Mike Parsons talks to Rohantime

mike parsons

‘to look into the future we must first leaf though the past.’

It was a great pleasure to call into the Lancaster University Management School recently to meet up with Mike Parsons, shortly after he had been appointed Innovator in Residence. Mike Parsons has an encyclopedic knowledge of the UK outdoor industry and the history and development of adventure sport equipment. He has a great love of all outdoor activities, including climbing, mountaineering, fell running, mountain biking, skiing and kayaking. His expertise in designing and developing lightweight hiking and mountaineering gear has inspired him to take a passionate interest in the history and development of adventure-sport equipment. A number of Mike’s products have been nominated on Outdoor Innovation 50/50. I was intrigued to learn about his recent appointment as Innovator in Residence. The following are the highlight from our conversation.

Congratulations on your appointment as Innovator in Residence at Lancaster University Management School, what is it and how do you feel about it? The department I am working within, the Institute for Entrepreneurship and Enterprise Development (IEED) was set up in 2003 by Ellie Hamilton and Mary Rose to build entrepreneurship education, research and business outreach as interlocking activities. Mary and I collaborated on our book  Invisible on Everest: Innovation and the Gear Makers which was published the same year IEED was set up and on the strength of it we agreed to co-design and co-deliver two courses in innovation which launched in 2004 and I was made an Entrepreneurial Fellow of IEED. To our amazement we were awarded the 2005 University Teaching Award for Innovative Teaching. We also launched the conference which became Innovation for Extremes in 2003 and this has become a core  IEED event. We have also provided taster sessions on innovation for micro businesses on the LEAD programme. My appointment as Innovator in Residence allows us the time and resources to take the conference  and our website to a new level. We hope to develop something to benefit the outdoor industry as a whole.

How do I feel? I am always happiest when I am involved creating and solving problems to get to the next stage, and that’s where I am right now. All this of course with  Mary Rose, with whom I have not merely a good working relationship but a very creative collaboration.

I understand you are continuing to teach what does this entail? We teach third year business undergraduates and e-commerce postgraduates. During the course of the term we review in total around 120 innovations. The students bring these to the workshops for discussion and analysis using the academic literature they are required to read. These innovations may occasionally include something from the outdoor industry, but otherwise embrace a wide range including software, IT hardware, consumer electronics, automobiles, medical and increasingly nowadays, alternative energy sources. So it’s pretty stimulating really!

Where do you think we are in terms of innovation in the outdoor industry? Every industry goes through strong and weak phases linked to the technology  available to it and the customer demographics. From the point of view of really new things the real crux is probably how to communicate the benefits to the consumer, because we no longer have an Everest. What do I mean by that?  The leaders in any sporting activity are those who, perhaps unintentionally, create an aspirational pathway for consumers, in other words they become the heroes of the period. However what happens in mountaineering today is very difficult for the general public to understand. If we compare it with the bicycle industry then here we have something that is very understandable not only in terms of a 21 day event like the Tour de France, but in terms of the lightness of the new bikes which are available and the combination of stiffness and flexibility in all the right places when you get on and ride them. That’s something that just cannot be achieved within the outdoor industry because of  the nature of the activities and no fault of the industry itself. So to be fair, the amount of innovation in the outdoor industry is huge but it is visually dissipated over a wide variety of products/activity areas, one might even say this is its strength. Whilst retailers often say there’s ‘nothing much new‘, when chatting to them after a show, the intensity of work required by the major brands, who are now handling such a wide product range in such a variety of different materials and technologies, is undoubtedly huge.

There has been some recent discussion with regard to what is innovation and what is evolution in outdoor gear. What is your view on this? Historically there are many innovations which weren’t correct or as good as they needed to be at the outset, but all this is forgotten once the follow-through innovation is actually done and success creates a halo. Evolutionary innovation is therefore most important indeed and can include innovation in the process to decrease the cost and/or improve the quality performance Innovation doesn’t all have to be great big risky steps but of course some of the smaller evolutionary type steps are sometimes over hyped by the marketing people who may not be aware of what has gone on in the industry many years before. Another very important evolutionary type of innovation is when a new material/sub component becomes available and the old product is due for updating. However the company may choose to either keep the old product name if its a well known favorite or launch it as a totally new product, but either way its evolutionary.

Has the golden age of innovation in outdoor gear passed? From a UK point of view possibly yes but nations and societies around the world and new to our sports will probably, my guess is, come up with entirely new ideas based on their 180 degree perceptions. What has certainly held things back in the last 10 years is chasing lowest cost sources around the world. However cost prices probably bottomed out 18 months ago because of the upsurge of costs in China and the fact that there are no more low cost areas left which responsible companies would use. From now on being in control of your own factory to stimulate innovation and do what innovation has always done in the long run (which is why government’s support it) – increase productivity.

Are we doing enough to encourage the next generation of innovators? When Mary and I dedicated our book ‘Invisible on Everest’ it was to the ‘next generation of designers’  in the hope they may take inspiration from some of ideas and inventions we talked about which were before their time in technology terms. In that respect we were reflecting the BMW Munich thinking where their R&D labs were next to their museum with the exhortation, ‘to look into the future we must first leaf though the past.’ We also launched an Innov_ex design award in 2007 for new outdoor designers. This award has been a springboard for student designers to set up their own businesses and for established companies to recruit talented designers.

