Innovation Obsession Disorder

We need to establish a new consensus that propagation is as important as innovation.

The word innovation is beginning to make my teeth hurt.

I’m for it, of course. Motherhood, fresh sashimi, and innovation—the three verities we can all agree on. But there’s something shrill about all the inno-talk, something that strikes me as more than just a little bit desperate. It’s as if we expect to innovate ourselves out of this crazed mess our species has gotten itself into.

Let’s get a grip.

We humans have always innovated. It’s what we do. It got us out of the caves.

Trial model of a part of the Analytical Engine, built by Charles Babbage, as displayed at the Science Museum, London. (Photo by Bruno Barral, ByB)

History is littered with premature innovations—great ideas the world wasn’t ready for. Check out William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s novel “The Difference Engine,” which imagines a computerized Victorian England. Not that far-fetched really; mathematicians Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace figured out a lot of stuff, about 150 years too early.

Innovation is fun to accomplish and frequently well rewarded. We should absolutely help it along in places where smart people can use better conditions to exercise their intelligence. But the problem is not the pace of innovation. The problem is the pace of propagation.

I remember sitting in a hall in Hyderabad, India, at an Ashoka-Lemelson Foundation event, listening to a Kenyan innovator named David Kuria say “Shit is good business.” It brought down the house. David, through his project, Iko-Toilet, figured out how to tap the human waste stream for improved health, jobs, and revenue. His ideas and methodology seemed as widely relevant as the substance with which they were concerned. It didn’t hurt that he was a charismatic presenter. Surely, I thought, I’ll be hearing more about this breakthrough.

But I haven’t. Web-scouring reveals no indication that Iko-Toilet has made it out of Nairobi.

Meanwhile, the drumbeat of innovate, innovate, innovate keeps throbbing. There’s obviously a gap here. I decided to talk to two great innovators—Mathias Craig of blueEnergy and Jessica Mayberry of Video Volunteers—and find out how the innovation < > propagation equation works from their ground level point of view. They shared quite brilliant, and moving, analyses in their respective interviews: “Building a Better Filter Isn’t What’s Holding Us Back” and “Because It Can Be Replicated, Is It No Longer An Innovation?

Note that I use the word propagation, not replication or scaling, which I see as variants of propagation. Scaling is very tough, obviously. It demands industrial strength business processes that demand serious financial investment.

Replication is tough in a different way. It demands a close analogy of conditions so that the small-scale processes that worked in, say, Kenya, can be reproduced in, say, Sao Paulo. And that close analogy is really hard to find. Small differences on the human level can easily undercut a replication attempt.

But more important than honing in on replication vs. scaling is establishing a new consensus that propagation is as important as innovation. Craig gets at this difference between innovation and propagation by asking, "Why should inventing new things be a priority over just making existing solutions work in new places?"

I’d like to see the World Bank, Gates, Ford, USAID, and the Aga Khan Foundation—the big players—take on this problem as a priority. They can start by reading what Mathias and Mayberry have to say.

I write this not as a bleeding heart (though I am one), but as a pragmatist. The world faces massive problems (climate change, the HIV epidemic, and nuclear proliferation are only a few) that will challenge our ability as a species to work together in a different, non-nationalistic, truly collaborative fashion.

We may not get there. But we must solve the problems that we can solve—the ones that do not demand a sea change of global consciousness. For a trifling amount of investment (millions, not billions), we could expose the thousands of David Kurias to each other and to those who need existing innovations—people who can, with modest assistance, improve, adapt, and adopt these innovations.

We have the tools to communicate globally, and we have the “human capital” (still largely untapped) of technologists and other professionals who want to volunteer for global social benefit. What we need is a (small) consortium of global funders to lean into this specific problem and provide support for local innovators to meet, think, and learn together, training them in the “soft skills” needed for communicating their ideas and needs. They’re innovators, right? They’ll figure out the propagation piece with just a modicum of support during the process.

