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Business

BASF Kicks Off Brainstorming Tour

Chemical giant celebrates its 150th anniversary with events aimed at developing solutions to global 
challenges

by Alex Scott
February 9, 2015 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 93, ISSUE 6

Using Brainstorming to Solve Global Issues
Credit: Filmed and produced by Alex Scott. Edited by Linda Wang.
BASF pulls experts together to solve waste and water issues in Mumbai.

Chaos, noise, dirt, vivid colors, pungent smells, and everywhere people on the move. Welcome to Mumbai, one of the world’s largest cities, where more than 40% of the 20 million inhabitants live in slums.

Last month it was also the location where BASF, the world’s largest chemical company, kicked off its 150th-anniversary-year celebration with a weeklong series of events—including an interactive symposium, competitions, and brainstorming meetings—to garner solutions for two major societal challenges: urban waste and lack of clean water.

Almost two years in the planning, BASF’s anniversary year is set to feature similar meetings in several cities around the world. Included will be a science symposium on smart energy at its headquarters in Ludwigshafen, Germany, and brainstorming events dubbed Creator Space sessions aimed at generating solutions for major societal challenges.

The stakeholders with which BASF is keen to “cocreate” are academics, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), technology experts, government officials, and members of the public with knowledge of the subject in question. Covered in BASF’s creator events for the year will be food wastage in São Paulo, Brazil; housing of the future in New York City; urban living in Shanghai; smart energy in Ludwigshafen; and sustainable food chains in Barcelona. At the end of the year, BASF will provide project funding for the best ideas.

“We are convinced that when we add the expertise from chemistry and other industries to these ideas we will be closer to finding answers for the challenges of today and tomorrow,” BASF Chairman Kurt Bock told journalists at a briefing last December. “For society, these are solutions. For BASF, these are business opportunities.”

BASF has developed its share of ground-breaking processes during its 150 years in business, including novel techniques for making synthetic dyes, ammonia, polystyrene, polyvinyl chloride, magnetic tape, and synthetic rubber. But in contrast to rivals Solvay and Bayer, which celebrated their 150th anniversaries in 2013 with events that featured their illustrious histories, BASF has chosen to focus its celebration mostly on what it might yet achieve.

“We see the anniversary program as a sort of laboratory. We want to initiate something new with our anniversary and try out new ways of working together,” Bock said.

MANY MINDS
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Credit: BASF
One of the brainstorming sessions on managing urban waste at BASF’s Creator Space event in Mumbai.

At the heart of the Creator Space concept is BASF’s recognition that its Germanic culture of efficiency and precision is not necessarily ideal for instilling creativity. And creativity is increasingly required in a world where chemical producers need to work with partners along the supply chain to develop solutions to complex challenges.

“We want to make the cultural shift toward open innovation,” said Christian Beil, senior innovation manager for BASF’s 150 anniversary, in Mumbai.

ORGANIZED CREATIVITY

BASF has developed a format for its “cocreator” idea jam sessions, which last a day or two.

◾ Informal atmosphere is established.
◾ Participants are split into teams of about 10.
◾ Challenge statement is revealed.
◾ Existing approaches are discussed.
◾ In rapid-fire rounds, teams write down or draw best alternative solutions.
◾ Professional artists convert ideas to wall pictures.
◾ Teams select one solution and refine idea.
◾ Best solutions are nominated for BASF funding.
◾ Participants are encouraged to continue developing idea after event.

To maximize creativity, BASF designed the Creator Space events to emulate the free flow of musical jam sessions. BASF’s guidelines call for no set direction, free-flowing discussion, no wrong or right, and a fun, informal environment. The hope is that out of a relaxed atmosphere something creative will emerge.

“For those of you who are wearing suits, you are free to take them off,” Ranjan Banerjee, a professional facilitator, told participants at the urban waste Creator Space event in Mumbai. “It’s okay if the ideas are wild. It’s okay if the ideas are crazy.”

The event featured about 100 individuals including local government officials, waste experts, some BASF staffers, children from a school in Mumbai, and even a waste picker whose usual day involves collecting materials from a municipal waste dump.

Individuals were split into teams of about 10 and given a problem to solve without any opportunity to prepare. The challenge statement was: “How can we systematically collect and compost wet waste in compostable/biodegradable carry bags thereby improving soil quality and ensuring food for tomorrow?”

Each participant was given a short time to think up and present his or her best idea to the rest of the team. The teams then voted on their favorite idea and developed the case for implementing it. Ideas were translated into pictures by professional cartoonists, and team members were encouraged to make models from craft materials at hand.

At the end of the day, each team presented their chosen project to the entire group. To keep energy levels high, brainstorming was punctuated by team-building games, such as keeping a facial tissue in the air the longest without using hands.

The solutions proposed by the teams in Mumbai included the development of a waste-sorting machine, self-composting dustbins, subsidies for biodegradable bags so that they can be widely distributed, and formation of apartment block cooperatives responsible for collecting, sorting, and composting waste, with the goal of using the compost to grow food.

