“Innovation means the future can be yours”
By Jessica Ausinheiler and Noah Rimland Flower / October 2012 / Leave a comment
Francis Pisani, a veteran “journalist entrepreneur,” joined us at our San Francisco office last week at the close of 300 interviews with technology innovators in 45 cities across five continents. Capping a career of covering revolutions around the world, fifteen years ago he moved to the Bay Area – “where east meets west, north meets south, meets the future” – to cover the revolution in information technology. For a time he was certain that Silicon Valley was the global epicenter for technology. But by 2010 he found himself concerned that the magic of technology innovation was shifting elsewhere in the world, and embarked on a world tour to test his hypothesis that ICT innovation will be coming from everywhere within the next five to ten years.
Before sitting down to catch his breath, adjust to the time change from Japan, and write up what he learned in a new book, he shared these initial reflections, which are capture here both in bullets and with the artistic hand of our graphic recorder, Lynn Carruthers:
- Positive Attitude: Francis encountered universally positive attitudes toward innovation, even though the definition of innovation varied from “a revolution” to “a new opportunity to make money” or simply “a new combination.” This was part of a contrast he saw between innovation, which is inherently something that arises from local unmet needs, versus modernization and its association with imposing Western ideas. He believes that “Silicon Valley can serve as inspiration but not as a model for change”; that is, that the Silicon Valley story can be used to inspire entrepreneurs, but its model cannot be indiscriminately transplanted to geographic areas with different demographic realities and economic and socio-political challenges.
- Timeframe for Change: Francis’ world tour did nothing to dampen his certainty that innovation will come from everywhere in the world, but he did amend the timeframe to longer than 10 years—because cultural differences are accelerating innovation more in some places than others. For example, in some places parents may prefer that their children work with large, lucrative firms rather than startups. In others, the concept of failure may not yet be as accepted as it is in Silicon Valley—and it may take time and additional success stories for this attitude to change. He also noted that we in the U.S. may not even be aware as increasing amounts of innovation comes from elsewhere, because it may be solving different problems, as is already the case with SMS services that seem outdated in the U.S. but are very effective way to convey information in Africa.
- 3 types of entrepreneurs: Francis sees a continuum of entrepreneurship that runs from business entrepreneurs, to social entrepreneurs, and finally to activist entrepreneurs—all of whom deserve the term “entrepreneur” because they gather resources to make something happen. We see the three as distinct in the industrialized world, but he saw the roles blend abroad, illustrated by the joke he heard that “had Steve Jobs been in Africa he would have been a social entrepreneur, because he would have had to build his own infrastructure.” One case in point was Marlin Parker, who started out digitally recording the lives of six gang members in Western Cape’s impoverished Cape Flats and went on to create a technology platform that brings social media and instant messaging functionality into a single affordable application that can be managed by individuals and organizations. Parker went from activist to social entrepreneur to business entrepreneur in a very short period of time, and as he did his reach grew to 15 countries outside South Africa.
- The Importance of Place: A key concept of Stephen Johnson’s book Where Good Ideas Come From is that innovation comes from assemblage—bringing together many small things that are not necessarily new. Francis felt that the same notion applies to places that foster innovation, because there is a need to create the opportunity for people from different backgrounds (e.g., engineers, designers, investors, and entrepreneurs) to meet. He encountered several types of places that were well-designed to encourage technology innovation:
- Public clusters, large zones or office parks that are typically created by the government
- Incubators and accelerators, where you provide entrepreneurs with what you think they need, and keep people separate enough to protect IP but connected enough to nurture creativity
- Co-working spaces, such as the well-known iHub in Nairobi
- Common spaces within organizations that foster creativity and connection
- Global Startups: There seem to be global startups in many places, and this is a source of optimism for many small countries. For example, Francis encountered a fascinating example of cross national entrepreneurship in StartupChile. Chile, a country isolated by geography, wanted to be the “Singapore of Latin America,” but the country did not have a strong entrepreneurial culture. In effect, the government created a program inviting 40 entrepreneurs from all over the world — and gave them $40K to implement their solution — on the condition that it was globally scalable. But what Francis did not see was a great deal of lateral connection among entrepreneurs in different countries.
- Creative Diasporas: Francis was particularly intrigued by the role of diasporas in fostering innovation. He saw how expatriates, foreign-educated nationals, and other diaspora communities play a huge role, both in Silicon Valley and abroad—and how little we understand about the phenomenon.
His greatest take-away from the work to date: “Innovation means the future can be yours,” because it is the path for everyone in every country to advance their own development.
If you’d like to follow Francis’ work as he develops his ideas, or follow up with questions, you can read his blog or find him on Twitter at @francispisani. After visiting this many cities, he’s bound to arrive at new wisdom:
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