I recently attended the launch of the Innovation Hub at the UCT Graduate School of Business. It got me thinking about innovation – what it has been, what it is, and what it could be.
I think labels and definitions can be useful and restrictive at the same time, depending on application, like most things in life. How we in a rather Westernised culture define “innovate” is “to make changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products”. This applies in all contexts, but it is the business sector that refers to innovation. Now we are moving away just from product innovation (a new product to fulfill some “need” of the masses) on to social innovation, just as the scales are tipping value from tangible things to intangible things. With product innovation, often even the need can be created by marketing finesse, whereas with social innovation we need to be so careful that we have accurately identified the need first before designing the solution. And as a friend of mine is wisely exploring, who are we to go in somewhere to try to make a difference to a community and needs that we don’t know anything about, especially if we do not have the same needs and are thus not impacted in the same way?
I see that there is an overlap in terms, depending on the context and the mindset of the person who is “innovating”. In communities with no access to media who are likely to be more sustainable and collectivist, where the success of one is intrinsically linked to the success of all others, what we may see as innovation and thus worth sharing outside that community may well be seen to them as survival and therefore not worth selling or sharing the idea. Business sees ideas as commodities worth putting pricetags on according to how much success they reap. My father is one of the most resourceful people I know – he is surviving, innovating, being resourceful, enterprising, creative, industrious and ingenious.
I think the distinction between the terms is mere semantics and not the best application of energy, unless used as a way to empower those who think that other people can solve their needs better than they can.
MacGuyver was my childhood hero. When I was very young, I cut my own hair to look like his and I used to disappear into the garden for hours to make things out of what I could find. I didn’t fantasize as a child about being a princess in a castle or ponies and rainbows; I used to imagine doing, solving and making wonderful things with what I had. If a question or need comes knocking in our lives, we are the ones who know the context and origin most intimately and though we may need to reach out to others for expert advice or assistance, if they create a solution THEY think works but doesn’t work for us, they may have solved the same issue for themselves but it’s back to the drawing board for us.
MacGuyver found ways to engineer incredible solutions even in the face of constraint, because he had an enabling environment. He had the freedom to do what he wanted, there was pressing necessity and often a rapidly-approaching deadline, he had limited resources with which to work and didn’t have unlimited funds but he did have clear goals and was confident in his ability to make the right call at the right time. This excites me greatly, and it is glaringly obvious to me that the developing world is the ultimate ground for innovation, which is often hidden in the background by the less flash sister-concept: Survival. One man’s survival is another man’s resourcefulness, is another man’s innovation.
Perhaps it is less about the labels and getting caught up in which word to use where. Perhaps it is more about empowering communities to see their ideas as valuable and their “problems”, needs and issues as opportunities to bond communities and make positive change not just for them but for local and perhaps global populations. How many times do we see some revolutionary solution coming out of the jungles of South America, the deserts of the Sahara, the barren and perilous outback? As often as someone from outside goes in and witnesses a new way of doing things. This is one of the best things about travel and going to new environments (whether on the other side of the world or next door) – it exposes us to new people and new ways of doing things.
People who study innovation and change learn most about those aspects probably in developing countries, even though developed countries obviously experience it too. Why? Because it is raw, and it doesn’t always know its value. Being forced to come up with an idea in an incubator when your paycheck is attached to the outcome of finding a solution to the needs of another group of people to which you do not belong is very different to finding a way to solve a simple issue in your household that your survival hinges upon. The former, everyone will hear about and the latter, it is possible that no one else may ever hear about it.
We need to keep our eyes open, and to humbly identify whether what we perceive as need actually is one. We have no right to assume the needs of another, no matter how simple it may seem. Collaboration and open dialogue is required.
But a good place to start is right at home. We should take a leaf from the cap of MacGuyver and when we have an issue in our own lives that needs solving, we need to free our minds and be creative in our attempts to seize the opportunities that needs provide. If we start integrating that way of thinking into how we do the majority of our daily tasks, it is likely that we will think that way in our workplaces and communities. We are the best people to solve our own problems, even if it may require some assistance. In the developing world, there is the need to empower communities to know that and perhaps to assist with resourcing. In the developed world, there is the empowerment and there are more resources, but some of the needs are fabricated as on average more basic needs are met and thus the solutions can be anywhere on a scale from gimickey to life-changing.
When needs come a’knockin’ for myself, I know that I want to make a concerted effort to turn to the solutions architect traits of those like MacGuyver. In this way, needs/issues stop having such a negative connotation and can be seen as opportunities. Of course when basic needs are in question, it is harder to see the glass as half full, but that is where context, community, conversation, creativity and collaboration are most vital.
In an ideas economy, those who are in the most need may in a way have the potential to be more intangibly wealthy than they will ever know if they are empowered to develop solutions to their own needs. We have come so far, but we have a long way to go. I find that a strange blend of both ironic and rather confronting. Many questions are raised. Many knocks on many doors.