One last throw of the dice.

I’ve always found the global development system frustrating. It was the 1980’s when it first got my attention, with suffering and extreme poverty dominating my daily news feed. The Ethiopian famine in 1985 was the turning point, forcing me to seriously question why a sector awash with money and resources could have so little visible impact (and when it does, how it struggles to effectively communicate the change). While I still don’t have all the answers I think I know a lot more about what needs to be fixed.

A depressing reality struck me the other week as I pulled together a collection of my most popular blog posts for a new eBook. It dawned on me that I’ve been writing about the same stuff for over a decade. Some of my posts from 2007 apply just as much today, if not more. And that’s depressing. Seriously depressing.

I’ve always been my biggest critic and I constantly question whether anything I’ve done, or currently do, has or is making any kind of meaningful difference out there. Sure, I’ve spent the best part of my working life trying to figure out how I can contribute to a solution to some of the social and environmental problems that deeply trouble me, but because I’ve spent so long doing it doesn’t mean I’ve achieved anything. I wrote about this recently, too.

Tonight I watched a TED talk, provocatively titled “Poverty isn’t a lack of character; it’s a lack of cash“. It was wonderfully argued and delivered, and beautifully challenged many of the assumptions that underly global development policy and practice. In his talk, Rutger also highlighted a solution to a poverty reduction programme that actually worked but has since been largely ignored – the basic minimum income. (This is something I’ve seen time and time again in my work on the technology side of development (often called ICT4D), in that when ideas emerge that seem to actually work for unexplained reasons the wider sector decides not to adopt or support them. For a sector that constantly demands new and innovative solutions to everything, it’s perplexing.

With so much still to be done, I wonder whether I’m going to see the change that’s needed in my lifetime. I’ve been fortunate in my career, and have had wonderful support throughout. But the question I’m beginning to ask myself now is this. If there was just one thing I could work on for the next ten years – one thing I could throw myself at and have the greatest impact – what would that be?

I wonder.

Time for a ‘slow innovation’ movement?

brooks-shawshank

Dear fellas. I can’t believe how fast things move on the outside. I saw an automobile once when I was a kid, but now they’re everywhere. The world went and got itself in a big damn hurry
Brooks – quoted in the Shawshank Redemption

Today everyone seems to be in such a rush. From the time it takes to fly across the Atlantic to the time it takes Google to pull together your search results, speed is everything. Products are increasingly rushed to market, investors are increasingly impatient for exit and the social innovation community – that’s us – are increasingly impatient for scale. We have innovation accelerators left, right and centre and if we fail, well, we need to do that fast as well. When did we get in such a big hurry?

When I speak at conferences I often highlight the disconnect between funding cycles and the time it takes for a technology solution to firstly get a little traction, and then get to some kind of scale (depending on your definition of scale). Typically, how long does it take an innovation to take hold? One year? Two years? Three years? Five years? If we’re honest we don’t know. All we do know is that we usually lose patience (or interest) after a couple of years or so.

I often speak of my own experience with FrontlineSMS, which took about three years to really get going, and – if I’d taken funding and committed to deadlines and deliverables early on – how it would likely have not made it that long. As a product, maybe it just needed three years to bed in, to take hold in the imagination of its users, for news to filter down. If that’s the case then speeding up the process through an accelerator of some kind would have been counterproductive, and perhaps also lead to an early demise. Sometimes things just take time.

It begs the question: How many potentially great products have died prematurely because they weren’t given the time? Or because they were rushed? What proportion of projects do accelerators kill compared to those they genuinely accelerate?

As with many things in the social innovation and international development sectors (including innovation challenges), we don’t have the evidence either way. Just as small is often cited as beautiful, perhaps we need to recognise that sometimes slow might be sensible?

slow-movement

Accelerators almost certainly have their place as one of a number of tools and approaches, but we seem to be painting everything with the same brush. Acceleration might not be best for everyone and everything. Maybe speed only really matters if:

  • You’ve quit your day job and need to start earning money fast
  • You’ve banked some money to prove your idea – and the clock is ticking
  • You’re working to some arbitrary deadline – a competition closing date, or a school term, or a funding deadline
  • You’re working in the midst of an unfolding crisis and your solution was needed yesterday
  • You’re worried that a ‘competitor’ is going to beat you to market
  • You’re impatient

In the social innovation and international development worlds we seem to have fallen into our fair share of self-made traps. Assuming scale is everything is one of them. So is believing that open source is best for everything – without question. And that innovation challenges hold the key to unlocking all our great ideas.

Maybe questioning why we’re always in such a damn hurry should be another.

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.