Some of these adapted innovations will find a business model. Some will gain support as part of government programs. Some will subsist on volunteer energy. But if they address a basic human need, they will survive. And if we are to survive, we had better do a much better job of helping Iko-Toilets expand out from Kenya.

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  • BY Elliot Harmon

    ON April 11, 2012 01:57 PM

    This reminds me of something John Wilbanks wrote during that same Tech4Society conference:

    “There’s a big world of entrepreneurs out there just hacking in the real world. First life, if you will. High touch, not high tech.

    “Being enveloped in their world for a few days gave me a lot of new perspectives on the open access and open educational resources movements. … I now get at a deep level the way that obsessive cultures of information control in the scholarly and educational literature represent a high tax, inbound and outbound, on the entrepreneur, whether social or regular. If you don’t know the canon, you’re doomed to repeat it. And we don’t have the time, the money, or the carbon to repeat experiments we know won’t work. We can’t afford to let good ideas go un-amplified, because we need tens of thousands of good ideas.” (

    Real-world innovators need to partner with funders and institutions that can provide infrastructure to bring their ideas to scale. But I think all of that comes with the caveat that some great ideas have a built-in limit to how far they can grow.

    For me, one of the most memorable people I met at Tech4Society was Pradip Sarmah, who’d invented a safer rickshaw and developed a system in which pullers could lease and eventually own their own rickshaws. He said he’d be very reluctant to expand his enterprise to other communities and countries without researching how it would intersect with the current economic and social realities in those communities. He stressed that there’s a very real danger of doing more harm than good.

  • BY Ken Elkind

    ON April 12, 2012 08:40 AM

    Innovation has enabled us to propogate.  Our instincts are to propogate our species.  Our innovations have finally enabled our instincts to go global!!  By using our technoligy to enable this “global instinctive” need, we can truly propogate humanity (definition please!!)  When we use our instincts to gather globally, and to creat music, we are using our instincts globally & fully.  Hence Groovism creating a forum for humanity to gather & groove will make a miraculous propogation!!

  • BY Jayne Cravens

    ON April 12, 2012 10:40 AM

    Great blog! You have put into words so many things I have thought myself.

    Among those I work with, whether it’s a rural community in Afghanistan or Girl Scout troop leaders in Oregon, what they want is something that works to address their most pressing needs, and they really don’t care if it’s “innovative” or not. They want *what works* - or is most likely to work.

    Also, I’m annoyed at things that get called innovative that, in fact, are just a rebranding of something that’s long-existed: short-term virtual volunteering assignments are now “microvolunteering” - it’s been around for at least 30 years, as long as the Internet has been around but, oh, it has this new name, and that makes it new, makes it innovative!

    Finally - will all of these corporations demanding humanitarian organizations, nonprofits, government programs, schools and other groups be more innovative FUND what will be required for such? Changing the way people work takes money - corporations don’t hesitate to spend money on training their own employees to adopt some new tool or method, or to buy the equipment and space necessary for a new service, a new product, and experimentation. Are they ready to put up the funding for that at humanitarian organizations, nonprofits, schools, etc.? Or will they balk yet again at paying “administrative costs”?

  • Great blog and message!  I often find - even in the commercial enterprises my company works with - that the obvious is the last place anyone looks for solutions.  Unfortunately it is hard to put a simple but elegant solution that has been proven to work - but has been around a few weeks - into a slogan or ad campaign. 

    It would be great to see an organization promoting itself by saying something along the lines of - our innovation is adopting what already works.

    Developing innovations is sexy - no one wants to do the dirty work and get their hands dirty to get it deployed and diffused.

    Nice work!

  • BY Marsha Bailey

    ON April 12, 2012 01:08 PM

    I couldn’t agree more.  Innovation often happens as a result of long periods of trial and error and incremental change leading to the “overnight success.”  Unfortunately, funders often have the same short-term perspective as conventional investors:  Here - take my $10,000 and change the world in the next twelve months.  As the saying goes, “If ideas were money, everyone would be rich.”  Implementation, measuring outcomes, making improvements, etc. etc. takes time and commitment on both ends - the funder and the grantee.

