Entries in innovation (20)


Social innovation – making the world a better place, or is it?

In this day and age countless companies across the globe claim to innovate and strive to "make the world a better place." Are they, though, anywhere near achieving their public-spirited and ambitious goals?

A recent New York Times article explored this burgeoning concept of social innovation and found that many of today’s companies are solving all the wrong problems. The article makes light of a few innovative companies and their claim of bettering the world, including a service that virtually packs your suitcase for you, a mail delivery service that delivers a new toothbrush head to your door every three months and a smart zipper that alerts you when your zipper is down, to name a few. In the grand scheme of things, the companies that claim to be bettering our daily life are really only targeting a minute portion of the world’s population and failing to address the problems that really exist and need attention.  

Clay Tarver, the writer and producer of the HBO comedy Silicon Valley, which chronicles the launch path of an innovative startup that “wants to make the world a better place,” recently wrote in a New Yorker article: “I’ve been told that, at some of the big companies, the PR departments have ordered their employees to stop saying ‘We’re making the world a better place,’ specifically because we have made fun of that phrase so mercilessly.”

And Tarver has a point. Many startups claim to make the world a better place but fail to understand what it is they’re attempting to better and just what it means to truly innovate. According to Jessica Helfand, author of Design: The Invention of Desire, today’s companies, when innovating, are focusing less on truly creating, but more on “undoing the work of others.”

She argues that today’s pursuit of innovation has lost its way and that it’s missing a few key ingredients–empathy, humility, compassion and conscience. Helfand warns that the current state of social innovation is failing, with these companies claiming that their entire point of existence is social welfare, but in reality they’re devoting their time to problems that don’t really exist.

-- Zack Petersen


Corporate culture and framing innovation opportunities

One of our distinguished Catalyst Fellows, Professor Anne-Laure Fayard, has recently published a paper (co-authored with Emmanouil Gkeredakis and Natalia Levina) that examines "how an organization’s culture, and in particular its stance toward the pursuit of knowledge and innovation, matters when confronting new digitally enabled practices for generating novel insights.”

The work follows the experience of two innovation consultancies that considered crowdsourcing for innovation, and describes the different positions enacted by the firms. To explain the differences, the authors developed the concept of organizational epistemic stance, defined as "an attitude that organizational actors collectively enact in pursuing knowledge.”  Professor Fayard and her co-authors conclude:

Our analysis suggests that when organizational actors encounter and explore information technology-enabled practices, such as crowdsourcing and big data analytics, they are likely to remain committed to their epistemic stance to frame such practices and judge their potential value for pursuing knowledge."

We think this will be of interest to anyone interested in the relationship between innovation and culture and encourage you to explore further. A full abstract and links to the full paper can be found here.

-- Bojan Angelov


Mutuality reading recommendations

Mutuality is a concept that many are exploring, from various angles and under diverse names. We are interested in exploring the work of those outside of Catalyst who are applying their knowledge and efforts to develop these ideas.  Two authors have recently been recommended to us:

  1. Peter J. Boettke  is the Deputy Director of the James M. Buchanan Center for Political Economy, a Senior Research Fellow at the Mercatus Center, and a professor in the economics department at George Mason University.  Boettke is particularly interested in interdisciplinary work integrating politics, philosophy and economics.  He is associated with the Global Prosperity Initiative (GPI), which was founded to explore through ethnography and economic theory why some nations prosper while others are poor.  In addition to his published books and articles, his commentary can also be found here.
  2. Harry Barkema is a professor of management at the London School of Economics. Professor Barkema is also the founding Director of the Innovation Co-Creation Lab (ICCL) where currently 20 people work on fundamental research and teaching (MSc, PhD, Executive education). This research includes; how to design innovative teams, innovation communities around websites, innovative science parks & corporate campuses, and successful business model innovation in close cooperation with companies. One set of new initiatives focuses on business model innovation at the base of the pyramid (BOP), in cooperation with multinational corporations, NGOs, and local businesses in South East Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and South America.

-- Bruno Roche


Innovation and the balance between creativity and productivity

We enjoyed this recent analysis of the relationship between productivity and innovation in the Harvard Business Review. Productivity and creativity have traditionally had a level of tension between them in the corporate world. Productivity favors efficiency, while creativity requires time and space to grow. In order to be creative in an organization, people need to have time to learn new things that may not be tied directly to their jobs, allowing for the creation of a “broad and deep knowledge base,” but this takes time, conflicting with productivity.

Companies typically evaluate employees based on measures of productivity. If an organization truly wants to foster creativity and new ideas, it needs to provide employees flexibility with their time, much like Google’s 20% time philosophy, where employees are encouraged to spend 20% of their time on new ideas. Beyond offering employees time and flexibility, creative efforts need to be rewarded. Author Art Markman concludes that growing a creative culture is possible, however, productivity-obsessed leadership will need to give a little in order for employees to bring new ideas to the table.


Innovation being driven by homegrown 'maker movement' in Africa

So-called makerspaces or hackerspaces are becoming the grassroots hubs for innovation in Africa, according to this recent article in Harvard Business Review by Ndubuisi Ekekwe, the Founder of African Institution of Technology. These open-minded individuals are combining knowledge of local issues with their own expertise and the ubiquity of computer-based tools to carve out their own markets.

Adweek explains that the Maker Movement consists of innovation ecosystems that take a bottom-up approach to the economy, enabling consumers to be engaged in designing and producing the products they'll ultimately buy.

Some examples of the Maker Movement in Africa include HacKIDemia, which empowers makers, typically youths, to solve local challenges and exchange best practices by awarding fellowships to mentors who engage with other makers in their communities. M-PESA, a Kenyan-based online payment system, and BitFinance, an ATM machine enabled for cash, digital money and Bitcoin, are two other examples of made-in-Africa solutions. Beyond the tech space, there is even a Nigerian group that is refining crude oil on a small scale.

Ndubuisi Ekekwe says:

These makers offer a platform for a new economic system that taps into the brainpower of Africans to seed shared prosperity.

With many issues facing the continent - clean water, energy, health care and food processing - these Makers are aiming to create solutions that address these challenges. There is also an opportunity to form partnerships with these makerspaces in an effort to garner insights into new products and offer methods to better reach new customers.