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?

openideo

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.

The case of We Care Solar and our failure to spot winners

“The first ever US$1 million UN-DESA Energy Grant has been awarded to We Care Solar, a non-profit organisation, to enhance and expand the use of its ‘Solar Suitcase’. By making solar power simple, accessible and affordable, this device allows for the provision of electricity for medical procedures during childbirth in many developing countries, helping to avoid life-threatening complications for mothers and children” – UN website

Yesterday afternoon at United Nations HQ in New York, Laura Stachel and her organisation, We Care Solar, picked up the inaugural UN-DESA award. It’s the latest in a string of awards and accolades for a project I’ve known and admired for many years. You can read more about what happened yesterday on the UN website.

Liberian Health Workers receiving their  Solar Suitcase (Photo: We Care Solar)

Liberian Health Workers receiving their Solar Suitcase (Photo: We Care Solar)

I was already a fan of simple, appropriate technology solutions to problems before I met Laura in 2009. While almost everyone else at the time seemed to be aspiring to build complex tech solutions to often simple problems, the idea behind the Solar Suitcase was beautiful in its simplicity. It was based on a rather simple hypothesis: If the power (and therefore lighting) goes down in the middle of a difficult (or any) childbirth, and there’s no backup, people can die. This is not just true of maternity wards in the developing world, where Laura first witnessed this happening. Try plunging any operating theatre anywhere in the world into darkness and see how the surgeons cope.

I always found the idea compelling, and always did what I could to help. Laura was as committed to ending these unnecessary deaths as anyone could be, and her determination was at times a source of frustration to her. She gave it everything, and taking it on changed her life. The fact she got so little support early on, despite the compelling nature of her work, was an injustice in my eyes, and another reason I always did what I could. It was another reason why I wanted to include her story in my recent book, “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator“. In celebration of their award yesterday, we’re offering Laura’s chapter here for free (PDF).

Why Laura was so committed was clear. From her Nigerian fieldwork (2008), quoted in the book:

I had not predicted the challenges facing my Nigerian colleagues. At night, I observed maternity care, watching helplessly as doctors and midwives struggled to treat critically ill pregnant women in near-total darkness. The dim glow of kerosene lanterns often provided the only illumination. Without electricity, doctors had to postpone Caesarean sections and other life-saving procedures. When the maternity ward was in darkness, midwives were unable to provide emergency care and, on occasion, would turn patients away from the labour room door, despite their critical need for care.

The story of Laura’s response, the Solar Suitcase, is not the rosy tale of social innovation and overnight success that many people hearing about her work for the first time yesterday might think it to be. Today, things might be going well but, as Laura will remind us, there’s always more to be done, and women and children continue to die in the dark in wards the developing world over. It’s obviously great news that, as a result of yesterdays award, that number will continue to decrease, but that level of support hasn’t always been there, despite the compelling nature of what she was doing.

Poster for the Solar Suitcase (Courtesy Laura Stachel)

Poster for the Solar Suitcase (Courtesy Laura Stachel)

After that Nigerian trip in 2008, Laura and her partner, Hal, sketched out the early plans for the Solar Suitcase. That done, they needed money to build a prototype. A $12,500 competition at UC Berkeley looked like the perfect place to get it, but out of twelve finalists they didn’t win. In her own words, Laura felt dejected and, worse, felt she’d let down colleagues in Nigeria who she had promised to help. But someone there believed in them. Thomas Kalil, a campus official who had been at the competition, called Laura up and told her they should have won. He committed to helping. Within three weeks he had pulled together $25,000 from The Blum Center for Developing Economies and Berkeley Big Ideas, and We Care Solar was born. Considerable challenges remained as the work progressed, and on numerous occasions anyone with less determination would have quit. There’s nothing more deflating that having huge belief in what you’re doing, only to find so few others who share it. If you want the real story behind what it means to innovate, read Laura’s chapter. Trust me, it’s worth it.

The story of We Care Solar is littered with opportunities for the official development sector to come on board. But on so many occasions it didn’t. There could be many reasons for this. Perhaps the technology wasn’t clever enough? Maybe donors didn’t see the potential in what Laura was doing? Maybe they were too busy looking for the next big thing? Maybe all of the above?