  • BY David Geilhufe

    ON April 12, 2012 02:43 PM

    There are a million truly inspirational ideas and people in the world, but only a small portion of them will translate to social impact, so the innovation gap we have is not in the creation of ideas, but the processes by which we transform a social impact idea (whether new or old) into social impact.

    If process innovation is the important element, then the funding community needs to spend more time in supporting the process of scaling… there are many problems with the concept of scale, but if we actually find interventions that support organizations in achieving sustainable growth over a reasonable time period, we have a real opportunity to take all the “old” ideas (nod to Jayne above) and use them to create social impact.

    The hard part is what do funders need to support? I would disagree that the resources are needed to build community among social entrepreneurs ... people naturally find their peers, just as they naturally innovate. The resources need to invest in the mentorship, training & support that supports eventual success. Community and capacity building are not mutually exclusive, but they are different.

    If we approach this with eyes wide open that most engagements will fail and the potential impact of the ones that succeed is great enough for us to tolerate the failures, then we might be able to really take a run at the massive challenges the world faces.

  • BY Pearl Lerner Kane

    ON April 12, 2012 04:35 PM

    Very relevant and necessary sentiment.
    Lack of propogation manifests itself in under-capitalization.  For funders, it’s always on to the new.  They leave the innovator behind oftentimes and left to their own devices, the innovator disappears because they don’t have the business model that can sustain the innovation.  Stalwart and distinguised organizations often are risk-averse and do not encourage innovation from within for precisely these reasons - they cannot support it financially.  Ironically, the nonprofits who are capable of propogation don’t innovate.

  • Christopher Brechlin's avatar

    BY Christopher Brechlin

    ON April 12, 2012 08:39 PM

    Thank you for this perspective. As a young, and driven entrepreneur, I have become obsessed with this idea that I need to be an innovator in order to break through the noise of the information age. I think your perspective points out that by working so hard to innovate further, I may be stifling the potential benefit of existing resources, while also wasting valuable energy in trying to develop new tools and ideas. One of the biggest obstacles that I encounter is the feeling that I need to keep pace with the world in which my peers and I function and communicate. It sometimes feels as though we don’t have enough time to fully internalize the information with which we are provided. Rather than having limited access to innovation resources, as was a reality even 50 years ago, we are provided with so many that we spend most of our time disseminating information, rather than testing our hypothesis.

  • BY Ian Clifford

    ON April 13, 2012 04:18 AM

    Hi Daniel
    again you have hit nail on head. There is far too much about innovation as a buzzword that gets people all frothy. And far too little insight that helps real innovation to flourish. As you know I like to simplify things. I have a formula on ‘data’ that I think can be applied here as well to show the journey from ‘Idea’. It goes something like this.

    Data + organising = Information
    Information + context = Knowledge
    Knowledge + experience = Wisdom

    Its nicely simplistic, but I wanted to explore if it applied here too. Its a more complex journey than with data, but it was fun to think it through! So if you start with ‘idea’ it might go something like this.

    Idea + Organising = Invention (application of business structure, organising)
    Invention + (local) Context = Knowledge capital (recognizing needs/issues, adding context)
    Knowledge capital + Market = Propagation (taking it to the market)
    Propagation + Disruption = Innovation

    This last line is where someone re-invents/ re-uses the propagated capital (possibly for social purposes, but possibly not). However, it does not follow that

    Innovation + Investment (recognition/resourcing/funding) =Social Innovation

    My simplistic (I’m happy for you to use ‘simpleton’) view is that you have to apply disruption twice for Social Innovation to then occur. Thus

    Innovation + Disruption x 2 (Dis-squared) = Social Innovation

    It has to happen first at an ‘owner’ level where someone (not necessarily the inventor) takes the propagated social capital and creates something new again with it (as above). Here is the first innovation. But then society (likely to be an individual acting for social good) takes this innovation and disrupts it again for their own social purposes, and this becomes Social Innovation.

