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ESEI Guest Speaker Talk: Human-centred design at the heart of innovation

It’s almost time for our next ESEI Guest Speaker Talk! On October 30th, we’re hosting Simone Van Neerven, Head of Innovation at Vueling. The event will take place at Imagin Café where Simone will deliver a two-hour workshop on the role of human-centred design in innovation. 

Simone is a rebel and an innovator who’s always striving to bring out the best in people and push new ideas forward not just in technology, but also in the workplace. 

Before you meet her, we thought we’d share a bit more about Simone. How does her professional background inform her personal philosophy? And what makes her approach to innovation unique?

A female mathematician in the airline industry

Simone, a mathematician by training, started her career in the airline industry at KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. During the 17 years she spent at the airline, she had several different roles and worked her way up the corporate ladder to high-responsibility management positions. She was often the only woman in the room, constantly challenging social norms in an environment that was, and still is, largely dominated by men.

Her experience at KLM taught Simone a great deal not just about the aviation business and innovation, but also about the importance of diversity in the workplace – something that she would put a strong emphasis on while working on her next project. 

When she accepted the role of Head of Innovation at Vueling, Spain’s number one budget airline, she insisted that they hire her as an independent consultant through her newly launched company Working on assignment gives her the independence she needs as someone who’s not cut out for the traditional 9-5 structure, allows her to work on multiple projects at a time (recently she’s also taken on a role as Innovation Catalyst at Chanel) and helps her do her job. “To drive innovation, it means that you’re not always making friends. Being independent makes it easier,” she said in an interview

Besides being a powerhouse of innovative ideas and bringing exceptional design skills to the table, Simone has also made sure that her team at Vueling is made up of people of different nationalities, genders and backgrounds, creating a dynamic that fosters creative thinking. 

Simone’s approach to innovation

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “innovation” as “the introduction of something new” or “a new idea, method, or device”. 

Simone has her own take on what innovation means for businesses.

“A lot of people think innovation is only about the ‘crazy stuff’. I like to say that innovation is having your head in the clouds, but also keeping your feet on the ground at the same time,” she said in a podcast

The ‘crazy stuff’ that Simone and team have been testing at Vueling include biometric boarding (identifying passengers with facial recognition), bag tracking and eye tracking. Vueling was the first airline in the world to accept Google Pay. They’ve also introduced WhatsApp as a new communication channel and started using Amazon Echo and Alexa to provide travel information using voice recognition technologies.  

Simone’s team may act as the catalyst of innovation at Vueling, but she’s always working to involve other teams, too. They use design thinking to work on problems together and organise pop-up demos to share their ideas with the rest of the company – all with the goal of stimulating minds and opening up new perspectives.

Simone’s unique concept of innovation becomes apparent in the way she approaches problems. In the podcast mentioned above, she talks about finding a problem-solution fit instead of a product-market fit. She also cautions against falling in love with a solution. “We should not fall in love with a solution, but with a problem. If you fall in love with a solution, you are stuck. You just try to make that solution happen, even though it may not be the best […]. But if you fall in love with a problem, you keep on trying to solve it,” she says. 

As a practical tool for driving innovation, Simone uses a framework called The Three Horizons. In the same podcast, she explains that Horizon 1 (what happens in 0-2 years), Horizon 2 (what happens in 2-5 years) and Horizon 3 (what happens in 5-10 years and beyond) must be balanced and worked on simultaneously for real innovation to happen. 

Simone believes that the transport industry is changing so rapidly and flying is losing so much of its popularity (mainly due to the fact that it’s the least environmentally friendly mode of transport) that in the future, airlines will need to look at alternative transportation providers – for example, self-driving cars – as their competitors. 

“Are we still an airline in ten years?” is the type of provocative question she’ll ask the CEO to get the conversation about the company’s future going. 

The importance of human-centred design in innovation

One of the main goals of innovation is improving the passenger experience – and for that, the focus has to be on the customers and their needs. 

In an interview, Simone explained what she means by human-centred design:

“We do a lot of customer research. Not only interviews, but we also observe human behaviour to really understand our customers’ pains and needs. With human-centred design, we come up with better solutions for our customers and the approach stimulates collaboration within the company. I am very happy with the first results and I will grow this capability in 2019.”

At the ESEI Guest Speaker Talk on October 30th, Simone will talk more about human-centred design and how this approach has helped her drive innovation at Vueling. Don’t miss it!

Have you seen our events calendar for this term? Check out all the talks, workshops and guided visits we have planned for our students!

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