June 15th, 2011
12:00 PM ET

The reluctant innovator

Solar Suitcase: Courtesy WE CARE Solar

Editor's Note: Ken Banks is the founder of kiwanja.net, which applies mobile technology to solving social and environmental challenges. This post is part of the Global Innovation Showcase created by the New America Foundation and the Global Public Square.

By Ken Banks – Special to CNN

An image of white men in white coats in Western laboratories is what many people conjure up when they’re asked to think of “innovation”. From biotechnology to space exploration, from nanotech to electronics engineering, innovation is perceived by many to be more of a corporate exercise than anything else.

In many cases, they’re right. Much of the innovation around us is the result of years of investment in time, resources and big ideas from some of the largest and most successful companies out there.

But framing innovation in this light doesn’t give us the entire picture.

The story of innovation is not complete without an appreciation of "real world" innovation, much of which is grassroots-driven and much of which goes unnoticed. It’s this “real world” innovation that I’d like to discuss.

Check Out: More from the "Global Innovation Showcase" created by the New America Foundation and the Global Public Square.

My work focuses on the application of technology to social and environmental challenges in the developing world - a field more widely known as “Information and Communication Technologies for Development” (ICT4D). The rise of the Internet – followed more recently by the mobile phone – presents us with opportunities to solve human problems like never before.

Universities and business schools – realizing that innovation can be applied to business models and supply chains just as much as to technology – are offering courses galore on “social entrepreneurship”, a catch-all phrase aimed at attracting innovators with big ideas that can make a little money and solve a social or environmental problem. But this approach – leading with the business case for an idea – only gets you so far.

Although I agree that the mechanics of entrepreneurship can be taught, most of the innovation that I see in the developing world is random, personal, demand-driven, inspired and instinctive. In short, innovation occurs naturally in the real world. Balance sheets and P&Ls, on the other hand, do not.

Controlled environments – laboratories and business schools – produce a particular type of innovation and innovator. First and foremost, many are business propositions. Innovators unable to make a business case for their ideas either struggle to get in, or struggle to get traction. As a result, many great ideas never see the light of day.

Innovators with world-changing ideas, solid business models and a steady income stream are the creme de la creme. They’re the ones paraded around at social entrepreneurship conferences. Many started off wanting to be “social entrepreneurs”, and many are highly ambitious and studied hard to get there. I’ve probably met hundreds over the years.

Read: Anne-Marie Slaughter's "Rebellion of an Innovation Mom".

But most innovators I know never started off as such. Few remember ever saying to themselves “I want to innovate”.

They’re what I call “reluctant innovators” – people who found themselves in the midst of a problem they felt compelled to solve. These are the frontline healthcare workers who see a medical problem with no solution and come up with one, or farmers who lose a crop but find an answer and implement it. The majority of people in the developing world finding everyday solutions to everyday problems are reluctant innovators. They didn’t ask to be; they became. Real world experience was their education, not an MBA.

One of the best examples of a “reluctant innovator” I’ve come across is Laura Stachel, who I first met at a conference back in 2009. Laura’s organisation – WE CARE Solar– designs portable solar lighting kits for maternity wards in developing countries.

When Laura first headed out to Nigeria, she was planning to work on something entirely different, but after realizing 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) she turned her attention to helping design, build and distribute solar kits to solve it. 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.

Read: Are we still an innovation nation?

I would also count myself as a reluctant innovator – FrontlineSMS (a piece of software being used by non-profits all over the world to run text message-based networks) was never planned – and the team behind Ushahidi would likely feel the same. They were simply responding to a crisis in their country. None of us went out looking for something to solve. A problem found us, and we felt compelled to solve it. This is a different kind of innovation to that taught in schools or harnessed in laboratories.

In my field, I’d argue that most of the more successful innovations in ICT4D have come about this way – solutions created not by ‘traditional’ innovators or technologists but regular people who find themselves on the frontline of a challenge, and who decide to not turn their backs but to take it on. I think we can all learn from this – the social entrepreneurship and more ‘traditional’ innovation sectors included.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Ken Banks.

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Topics: Development • Innovation

soundoff (5 Responses)
  1. j. von hettlingen

    "people who found themselves in the midst of a problem they felt compelled to solve.The majority of people in the developing world finding everyday solutions to everyday problems are reluctant innovators. They didn’t ask to be; they became. Real world experience was their education, not an MBA".
    These people might have been reluctant at the onset, yet something sparked their interest and they are determined to take up the challenge. The urge to materialise an idea and the search for personal fulfillment are the driving forces behind an innovation.

    June 15, 2011 at 6:20 pm | Reply
  2. Subbu Iyer

    sorry to mention this so directly, Mr. Ken Banks appears to be this old world gentleman who has very little idea about the "real world" and is talking about weather in the same breath as farting and technology with a cup of tea to sip on a rainy afternoon. CNN is expected to have higher standards than publishing such utter nonsense in the name of innovation...

    June 16, 2011 at 3:43 am | Reply
  3. Don Pfau

    In other, more concise words, necessity is the mother of invention, and was ever thus. As was emblazoned on a garbage truck, "Find a need and fill it!"

    June 20, 2011 at 5:44 pm | Reply

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