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In Conversation with Innovation Spotter Kim Blair

The SPOT – meet the guest speakers!
Senior Manager at Exponent, Inc. and former MIT Sports Innovation Programme founder Kim Blair in interview with iSportconnect, sharing his ideas about the highs and hick-ups of innovative technologies in sport, how sports organisations adapt to new trends and the significance of health promotion.

Jay Stuart
In Conversation:

When Winning Is A Drag

We all know the advantages that innovation has brought to athletes in many sports with ways to enhance performance through technology. It has often been about reducing drag, from the skin suits worn by skaters to the dimples on golf balls to the latest in cycling technology.

Cycling is an obvious example. Just look at the difference between today’s Super Trooper elite riders and their bikes compared with a few decades ago.

In the early 2000s, working seriously to improve the aerodynamics of cycling was still a bit of a novelty, remembers Doctor Kim Blair formerly of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who has been at the forefront of sports innovation. “Using wind tunnels like the one we have at MIT was not something that everyone did. That changed as more people became aware that a five percent difference in aerodynamics can mean the difference between getting a place on the podium or not.”

A former NASA engineer, Blair first made the connection between technology and sport as a graduate student who was also a passionate triathlete and saw that aerospace design and sporting success had lots in common. Now he serves as an external advisor for the new sports innovation program based in MIT’s department of mechanical engineering.

“Sports organisations might not be the lead developers in new technologies, but they are often the first adapters,” he says. “That’s partly because there are low regulatory hurdles to introducing innovations, if you compare sport with the health sector, for example. And also because people in sports are willing to try new things that might give them an edge.”

The regulators in sport are the governing bodies such as federations.

There have been many cases where sports have not accepted new technologies. One of the most high profile examples was in swimming. Remember the full-body suit that was allowed at the 2008 Olympics and then outlawed?

But the influence of governing bodies can be more nuanced. It’s not always about accepting or banning innovations. They can shape innovation.

The sport of ski-cross is a fascinating example. The folks who run ski-cross want to appeal to 20-year-olds and they didn’t want their competitors looking like downhill racers but more like hipsters. So they actually brought in rules requiring a certain amount of loose clothing. In the grand scheme of things, to win fans, they actually needed more drag.

“Flapping clothes is one of the worst factors in increasing drag,” Blair says. “But it’s been a fun challenge to try to optimize performance despite that.”

Blair will be a speaker at The SPOT, a new event connecting sport and innovation at the SwissTech Convention Center in Lausanne from May 15-16, 2018. One of the subjects on the agenda will be Sport & Health, an area that in Blair’s view will become increasingly important.

“I see an increasing melding of the health, fitness, sport and medical fields,” he says. “I hope this will accelerate as the medical establishment moves from focusing on treating disease to promoting health. Sport can help develop new products as a test market that drives the revenue needed for further development.”

When it comes to innovation, there is always the big picture of the sport ecosystem to consider. “There are three pieces − the sport, the fan and the sponsors. They have to work together. Anything that gets them out of whack will be a problem,” he says.

Sports need to be open to change. There seems to be a greater resistance to change in equipment, but what about nutrition or training methods? Those have evolved and the changes have been embraced.

“You will hear the argument that certain new equipment should not be allowed because only the wealthy will be able to afford it,” Blair says. “The argument is that some things need to be barred in order to keep the playing field equal for the ‘have-nots’ as well as the ‘haves’ of the world. I can hear the logic in that. But my view is that the haves will still find a way to spend to their own advantage. If it’s not equipment, they will invest in nutrition or training.”

He says that perhaps the biggest factor pushing innovation in sport is digital connectivity with its voracious appetite for data. Young people expect more and more from sport as participants and as fans. It looks like we’re only at the start of the revolution in wearables. Hold on to your hats − and aerodynamic helmets. There’s going to be lots more technology buzzing away inside them.

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