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Learning Where You Least Expect It

Aleem Walji's picture

I was recently re-reading the December 2009 Issue of the Harvard Business Review. The issue featured a Spotlight on Innovation and I was struck by a credo used by Ken Bowen, the founding scientist of CPS Technologies (maker of an innovative ceramic composite). It reads

“The Insights required to solve many of our most challenging problems come from outside our industry and scientific field. We must aggressively and proudly incorporate into our work findings and advances which were not invented here.”

As counter-intuitive as it may seem for a chemist to learn from a poet or an economist to learn from a biologist, there’s also something incredibly simple about this insight. If it were obvious, people would have seen it already.  And yet what is most elegant is often what is most simple (but not necessarily obvious). It’s why lateral thinking is so powerful and why children, precisely because they are playful, see connections between things, that just don’t occur to us wiser folks.

It’s in the spirit of non-obvious connections, continuous learning, and seeking insight from wherever it can be found that I approach the development space. Who would have thought that the introduction of the mobile phone would do more for increasing access to financial services, reducing travel times, and arguably lifting people out of poverty than perhaps any technology in the previous three decades? What’s the role of the mobile phone going forward, beyond voice, as a platform to link people to new knowledge, increase social accountability, and reduce the impact of man-made and natural disasters? It may require a little imagination to think of how a simple phone could help answer those questions but we’re seeing examples all over the world of each. From Ushahidi to M-Pesa to Datadyne, we might look beyond the usual suspects and think of groups like MobileActive as a source of game-changers in the development space.  


Submitted by Jag on
The mobile phone was not devised with the intention of being a game changer in development space. The mobile phone was designed to win business in voice communication markets. It was driven by pursuit of profits and not pursuit of "development". Intense market competition spurred innovation, drove prices down, expanded markets and resulted in development. Market space is infinitely better than development space --- accountability is much more automatic, failure is always a possibility, success is not guaranteed, discretion is limited and people have inherent incentives to innovate. More intense these elements more probable is lateral thinking and more probable are improvements n the lives of people. On the other hand I wonder if in the "development" space I should expect lateral thinking. It is a space overwhelmingly occupied by institutions created and nurtured by governments and thus protected from consequences of poor decisions, wrong analysis and recommendations, poor lending, addicted to cash lifeline from tax payers, and largely exempt from the rigors of market tests. It is,therefore, not surprising that game changing initiatives or game changers in the development space are very very few.

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