Haulwen Nicholas (founder of the Packaging Oracle) argues that the current leadership of the packaging world need to make space for a new generation

For once I wasn’t the youngest person in the building. I’ve been in the packaging industry for 20 years and I’m often still one of the youngest present in a meeting.

This January I was in Berlin, in a building filled with lots of small start-up companies, each in their own little pods, but coming together for lunch and coffee to share ideas.  I spoke briefly with some of the people there, along with the organisation I was meeting, and I felt truly alive. For the first time in years it seemed that really innovative ideas were being put forward and I felt excited for the industry.

What was so different about this experience? It felt new.

As our world changes and develops, it really does seem like many organisations in the industry are left behind in a 1970s to 1990s time warp. Where are the next generation of ideas coming from? Who is going to drive the fundamental change that we need, to tackle the problems we face? When was the last time you discussed a piece of innovation and truly thought, ‘Wow, this is industry changing!’?

We must look to the next generation.

I meet so many wonderful people in their 20s and 30s who have great ideas, but they do not feel listened to.

I have led paid internships with students from universities across Europe, and the experience of many is frustration that no one would give them the opportunities. They’d only be asked to file paperwork or make the coffee. Yet these people are our future. They are the ones we need to listen to, and we need to give them a voice.

We have great universities across Europe that deliver specialist courses in packaging. We need to ensure they are being heard by the whole industry, rather than a few elite partners.

Showcasing the ideas that these education establishments are working on, as well as the ideas from their students, needs to become a focus, whether at events or via other platforms.

Inviting a new generation opens our eyes, but we have to be prepared to be open-minded and patient.

The world is changing, but many in our industry are not. We have to rethink the way we innovate, the way we share knowledge and the way we do business.

This may mean that you set up your innovation team in an exciting young, innovative complex like the one I visited in Berlin. This way ideas are not constrained by the ‘this is the way we do it’ attitude or the fact that ‘we can’t change our machines’, but instead allows for ideas to truly flow.

We must remember that younger generations are focused more on experiences than on purchases, and with that we will see less need for packaging, unless it’s made an experience with minimal environmental impact. It also means that work needs to be a positive community experience too. We must offer these people the flexibility within their work to embrace new experiences and with it new ideas, which will benefit the industry.

Any business that can jump on these needs will succeed and lead the way. The companies that instil real pride in their work, a sense of community, and employee flexibility, will produce quality products and with it the commercial advantage.

Those that embrace the entrepreneurial spirit, who take risks, employ younger, less experienced people and support start-ups will be the industry leaders in the coming years.

Often we go back to the same people for inspiration on innovation, getting the same old industry faces to lead the way. We hold competitions but then don’t pursue the ideas or fail to invite the students who entered to come and work in our industry. This needs to change.

We must open our minds and eyes to the next generation, both listening and seeing what they have to say. We may not like it, we may feel the ideas don’t pertain to us, but we have to take a step away and consider a future that we won’t be part of.

They are the next leaders. It’s time to embrace them now or risk being left behind.