In search of reluctant innovators

After returning from the 2011 Global Competitiveness Forum in Riyad last January, I started pulling together a few thoughts on something I’d been pondering for some time – “reluctant innovation”. That first post paved the way for further work, and more recently a guest article in Wired Magazine in the UK called “Genius happens when you plan something else”. You can read that here.

Reluctant innovators are people who unexpectedly come up with an innovative solution to a problem they’ve experienced or witnessed, one which has angered, bugged, disturbed or frustrated them so much that they end up dedicating much of their lives to solving it. They’re innovators, but not through choice, since they never set out to innovate.

In my Wired article I give two examples of reluctant innovators:

One evening in 1996, Brij Kothari was watching a DVD of Pedro Almodóvar’s “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” with friends in Ithaca, New York. The dialogue was in Spanish and the subtitles in English. Out of nowhere an idea popped into his head. As a Spanish language learner, he wished the subtitles were also in Spanish. Turning his attention home, he wondered whether India could become literate if Bollywood-made Hindi films and songs were shown with the lyrics subtitled in Hindi.

The idea behind same language subtitling – or SLS – was born. Today, thanks to Brij’s organization Planet Read, Indian primary school children numbering in the hundreds of millions are learning basic literacy by simply watching their favourite television programmes. Not bad for something conjured up in front of a Saturday night movie.

Then there’s Laura Stachel, whose organisation – WE CARE Solar – designs portable solar lighting kits for maternity wards in developing countries. When she first headed out to Nigeria she planned to work on a different problem altogether, but quickly realised that a simple lack of lighting was responsible for an unacceptable number of mother and child deaths. Maternal mortality rates in Nigeria are among the highest in the world, with a ratio of 1,100 maternal deaths occurring for every 100,000 live births, so she turned her attention to helping design, build and distribute solar kits to solve it. “As an American doctor, it was inconceivable that a hospital could function without reliable electricity. The lack of lighting for a cesarean section was a problem I had never imagined”.

Laura never intended to build and run an organisation, and never chose to become a solar innovator, but seeing a problem she felt compelled to fix, she reluctantly became one. Solar Suitcases are now saving the lives of mothers and babies in hundreds of delivery rooms throughout the developing world.

The more I read about innovation the more I wonder how rare – or ubiquitous – reluctant innovators are. Not only that, I’m beginning to realise how inspiring many of these stories are – ordinary people with little or no track record in innovation or product development beating all the odds to not only create a truly innovative solution to a social ill, but also a successful organisation to effectively deliver it.

Do you know a reluctant innovator? Are you one yourself? If the answer to either question is yes, I’d love to include theirs (or your) story in a new book I’m pulling together. If you’d like to talk, leave a comment below or reach out to me directly through the website.