 percent increase of dealer sign-ups over the course of the year, in comparison to what we had before the pandemic started.” 
 
It’s the skills required to make these sorts of snap decisions in the face of challenges – the ability to be flexible, resilient and think in a lateral manner – that LSE prioritizes in its Competitive Strategy and Innovation online certificate course, delivered in collaboration with GetSmarter. On the course, you’ll learn how to develop strategies to deal with sudden challenges on the macro and micro scale, an essential tool in the ever-changing 21st century. 
 
 
The music maestro who says the show must go on 
 
It’s not just small or medium enterprises that are innovating and turning adversity into an opportunity. American conductor John Axelrod, who divides his time between Switzerland, Italy and France, has devised ways to continue entertaining audiences and nurture the next generation of musicians. 
 
“I realized I’d be without music when cancellations started lining up from March 2020,” says Axelrod. “I realized I had to be more innovative when faced not only with lost revenue but also a loss of contact with others. As a conductor, we are dependent on an orchestra of musicians. In short, musicians play the instruments, and the conductors play the musicians. Without musicians, the rest is silence.
 
“However, study is a constant activity. Having a mentor to master the technique and repertoire not only helped my career, but I understood I could share my experience and help others during these turbulent times.”  
 
 
After starting Conductors Masterclass, in which he tutors upcoming orchestral conductors online, he quickly gained over 25 students from around the world. “Thanks to wifi, Skype and Zoom, I am again with musicians and reconnecting with more people than I did during my busy touring life,” he reflects. 
 
This is not Axelrod’s only innovation. Stuck at home during the pandemic, he knew he had more to give. 
 
“With the coronavirus closures, I was not only confined to my home in Chardonne, but I also immediately recognized the need to support my community and contribute to the local economy and tourism of my resident city,” he says. “Chardonne already has the benefit of an award-winning chef, Mathieu Bruno of Là Haut, and outstanding wines. What was missing was music at the highest level. 
 
“Drawing on my relationships, and with support from Chardonne and the Society of Development for Chardonne-Mt.Pélerin, I was able to establish the Concerts Culinaires de Chardonne. We successfully premiered our first event on September 26, 2020.”
 
These concerts, staged with a strict seating limit, and within pandemic guidelines, have allowed discerning customers to enjoy fantastic music and food, while providing much-needed work for musicians and chefs in the Chardonne region. 
 
So, has his inventive approach to the crisis led to increased attention and revenue? “I actually have received more views, likes and comments leading to increased inquiries and purchases,” he says. “The visibility and sales have generated new business revenue that I otherwise would not have experienced, including more economic activity in Switzerland.
 
“Following the Mozartian principle to turn a necessity into a virtue, I found new ways to express my entrepreneurial interests, allowing my motto to remain meaningful:  Eat, Drink and Be Musical!”
 
 

EDUCATION

IES chain blocked from opening four new schools

Sweden's Internationella Engelska Skolan (IES) chain has been denied permission to open four new schools in Gothenburg, Huddinge, Norrtälje, and Upplands-Bro, after the schools inspectorate said it had not provided pupil data.

IES chain blocked from opening four new schools

According to the Dagens Nyheter (DN) newspaper, the Swedish Schools Inspectorate (Skolinspektionen) has denied permission to the chain to open a new planned new school in Norrtälje, north of Stockholm, even though the building that will house it is already half built. The inspectorate has also denied permission to three other schools which the chain had applied to start in 2023. 

In all four cases, the applications have been rejected because the school did not submit the required independent assessment for how many pupils the schools were likely to have. 

Jörgen Stenquist, IES’s deputy chief executive, said that IES has not in the past had to submit this data, as it has always been able to point to the queues of pupils seeking admissions to the school. 

“The fact that Engelska Skolan, as opposed to our competition, has never had the need to hire external companies to do a direct pupil survey is because we have had so many in line,” he told DN.

“In the past, it has been enough that we reported a large queue in the local area. But if the School Inspectorate wants us to conduct targeted surveys and ask parents directly if they want their children to start at our new schools, then maybe we have to start doing that.”

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According to the newspaper, when the inspectorate had in the past asked for pupil predictions, the chain has refused, stating simply “we do not make student forecasts”, which the inspectorate has then accepted. 

However, in this year’s application round, when IES wrote: “We do not carry out traditional interest surveys as we simply have not had a need for this,” the inspectorate treated it as grounds to reject its applications. 

According to DN, other school chain have been complaining to the inspectorate that IES gets favourable treatment and was excused some requirements other chains have to fulfil. 

Liselotte Fredzell, from the inspectorate’s permitting unit, confirmed that the inspectorate was trying to be more even handed. 

“Yes, it is true that we are now striving for a more equal examination of applications. Things may have been getting too slack, and we needed to tighten up.” 

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