Farming or scratching? An innovation dilemma.

A basketball referee almost gets lynched at a match in Brazil when his pea whistle breaks at a crucial point in a game. A real estate agent drops hot coffee over himself after the serviette wrapped around the cup by the barista slips off while he’s driving. And a young man going bald who decides he might as well shave his head completely gets frustrated after finding that traditional razors just can’t do the job.

Meet Ron Foxcroft, inventor of the Fox 40 Whistle; Jay Sorensen, inventor of the Java Jacket; and Todd Greene, inventor of the Headblade.

I came across the inspiring stories of these three inventors during my flight to Boston earlier today. And it reminded me of something the person I was due to meet in Boston, Erik Hersman, said to me a couple of years ago while he was writing about Ushahidi for my first book, The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator.

In his chapter, one of the main reasons Erik highlighted as critical to the success of Ushahidi was that they were “scratching their own itch”. They were solving their own problem, and because they owned it and fully understood it, they were fully vested in solving it. Kenya was in meltdown (it was the 2008 election crisis) and they realised if they didn’t help capture what was going on around the country then it was unlikely anyone else would. Knowing whether friends were safe was important to them.

What struck me about Ron, Jay, Todd and Erik is that they were all scratching their own itch. Their stories follow a similar trajectory – people out minding their own business, then having a eureka moment after struggling with something, then relentlessly pursuing it to a conclusion. In all these cases there were dark moments – times where packing up was easier than pushing on – but because finding an answer mattered at a very personal (and often financial)  level, giving up was never an option.

Ever since the concept of reluctant (and accidental) innovation started to capture my attention several years ago, I’ve constantly found myself looking at how the international development and social innovation sectors ‘innovate and invent’ compared to outsiders who are simply ‘scratching their own itch’. Is innovation in a controlled ‘innovation challenge’ environment more conducive to finding workable solutions to global development challenges? Or do ideas seeded in the wild, by accident, by people scratching their own itch, lead to more useful, meaningful, relevant and lasting solutions?


Sadly, I don’t think we have the evidence right now – despite the huge resources going into challenges and competitions these days. The sector seems to be arguing it both ways – saying we need to support local innovation as it puts ever more funding and resources into the pockets of outside problem solvers.

It would seem to me that, right now, we probably fall into one of two camps:

Farm ideas from the masses
You believe that the best ideas come from challenging the masses to come up with ideas, and dangle carrots in the form of funding, mentorship, fame and support to encourage people to share them.

Provide medication for the itch
You throw funding, mentorship and support at people scratching their own itch (who usually need little encouragement to seek a solution). These people will often – but not always – be local inventors and innovators assuming you’re looking to solve ‘traditional’ development problems across the third world.

The first approach is quicker – perhaps lazier? – but creates a buzz and excitement over social media that’s hard to beat. The second option is slower, requires more graft and in most instances plays out offline. You can understand why fewer funders or innovation-based institutions take that route.

For as long as I can remember there has been a tension between local vs. imported innovation. Right now the two camps people fall into is largely based on ‘what feels right’ to them, or who pays their wages. Of course, without any evidence it’s impossible to know which approach delivers the most appropriate, workable solutions. But based on what I’ve seen and written about over the past decade, it’s very clear to me that people who scratch their own itch seem to get it in ways that outsiders with no itch can’t.

Planet Earth: Desperately Seeking Moral Leadership

It’s not every day that you get the chance to spar with a Nobel Peace Prize winner on how to make the world a better place, but that’s exactly what happened to me three years ago.

Tori Hogan invited me to sit on a panel she was organizing with Archbishop Desmond Tutu – who was 85 last week – aboard the MV Explorer, a ship sailing the world with hundreds of students aboard along with a dozen tech startups which I was invited to help mentor. I’d already had the chance to sit down with the Archbishop over breakfast a few times during my few weeks aboard, and soon discovered that his optimism and hope for the world was immense. I’m a little more cautious, and our slight differences of opinion came out early in the discussion.

Early on I made the point that we needed to be realistic, and that I thought few people really changed the world, despite this being a narrative common to the social entrepreneurship and non-profit sectors. History shows us that it’s far easier to make the world a worse place.

As evidence that anyone – even the seemingly smallest or insignificant of people – could ‘change the world’, the Archbishop brought up the example of Rosa Parks, the “First Lady of Civil Rights” who, in 1955, refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Alabama. There’s little doubt that her brave act was a significant event in the history of the movement, but I countered by asking if it had really changed the world? It more likely changed many people’s worlds, in the US, but even today significant problems with race relations remain.

With the state of the planet today it’s hard to be overly optimistic that any of us can significantly bend the course of history in a positive way – unless we’re realistic about what we hope to achieve. With much of the world becoming overly inward looking, and with nationalism on the rise, the environment necessary for kindness and empathy to turn into any meaningful positive action at any scale is becoming smaller by the day. Any impact any of us may have in helping stricken people in Syria, for example, pales into insignificance when compared to the large scale suffering the Putin and Assad regimes are inflicting on the innocent people there.

Of course, none of this means we shouldn’t try. I often get asked during talks, interviews or casual conversations whether I’m optimistic about the future or not. As I reflect on my work during this, my 50th year on the planet, I’m left wondering whether I’ve achieved all the things I set out to when I ventured on my ‘rebirth’ twenty-three years ago. Despite starting off with the sole objective of trying to be a good person, and to do what I could when I saw wrongdoing, I can’t help but wonder whether or not I’ve made much of a dent, and whether or not it even matters. People are still suffering on a monumental scale – either in silence or on the front pages of our national newspapers. While those I have helped that I know of now count as friends, that number is in single figures. Maybe if we all set our sites a little lower, and focused on doing good at a more modest level, far more could be achieved. Despite this, we live in a sector obsessed with scale. In reality, very little ends up scaling.

If that’s the case, maybe the Archbishop was right about thinking small after all.


Much of what we discussed in our panel discussion echoes much of what I write and speak about today – take an interest, ask questions, be angry at wrongs you see, do your little bit of good where you are – and dream of changing the world. There’s a lot more on this on the Everyday Problems website and in my forthcoming TEDxMunich talk.