Innovation Lessons from The KGB

Innovation Lessons from The KGB

By Peter Cook

I had the great privilege of being invited to present a keynote on leadership and innovation for Aripaev in Tallinn Estonia recently. The conference organisers had chosen to use the Innovation and Business Centre of the Tallinn University of Technology as the setting, due to its unique design as a space where great things happen. Whilst I was there I took a tour of the facilities with Ken Veski.

The Mektory building had a rather unpromising start as a Soviet project to hold a supercomputer for the KGB in the 1980’s. By the time the building had been constructed the Apple Mac had been launched and the KGB calculated that just two Macs would have more power than the entire supercomputer! Alongside the breakup of the Soviet Union, this meant that another use for the building would be needed.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, the building was used by Tallinn University of Technology as a computer science centre. But in the 25 years before 2013 it was never renovated. After the IT guys moved out, Ken and a bunch of people from the University set about completely redeveloping the building from scratch, with hardly any money. In five months the building was completely transformed. This itself illustrates the idea that innovation may be spurred on by constraints.

The built environment makes an important contribution to the overall innovation climate, alongside the psychological environment i.e. how leaders and people behave with each other. It’s something we discussed when I opened an innovation lab for a major pharma company just recently. The two elements together combine to produce a setting in which great new things can happen. Here’s just some of the things that have happened at Mektory:

Screen Shot 2014-10-03 at 09.02.32

Low Cost 3D Printer – Faced with extreme budget restrictions one group of electronics students have fabricated a 3D printer out of plywood and aluminum. The unit is controlled by an Arduino, an open-source electronics platform based on easy-to-use hardware and software.


Let there be drums – Peter Mann is an accomplished drummer and got fed up with regular drums being heavy and yet easy to ruin. So he has conceived of a drum kit made out of lightweight metal alloys and wood. And because he’s a rocker, with alcohol-proof paint! He has now created a startup company called Peter Mann Drums. So if in two years all the major rock bands in the world are playing drums from Estonia, it all started at Mektory …

Hannah Ford – are you listening? Your drums are just about to get lighter and more robust

Never miss an insight

Get insights delivered right to your inbox

More of Our Insights & Work

Never miss an insight

Get insights delivered right to your inbox

You have successfully subscribed to our newsletter.

Too many subscribe attempts for this email address.