Yesterday’s award is proof that Laura was right sticking to her belief in the Solar Suitcase, despite the immense personal sacrifices that involved. And we should be grateful that she did. We talk a lot in the development sector about ‘picking winners’ and the ‘need to support things that work’. But that clearly didn’t happen here. Until now. How many Laura’s are out there who don’t battle through, who call it a day on potentially life-changing ideas because they can’t get the support they need? Or, worse, because they are constantly rejected?

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but what’s not compelling about giving light to maternity wards in the developing world? What’s not compelling about wanting to stop women and babies dying in the dark? And why did it take so long to help someone fix it?

Why planning isn’t everything: Embracing serendipity, chance and luck in the pursuit of social change

Each year, hundreds – if not thousands – of engaged students walk through the doors of schools, colleges and universities around the world eager to learn the art of social change. But is this the best approach? Does turning social entrepreneurship into an academic discipline give out the right message?

Classes in social innovation, social entrepreneurship and design thinking have become increasingly popular in recent years. On the one hand, this might be seen as a good thing. After all, the world needs as many smart, engaged citizens as it can get, particularly when you consider the multitude of challenges we face as a planet. But does a career in social change really begin in the classroom, or out in the real world? How much social change is planned, and how much accidental? And which approach tends to lead to the most meaningful, lasting or impactful solutions? These questions, which have occupied my mind for some time, are the ones I tackled in my recent book, “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator”.

In our desperation to explain and control the world around us we put things in boxes, label them up and then study them to death. We look for the ‘secret sauce’ in successful ideas while trying to break down the characters and personalities of the people behind them. Finding the next Steve Jobs becomes an obsession. Books on social innovation abound, as if making the world a better place was a ten-step process which, if followed vigorously, will guarantee us meaningful change. I’m sure I’m not alone, but my experience of social innovation isn’t anything like this. Instead, I see serendipity, luck and chance play a bigger part than we dare admit. Of course that said, it’s what people do with their chance encounter that matters, not the chance discovery itself, as Scott Berkun reminds us in his best-selling book, The Myths of Innovation.

In The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator, all ten people featured took their chance. And what makes their stories even more interesting is that, in most cases, they weren’t even looking for anything to solve. The thing that ended up taking over their lives found them.

village-testing-SLS-Brij

Brij interacting with viewers in Gulbai Tekra Slum, Ahmedabad. Photo: Jaydeep Bhatt. (c) PlanetRead

Brij Kothari, for example, who conceived the idea behind a subtitling tool while eating pizza, which is today helping hundreds of millions of Indian children. Joel Selanikio whose frustration at a lack of reliable health information drove him to develop a mobile data collection tool. Laura Stachel, who developed solar-powered suitcases for maternity wards after seeing mothers and babies die in the dark on Nigerian wards. Or Sharon Terry, who took on a genetic disease after a shock diagnosis that her children were sufferers.

In something of a break from conventional wisdom, in the majority (but not all) of these cases the innovators were far from qualified to take on the challenge. In a sense, they did things in reverse by encountering a problem which troubled them, and then picked up the skills they needed to rectify it as they went. This is a very different approach to the one taught in the classroom, which sees engaged young millennials taught the art of pitching, business modelling and design thinking before they’re unleashed on the world in search of a problem.

Value for money?

It’s also a very different approach to the one carried out by the international development community which has, over the past six decades, burnt its way through over $3 trillion in its efforts to rid the world of its social and environmental ills (causing a few of its own along the way, I’d hasten to add). The sector has effectively institutionalised development, professionalising it and making it almost inaccessible to ordinary people, including the kind of talent featured in the book.

Of course, it would be hard to justify spending any amount of money in the hope that you’d get lucky, or get that chance encounter with an innovative solution or idea. So what can we do to increase our chances of it happening?

A few tips from the book:

  1. Be curious and inquisitive. Ask questions. Take nothing for granted.
  2. Take time to understand the world. It’s complicated.
  3. Leave your comfort zone. Spend time with the people you’re trying to help.
  4. Don’t assume you can fix anything. Sit, listen, observe.
  5. Be patient. Remember this is a life-long journey, not a three month project.

Finally, work on something that gets you out of bed in the morning (and that will continue to do so for years to come). Make it something that switches you on, that fuels your passion. This is probably most crucial. Howard Thurman was spot on. “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who come alive”.