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.
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.