    So where does that leave investment, recognition, resourcing? On the face of it out side of this equation, but I think it sits most effectively at the end of the equation (but you can put it at different points after social capital and it will have different effects.) Social innovation up to the current point may still only be small scale… 

    So I would show the whole journey as follows
    Idea + Organising = Invention
    Invention + (local) Context = Knowledge capital
    Knowledge capital + Market = Propagation
    Innovation + Disruption x2 = Social Innovation
    Social Innovation + Investment = Social Value

    My view is that its only when social innovation is scaled with investment can large-scale social value be achieved. When it happens at earlier points along the equation that particular line may be strengthened, but only when it happens at the end do you get large scale social value.

    Thanks for a stimulating morning !

  • James Stewart's avatar

    BY James Stewart

    ON April 13, 2012 06:05 AM

    Propagation is part of innovation. The invention part is period something is created and developed locally. The hardest part of innovation is building the network and all the necessary complementary assets to turn something from a local invention to a successful innovation accessible and in use in all the places where others can adapt it to make it work for them.

    I think the problem is that inventors think they are innovators, when they are not.

  • BY Beth Kanter

    ON April 13, 2012 09:42 AM

    Great piece Daniel!  Innovation happens in a ecosystem - there are the new, brilliant, disruptive ideas - and then the idea as to be generative so it can spread.  I like your term “propagate” although I first misread it as propaganda!  grin 

    Your idea for a convening sounds like a great topic for the next TechSoup Global Summit!!

  • Joe Beckmann's avatar

    BY Joe Beckmann

    ON April 13, 2012 12:18 PM

    Not great, but good this piece. There are some other precedents I suggest you scan before relying on “propogate.” Missionaries have baggage. My favorite is Positive Deviance (, whom I cherish for their confrontational title no less than their good idea. Extending innovation depends on the host, and if the host can be framed as the inspiration, if, in other words, the idea can become the idea of the host agency/country/program, then (a) they will be committed, (b) they will be able to see how to do it (whatever it is) within existing budgets, schedules and personnel, and (c) they’ll know who is best to work through phases 1, 2, and whatever. If you frame the “innovation” as an idea based on the client’s own analysis of the problem, the odds of a sustaining change are improbably higher. And it will be cheaper, faster, and more easily adapted to support even newer “innovations.” Importing smartguy stuff is…imperialism.

    I’m glad, however, that you nailed that it doesn’t work. Just because it works as badly as it did when Pontius Pilate washed his hands, doesn’t mean we’ve learned much since God Knows When.

  • BY Andrea Schneider

    ON April 13, 2012 12:50 PM

    Thanks for calling the question.  I hope you mean by propagation the world of action and concrete results, working with the end-user in mind, building capacity and sustainable change.
    I focus on public sector innovation and design, policy, practice and solutions.  The easy part is coming up with great ideas, the ‘boots on the ground” work is much harder, takes much longer and is fraught with the “human element”. 

    Public Sector Innovation is really complex and very hard to do well.  Yet, with all the problems you mention, including our current financial mess and an economy which has to do things in new ways, it’s also an opportunity. It is also very human.
    Recently, someone said they liked technology because it wasn’t emotional, thought that was interesting.  Might explain why so much public innovation is focused on civic oriented technology, it isn’t as messy as working with culture, people and systems.
    I think innovation is emotional and disturbs our core sense of comfort, creating high degrees of ambiguity and uneasiness with change.
    I’m glad you wrote this blog, it rings true for me and my experience.