For BASF, the benefits of the session included a greater understanding of how stakeholders are thinking and potential areas where the firm can work with them. Ultimately, the company could make a profit through the sales of its biodegradable bags, some of which it makes from corn-derived polylactic acid.

The event was praised by some participants. Chengalvarayan Dhakshayani, a researcher at the Indian government’s Central Institute of Plastics Engineering & Technology, called it “thought provoking and very interesting.”

A waste picker who gave her first name as Surekha, who represents a community group in the city of Pune, was less inclined to applaud. Her concern was whether the ideas generated during the day would result in any subsequent action.

BASF gave assurances in Mumbai that the ideas would be taken forward. “All your valuable ideas will only make us and shake us to do something different than what we conventionally do,” Rajan Venkatesh, vice president for chemicals and performance products for BASF in south Asia, told the attendees.

A two-day symposium on safe and affordable water also generated potential solutions. It featured about 65 experts including academics, regulators, representatives from NGOs, and staffers from BASF. Participants were asked to answer the question: “Is it possible to improve access to safe, affordable water through changes in technology, policy, and behavior?”

Proposed solutions included an elevated water supply, hydraulic zoning, water table recharging, water credits, decentralized treatment and distribution, vertical garden purification systems, and better use of information technology to flag issues.

FIXING WATER
[+]Enlarge
Credit: BASF
A Save the Children executive signs an agreement with BASF to develop solutions for clean water supply in Mumbai.
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Credit: BASF
A Save the Children executive signs an agreement with BASF to develop solutions for clean water supply in Mumbai.

BASF encouraged attendees at the Mumbai Creator Space events to continue discussing potential solutions on a related website, where more global challenges are being put forward.

The weeklong symposium featured numerous other components, both serious and whimsical. BASF signed a deal with Save the Children to work with the charity to improve access to clean water in Mumbai and nutrition in the Turkana region of Kenya. Under the agreement, staffers from BASF and the charity will interact with low-income households for a week to develop potential solutions. The project’s findings will be presented at a conference in Ludwigshafen in November.

The event also featured a competition for documentary films about the lack of clean water in India. And BASF launched its Ph.D. Challenge competition for Asian first- and second-year Ph.D. students majoring in chemistry, engineering, and polymer and materials sciences to come up with solutions to certain mobility problems, such as technologies to extend the life of batteries in electric vehicles. The winners will earn a place at BASF’s International Summer Course in Germany in August.

BASF commissioned Indian artist Brinda Miller to create an art installation representing the issue of clean water. The sculpture, featuring a giant bucket and tap, was positioned in the grounds of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, a museum in Mumbai, where the Creator Space events were held.

The Mumbai meeting ended with a one-day creator session on R&D featuring BASF researchers and local Ph.D. students who explored how academia and industry can interact more closely in India.

The company plans to select the best ideas from its meetings around the world—as well as from its Creator Space website—and provide them with funding so they can be deployed as a project or a business. “We are especially looking for early-stage ideas that normally would be difficult to get through the funding process,” Beil told C&EN in Mumbai.

In addition, at the end of 2015, BASF’s more than 100,000 employees will come up with their own ideas that have a social or environmental benefit. The best 150 projects as chosen by BASF’s employees will each secure up to 5,000 euros in funding.

There is no formal plan to take the Creator Space events beyond 2015, but executives hope that they will continue at a smaller scale across the company and thus set it on a more creative and interactive path.

To mark the April birth date of the company, BASF will invite guests to an event in Ludwigshafen on April 23. Among the day’s activities will be the playing of a piece by the English composer Michael Nyman named “Sounds for 150.” The music will include more than 1,200 typical sounds, from bubbling pots to whirring motors, recorded in BASF locations from around the world.

Even before the sometimes noisy events in Mumbai were under way, there were signs that BASF would benefit from them. For example, according to Beil, the company has secured a major new customer that was attracted in part by the Creator Space sessions.

Early publicity around the creator events has also enabled BASF to schedule meetings with interesting and interested technology companies such as Tesla, the California-based electric car company, he said. The weeklong series of events in Mumbai appears to have been well received by participants and the Indian media, and BASF hopes this will encourage more companies and people to sign up for such sessions elsewhere.

The Creator Space approach has limited benefit when it comes to creating new molecules in the lab, company executives acknowledged. “It works best on application-oriented development projects and topics of general interest,” said Frank Schieweck, director of innovation in India.

Yet after the Mumbai creator event, the first of the anniversary year, it is clear that developing solutions to major societal challenges does fit the model, BASF says. “Here in India, prior to coming into this event, it was difficult to gauge the outcome. But when I look at the results we have been able to get, they are very tangible,” Venkatesh said. The Indian meeting, he added, “has set the bar pretty high.”  

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