Is there less opportunity to bring innovation to the outdoor market place today? In product perhaps yes, but looking at all four key types of innovation business model, product and service then no. There is still plenty of space and opportunity. Whilst the vast majority of brands restrict themselves very strictly to a traditional business model there are still lots of opportunities here. You Sarah and Paul were  great innovators in this sense when you opened the Rohan shop in Long Preston. In our terms it’s called business model innovation and you were out there on your own doing things differently from anyone else. Bravo! Some key process/service innovations I did back in the 90’s and brought us a huge amount of business, subsequently disappeared and still have not been repeated because they need a lot of expertise and of course boldness. So you can see from my responses that its not just about inanimate things, its about boldness and that can be influenced by the overall the general feelings within the society you live in. That’s why the North Americans have been so good historically but its doesn’t mean they will always be that way. The mood of nations changes in remarkable ways.

As a country do we have to start making things again? The world-wide chase by the textile sewing industry to the lowest cost countries of the world and focus on lowest cost has certainly reduced innovation. A factory owner’s key note speech at the TI world conference being held in Manchester early Nov 2010 gives an interesting perspective on this viewpoint. Certainly there are opportunities opening up again because of the rapid acceleration of prices from Asia particularly China. Prices probably bottomed out sometime in the last two years and the trend is upwards from now on. However I don’t think it will be a question of turning the clock back and just setting up production in the way it was, that just won’t work. taking control of factory processes wherever the factory is and regardless of whether you own it will be vital. The brands that I am aware of who do this already certainly have a quite distinctive and innovative product offering. There are also new processes which will help making things back home, even close to point of sale. A new process which allows production runs of one piece so the possibility to customise at a point closer to the customer becomes possible is called rapid protyping and its evolution to rapid manufacturing.

Looking back on your fantastic track record in innovation what is your all time favourite piece of equipment? Karrimat, KISU, KSB’s, Jaguar, SA system, Alpiniste series, Hot Ice series, KIMM packs which continued as OMM a new start up I did in 2005 and also much process innovation which few are aware of. KSB’s were perhaps one of the most innovative product I did, particularly as it was completely outside of my existing field of experience and manufacturing. It was certainly very influential not merely in looks and lightness but in terms of the factory processes for making footwear. However the ‘Alpiniste’ series  is the one that stands out in my mind for several reasons. It was the first soft pack in the world to have an integrated hip belt, something which is absolutely automatic and obvious now but many ‘aha’ ideas are obvious once someone does something the first time. The innovations occurred through three phases of technology starting with the Don Whillans Alpiniste which was in black leather and orange canvas to the Dougal Haston Alpiniste (in purple colour) which had very innovative coated fabric (KS-100e) and interesting features. The pack design changed enormously during its 30 year period at the top, but its success lay in the fact that it always reflected the changing face of mountaineering and the style with which that was done by the leading exponents. It was a great privilege, on reflection to have worked directly to improve products with some of the worlds’ all-time great mountaineers; Joe Brown, Don Whillans, Dougal Haston, Pete Boardman, Alex McIntyre, Pat Littlejohn, Messner and Habeler. And indeed I supplied Chris Bonington much of his expedition needs for his breakthrough Himalayan expeditions in the 70s. I am preparing to write lots of untold stories about gear design in this period to be published within innovation for extremes.

What is your view of the future with regard to innovation in the market place? Sustainability and building that into future business models in an integrated way is certainly the greatest challenge. It’s not simply a case of selecting a new special fleece that is being recycled or can be recycled after use it’s got to be much broader and deeper than that. From knowledge and understanding we have gained from running the last three INNOVEX conferences which had a focus on sustainability, we can see just how broad and deep the challenge is to businesses at large. It is not merely equipment designers who need a whole new skill set/knowledge-base about carbon footprint/effluents and emissions within the supply chain processes. All the other managers in the business, and particularly the chief executive, need to look at the business in broadest terms. In order to stimulate the desire to acquire increased knowledge and skill sets we will shortly announce a sustainability prize linked to our Innovex conference.

What item of equipment available today reflects the true nature of innovation in the outdoor market place? Things which changed the actual methods of (climbing) activity eg. curved axes and rigid crampons with stiffer boots. Scotland was the birthplace of modern ice climbing from 1969/70 and that period was very exciting. Predicting if something like this could happen again is impossible. The jury is out on GPS in my view. the Norwegian Borge Ousland was able to pioneer a complete new polar travel method ( first complete human powered traverse of Antarctica) using GPS linked with use of a para/traction kite in 1996 and backed up by satphone communications. However GPS used by new entrants to the outdoors means something is being lost. The ability to project a 3d image in your brain from a 2d image is a vital ability in my view, because you are moving through 3D terrain; GPS is not enabling that. We changed the rules in the OMM event to disallow GPS for the reason that in our view people without this ability shouldn’t be doing our event, so a safety issue as well as far as we as the organizers were concerned.

What piece of gear not yet invented would you like to see? A wrist strap carried climbing confidence meter which also has a confidence booster button. Oh, and it had better have a rip cord for the parachute in case I ‘overcook’ something.

Finally, what does the outdoors mean for you? As we get older its about focusing on skills rather than aerobic sports, so Marian my wife and I try hard to keep our skills going. In this respect updating old gear is essential to ensure we are taking advantage of whatever benefits are going, but that needs careful thought. We have had seven trips since Xmas last, ski, winter climb, rock, alps, horse riding, backpacking. I have the good fortune that my wife Marian is equally (perhaps even more so?) passionate about the outdoors and right now she is working on the PC opposite planning our route for the next TGO Challenge – May 2011, 2 weeks across Scotland. But if we don’t get accepted she will probably have another idea up her sleeve like, why don’t we do a 6,000m peak.

Sarah Howcroft

If you have any questions for Mike please use the comments form below.

Rohan Heritage

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