Aquatis Innovation Challenge (MBA Program)
IMD’s MBA Innovation Week, in partnership with UNIL HEC, the Inartis Foundation, and Aquatis, the largest freshwater aquarium in Europe, embodies real learning and real impact in action.
Call to Action
The IMD MBA program includes several practical and real-world project-based activities, among them the Innovation Week. During this intense activity, IMD’s 90 MBA participants learn the principles of innovation by engaging in an experiential learning activity. The Innovation Week, which was launched in 2017, is led by professor Cyril Bouquet with the support of numerous colleagues and collaborators.
For the inaugural 2017 Innovation Week and also the 2018 iteration, participants worked in small groups to develop innovative solutions in the field of hospital patient care. In both years, the prototypes that they created won the open-innovation competition run by the Debiopharm-Inartis Foundation. In 2019, the playing field changed to the world of European football, as the participants developed new ways for fans to experience the Euro tournament, collaborating with the Switzerland-based UEFA.
In 2020, Bouquet was seeking to innovate once again. Through the Inartis Foundation, he met Michel Ansermet, the general manager of Aquatis, a key cultural and tourist destination in IMD’s home city of Lausanne and the largest freshwater aquarium-vivarium in Europe. Prior to the pandemic, Aquatis faced visitor numbers that were below expectations. As of the summer of 2020, the aquarium needed new ideas to increase engagement once visitors felt comfortable returning post-pandemic. Bouquet requested the opportunity to host the Innovation Week at Aquatis, and Ansermet eagerly welcomed the offer of support. He was looking forward to new and bold ideas. Bouquet had found a new fishbowl for the Innovation Week.
For the September 2020 Innovation Week at Aquatis—dubbed the Aquatis Innovation Challenge—the 90 IMD MBAs were joined by 13 students from the University of Lausanne’s Faculté des hautes études commerciales (UNIL HEC), a partner institution. The challenge consisted of six full days of nonstop activity. Faculty members led sessions on team dynamics, design thinking, product innovation, rapid prototyping, and audience engagement through storytelling. These sessions were interspersed with blocks of time for the teams of approximately six members each to brainstorm ideas, storyboard concepts, prototype designs, test and iterate on those designs, and, finally, prepare presentations for the last day of the Innovation Week.
The project brief tasked the mixed teams of IMD MBAs and UNIL HEC students with working in one of five areas to improve the visitor experience: making the space more welcoming, making the space more interactive, engaging visitors through social media, taking advantage of digital technology, and guiding and controlling the flow of traffic. At the culminating event, 18 teams presented their ideas before a panel of the Aquatis management. The energy in the room was electric. The teams were given feedback by the management panelists, who then selected their three favorite ideas.
The team recognized with the highest award had developed a proposal for better inclusion of physically challenged visitors, addressing front-of-mind concerns regarding diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice. That team’s innovation was praised as brilliant by the Aquatis management.
In IMD’s assessment, the Aquatis Innovation Challenge fulfilled the promise of IMD’s motto, “Real Learning, Real Impact.” From Bouquet’s perspective, the week was an incredible learning experience for participants. He told IMD News, “At the same time as they developed their innovation muscle, participants reflected on their capacity to function effectively as high-performance teams.”
From the perspective of the MBA participants, the challenge was a palpably exciting learning journey. A number of them wrote enthusiastic posts about the Aquatis Innovation Challenge for the IMD MBA blog, and others posted messages on LinkedIn, describing the challenge as one of the highlights of the year. They cited the week as having helped them hone their design-thinking and leadership skills.
As for the impact at Aquatis, Ansermet reported that a number of the ideas that emerged from the week were being considered by the management team and that modified versions of some would be implemented within the next six months.
“These brilliant young minds brought a fresh perspective to our thinking. We were presented with ideas that would never have crossed our radar otherwise and now have clarity about which strategic direction we’d like to move in to improve our visitor experience,” Ansermet told IMD News. He further posted on LinkedIn a message to the IMD and UNIL HEC participants describing their work as the “fantastic project that they presented to us!!!”
IMD looks forward to continuing collaborating with Aquatis and supporting its dual mission to conserve and educate.