  • BY Daniel Ben-Horin

    ON April 13, 2012 02:44 PM

    Hey, Thank you everybody for these really interesting comments. I can’t respond to them all, but a few thoughts:

    @Jaynecravens – I feel your pain! I’ve heard a funder that I respect stand in front of a group of NGOs and say, “Innovate, Innovate, Innovate.” to some very blank/pained stares. To be fair, funders have such limited resources relative to both the problems needing solutions and the different kinds of solutions that are proliferating; sometimes they can’t help falling back on catch phrases and not thinking through all the costs involved. I’d like to see some funding more focused on great existing innovative projects,  in order to enable the communications and ‘soft skills development’ which are necessary for communities of practice to form in a meaningful way. @Davidgeilhufe’s distinction is interesting. I am not talking about building ‘community’ in the broad sense, but ‘community of practice’ with the practice being the instantiation of a specific innovation in other contexts. This ‘instantiation’ might be scaling, replication or just riffing off the original in a creative way. It is true that people naturally find their peers, as David says, but some investment in helping those peers actually work together and be accountable for results would be very beneficial.

    @AndreaScheider – Your point about the dispassionate nature of technology is spot-on, I think. I’d go even further and make a link between this dispassion and our largely post-ideological current civic discourse. Technology covers, or transcends,  a multitude of political orientations; we can park our dissonances at the door and innovate technological fixes (some of which actually work,  a smaller subset of which get implemented, a smaller still subset of which actually sustain themselves and a minuscule smidgen of which spread and achieve widescale impact.) But those ‘dissonances’? They didn’t evaporate. They are enmeshed in what you call “culture, people and systems.” They are emotional and messy. We have to factor this messy part into our effort to weld technology to truly impactful social change.

  • BY Amy Sample Ward

    ON April 13, 2012 03:14 PM

    Wonderful conversation starter (or continuation, rather!), Daniel - thank you for sharing it here!

    As I read, I couldn’t help but think back to the presentation I made last Fall at The Power of Information: New Technologies for Philanthropy and Development Conference in London where I participated on a panel focused on “fostering innovation and enterprise.” One of the directives I presented to the audience made up mostly of funders as that “newness” can’t be the highest qualifier of innovation, just as you point out here.

    To me, “innovation” is similar to an “answer.” When someone asks a question, there are SO many ways to provide an answer. Sometimes we say something, we point something out, we think, we do, we react, we investigate, etc. So to do we respond to a prompt with innovation. In our space, those prompts take the form of social needs and global issues; but the response, the innovation, can take so many forms, come from so many directions, and be translated many ways. Just as David Geilhufe pointed out in his comment, and I think much of the focus of Brian Reich’s points during the Innovation panel at the 2012 NTC, the highest measurement we should be using is not newness but impact. How do we stop doing what isn’t working and replicate what is so that we are changing the world into the world we want [and desperately need]?

  • BY Amy Sample Ward

    ON April 13, 2012 03:15 PM

  • BY Gary Shapiro

    ON April 14, 2012 07:24 AM

    Innovation that has value will be copied, used, bought or propagated.

    Author NYT bestseller. The Comeback.  How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream

  • BY Daniel Ben-Horin

    ON April 14, 2012 12:36 PM

    Responding to @JamesStewart—That is well said. I would add that not only do inventors underestimate the full burden of real innovation, but so do funders.

  • BY Marcio Vasconcelos Pinto

    ON April 16, 2012 05:52 PM

    Great post and discussions.

    Quoting Pierre Levy “The blogs, wikis, social media and search tools of today should be seen as the infancy of the collective intelligence equipment of future creative conversations” at, to state that I think we should focus on increasing investment (time and money) on designing methodologies and infra-structure (as pointed by Daniel) that will enable us to scale innovations that work and could create impact.

    I see @Davidgeilhufe’s point (also said by others in different words) “If process innovation is the important element, then the funding community needs to spend more time in supporting the process of scaling…” as the core question here!

    Daniel´s suggested method to scaling is based on “communities of practice”. I would add also:
    - Interaction protocols for these communities
    - Ontologies for connecting data
    - New modes of communication that better exploit the availability of data and the power of calculation.

    We need to communicate data at higher scale, less transaction costs, more inteligently, semi-automatic, etc.

