Last week, I participated in GE’s global conference, ‘Disrupt or Be Disrupted’. The theme of the event was simple. As barriers to entry fall in nearly every industry, no company is safe or immune from being disrupted in a fundamental way. It’s no longer uncommon that industry leaders lose their edge in months, and wither to irrelevance in record time. Unless corporates have the courage to embrace and empower their ‘creatives’ they don’t stand a chance in sustaining their competitive advantage.
Having traveled to both East Africa and India over the past several weeks, I’ve been reflecting on what ‘innovation’ means in different contexts. It’s easy to get caught in a technology-centric worldview in places like Bangalore and even Nairobi these days. But when I get past the superficial stories and dig a bit deeper, I realize that impactful innovation is less about shiny tools and technology and more about ‘listening to users’ and transforming social processes to solve problems that matter to people.
My walk through a Delhi slum comes immediately to mind. While there I visited Operation Asha, a 2011 India Development Marketplace winner that is working to arrest the spread of tuberculosis (TB). India is one of the only countries in the world where the rate of infection is growing despite the falling incidence of the disease globally. The previous day, I sat with colleagues from Microsoft Research in Bangalore who explained the simple but critical advances they had made in writing open-source software to verify the identity of patients visiting clinics, aggregating data on missed doses, and using text messages to increase compliance.
“SRN: Smart Rickshaw Network” by Aadhar Bhalinge – a prolific technology developer from India – is the winner of m2Work, the mobile microwork innovation contest that infoDev and Nokia launched in February. The infoDev team has taken a closer look at his and the other five finalists’ backgrounds, and we found some helpful insights about new sources of innovation, their promise, and their needs.
To put these lessons in context, let’s take a look at the microwork ecosystem before m2Work. Microwork platforms, like Samasource and MobileWorks, were already connecting thousands of people in developing nations with jobs like moderating websites, tagging images and video, and so on. But these platforms were most useful for workers with access to computers with broadband, which are the exception rather than the rule in many regions.
These are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.
Different Take on Africa
Good Governance vs. collective action
"It’s time for donors to get out of their addiction to Good Governance! No country has ever implemented the current donor-promoted Good Governance agenda before embarking on social and economic development. This was true for rich countries before they became rich, and it is true for the rapidly ‘catching up’ countries of Asia today. Countries in sub-Saharan Africa are no exception. They are therefore not helped to get out of poverty by donor insistence on prior achievement of Good Governance, meaning adoption of the institutional ‘best practices’ that emerged in much richer countries only at a later stage in their development. This is a main message of the Joint Statement of five research programmes, which has just been published. You may also like to see the PowerPoint presentation of the Joint Statement." READ MORE
South by Southwest (SXSW) is a company that plans and executes conferences, trade shows, festivals and other events. Collectively, SXSW sponsored events are the highest revenue-producing event for the Austin economy, with an estimated economic impact of $167 million in 2011 (Wikipedia).
The biggest SXSW story that recently made the rounds was that SXSW, through the company BBH wired homeless people so that they can provide 4G hotspots to “make the invisible “visible”. The BBH company blog says:
This year in Austin … you’ll notice strategically positioned individuals wearing “Homeless Hotspot” t-shirts. These are homeless individuals in the Case Management program at Front Steps Shelter. They’re carrying MiFi devices. Introduce yourself, then log on to their 4G network via your phone or tablet for a quick high-quality connection. You pay what you want (ideally via the PayPal link on the site so we can track finances), and whatever you give goes directly to the person that just sold you access. We’re believers that providing a digital service will earn these individuals more money than a print commodity.
Henry Ford once famously said that if he had asked his customers what they wanted they would have asked him for a faster horse. If he had listened to his customers, the Ford Motor Company may never have existed, or would be called the Ford Faster Horse Company. The automobile became what is called a “disruptive innovation” meaning that it radically displaced the incumbent technology (the horse and carriage) by not listening to the demands of mainstream consumers, but trying to uncover their real needs.
This is the approach the World Bank is now prototyping in Indonesia: Trying to uncover the real clean energy needs of rural communities by understanding their underlying energy-related problems rather than simply asking them what technologies they want. The Indonesia Green Innovation Pilot Program is prototyping a new approach to fostering green disruptive innovation. The first stage of the program is being launched this week, and consists of identifying possible challenges – or problems – linked to energy in rural communities. In keeping with the logic of disruptive innovation, the program does not start with a market demand study, or a survey of clean energy solutions in the market, but with uncovering stated and unstated needs that affect the population of a rural community in their everyday lives. This is being done in three ways: One is through field research by a team of designers from Inotek and Catapult Design, a second way is through consultative workshops in Jakarta and in the rural communities, and a third is through a “call for challenge” where the program is using a crowdsourcing approach to collect problems linked to energy in rural Indonesian communities. If you are in any way familiar with rural Indonesia and its energy challenges, the program invites you to submit a challenge through this website.