    Not easy, but surely viable.

  • BY Jody Mahoney

    ON April 17, 2012 08:57 AM

    Excellent blog post, and this notion of propogation vs innovation is showing itself over and over.  I think we can learn from groupls like Women’s World Bank—everyone understands the innovation of microfinance (including upside and downside) however look at the way WWB has propogated its solution throughout regional hubs and thus covered most of the world.

  • BY Jon Camfield

    ON April 26, 2012 12:33 PM

    This tension between innovation and impact has been clouding my mind more and more of recent.

    At the core, I think the open source movement has this model figured out – embrace authorship (copyright) while freeing up ownership and control.

    An ideator with a good innovation should receive some reputational credit as their idea propagates throughout the world, but that doesn’t inherently give her control over those versions.

    It reminds us that the vision is change; controlling an idea tightly can sometimes be a path to change, but is more often a hindrance.

  • BY Daniel Ben-Horin

    ON April 27, 2012 09:15 AM

    I continue to be gratified at the level of response here. Thanks very much. In my original post, I wrote ( a bit aspirationally!)  that “I’d like to see the World Bank, Gates, Ford, USAID, and the Aga Khan Foundation—the big players—take on this problem as a priority..” But, in fact, some significant players are chiming in supportively here; e.g. Mario’s, Jody’s and Jon’s posts are, respectively, from leaders at Avina Foundation, Anita Borg Foundation, and Ashoka US. And my previous post, on the very related theme of ‘scrappy and strategic’
    also attraced supportive comments from people at important institutions, e.g. Morino Institute, Gates Foundation, Random Hacks of Kindness, Campus Party. Likewise, Glenn Fajardo’s great post
    has started an exciting conversation that is surfacing an amazing cornucopia of innovative energy.

    I would say that the core notion that unites these different streams is that there is a huge supply of innovative zeal/talent which is looking for more effective channels through which to spread and create impact. Is the time right for a broadbased convening to examine how to move the dial on this?

  • BY Prabhleen Ahuja

    ON April 29, 2012 11:05 PM

    I read your blog and thought it was brilliant - there really is too much emphasis on innovation in world, and perhaps most awkwardly, in emerging markets -  it’s not innovation we need, but simply replicable businesses that solve local problems and are led by young people who live in poverty. I wonder, have you ever heard about the Be! an Entrepreneur (a mass movement of stories) and Be! Fund in India? Be! is a new model, a new way to solve poverty on a mass scale. Be! Movies tell stories of hero entrepreneurs from low-income groups who one day decide to start a business to solve a problem where they live. Each Be! Movie asks young people to submit their business idea that solves a problem to the Be! Fund, where young people can get up to $10,000 to start a business - risk capital, an investment, not a loan. Successful businesses pay back out of profit, those that fail are written off. Be! Movies aired on STAR in India and received over 68,000 calls from young people who live in poverty with business ideas. One of the entrepreneurs invested in by Be! is Radhakrishna, age 26, his idea was to buy a truck to take 1,000 farmers to market. He made it through the selection process and has made a profit, made his first return payment, raised the income of 50 farmers and the total village economy. Be! is getting ready to tell his story on national television. Radhakrishna’s business is not innovative. But it fills a gap. And it’s replicable. And perhaps most importantly it was his idea. So he’s a real hero other young people can follow. And Be! is committed to scale and replication through stories. You could see more on *the people who make the stories, and *Be! Fund, the ones who invest,

  • BY Gregory J. Kurth

    ON July 3, 2012 10:32 AM

    Nice to finally read a “gut check” blog on the wonders and excitement of innovation despite masssive shortcomings in capital and long-term planning.  Along with propagation, I think a crtical but underutilized perspective is leveraging.  The innovation is not so much newness; rather, its about translating and leveraging capacities in a new framework and different outcome.  How is it that Coca Cola can distribute its products in some of the remotest regions of India, yet basic medical supplies and vaccines are lacking.

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