Read this post in Bahasa.
Last week the World Bank launched a new approach to fostering green innovation called the Indonesia Green Innovation Pilot Program. Its aim is to learn how open innovation principles can foster the generation of market-based solutions to clean energy. A core team of designers (Catapult and Inotek) will work with rural communities, the public and private sectors to design clean energy solutions that can be adopted by the market. Keeping in line with open innovation, its first activity is to identify challenges or “problems” that will be addressed by the program through a crowdsourcing approach. So if you are in any way familiar with rural communities and energy issues in Indonesia, the program invites you to submit a challenge here until March 17.
But, if you think coming up with the kind of technology required to tackle climate change will require something akin to a Manhattan Project, rest assured, you're not alone. Googling "climate change" and "manhattan project" returns a whopping 1,540,000 results. But what does creating a "Manhattan Project" really mean? Besides uncomfortable thoughts of human-inflicted destruction, sheer scale is the first thing that comes to my mind. At its peak, during World War II, the US government employed 130,000 people in the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb. The project's size together with several other features made it a classic case of what I would call "brute-force innovation": it was centrally-planned, closed, and science-driven. Even though the project included research teams across different universities, public research labs and companies across the United States, nothing was leaked in or out and each team had a very specific assigned task and plan. Through the Manhattan Project the government spearheaded the research, developed, testing and deployment of a revolutionary technology from start to finish over a span of four years. And there were no startups, spin-offs, royalty incentives, public-private-partnerships, venture capitalists, crowdsourcing, first-mover advantage, standard-setting or IPOs. Basically none of the buzzwords we associate with disruptive innovation in the 21st Century.
As part of my duties at the World Bank, I talk with lots (and lots!) of people and groups. Mostly, I talk to people within the World Bank and in other development institutions (this is part of my official responsibilities, to support the work of such people as a 'subject expert'); to our counterparts in governments around the world (we say 'clients' but I am not a big fan of this formulation); and with lots of consultants and practitioners*.
(*Some of you may quickly identify a pretty important group that is missing here: 'users', or beneficiaries. This is a pretty big, if not fundamental, omission, in my view. Talking with practitioners is a sort of proxy for talking with end users and beneficiaries ... I guess ... but certainly an insufficient and inadequate one. Mistaking those who pay for, and those who implement, development programs with those who actual 'use' or benefit from them is a recipe for potential disaster ... perhaps a topic for a future blog post.)
I also speak with lots of companies. Sometimes I am obliged to do this, because (to be blunt, and honest) the company is 'important' and politically well connected. Sometimes I really want to do this, because the company is doing something quite new and/or cool, or is doing something quite well. (I should note that these things aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, of course.) I frequently talk with companies at the request of colleagues or counterparts in government ("these guys are telling us x and y ... should we believe them?"). I also do it to better understand what is happening in various markets; I often find that firms (as with NGOs) have a better sense of what is happening in government schools related to the use of technology than do ministries of education.
Occasionally I speak not to individual companies, but to large industry groups. Because presentations to these types of groups often occur behind 'closed doors' of various sorts, I thought I'd share here some of what I tell them, in case it might be of any interest. (One of the reasons that this blog exists is to try to open up certain conversations that typically occur behind closed doors to wider audiences.)
Small but sometimes radical new steps toward greener energy and green growth are happening on our stressed planet, but we don’t hear enough about them, nor do we sufficiently explore and share policy lessons.
Examples include ‘smart grid’ R&D activities that deploy sensors to gather data on incoming electricity from wind, solar and other renewables with varying power outputs, better management of outages, factoring in the needs of electric vehicles, and installing more energy-efficient power meter usage in homes and offices. At the other end of the spectrum, Husk Power Systems, a company operating in Bihar, India has devised a novel single fuel gasifier for rural electrification based on discarded rice husks – one of India’s most common waste products. Thanks to the risk husks, 60 mini-power plants have now been installed. They power about 25,000 households in more than 250 villages in rural India.
It’s surprising how simple the design of a solar bottle light is – take an empty plastic bottle, fill it with mineral water and a few drops of bleach, and cement it halfway through a small metal roof sheet (the kind used as roofs in Manila’s slum areas). Then cut out a small piece of the actual roof, place the sheet with the bottle on top of the hole, cement any cracks, and voilà! Let there be light.
This initiative, a project designed and developed by students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and implemented by MyShelter Foundation, is already transforming lives of low-income people in the Philippines.