Africa, Innovation, and The Incredibles

Philip Auerswald recently took advantage of arch-villain Syndrome (from the Pixar movie The Incredibles) to paint a tongue-in-cheek picture of his relationship with Bill Easterly. Entertained and emboldened by this, I was reminded of my own insight from watching (more than once I’m afraid) The Incredibles with my sons. Mine was not a Buddy Pine moment but it did share a moment of sympathy with Syndrome. In the clip below Syndrome explains how, having invented technology that gives him the equivalent of super power, he plans to sell that technology so that “when everyone’s super, no one will be“.

For me, Syndrome’s monologue highlighted how important it is to have not just access but affordable access in Africa. Perhaps this seems obscure but stay with me.

Communications infrastructure has the potential for impact in two different dimensions. The first is efficiency and we have seen a abundant evidence of that at both micro and macro economic level. Communication infrastructure makes everything easier. It can turn an individual into an enterprise and it can drive down the incidence of mortality from malaria. Amazing. But that is just half of the story. The other half is innovation. The kind of innovation that gave birth to Google, Facebook, Twitter, et al. Innovation that is enabled by having low to non-existent penalties for failure.

When access is expensive, the lesson from failure is a painful one. Clay Shirky put this best in an interview a few months ago. He said,

You need a very low cost of experimentation, right? If things are expensive to try people will hold back from trying them and they’ll spend all their time trying not to fail. If the cost of experimentation falls though, and I mean falls precipitously, then people will spend a lot of time experimenting, and instead of not failing, the goal becomes to fail informatively to learn something from the things you tried.

In the rich world, where few think twice about bandwidth caps or how many mobile phone calls or text messages they can afford to send in a day, innovation is rife.  The rich world is busy generating new ideas and business models faster than people can digest them.  Lots of them are complete nonsense but that is kind of the point.  Instead of predicting the future like the mobile operators in Africa are trying to do with specialised products and services, the future is emerging in the rich world through an evolutionary explosion of new ideas and businesses.

So here is my Syndrome message: Low cost of access can turn a country into a super-power by enabling everyone to be an innovator, allowing everyone to explore the adjacent possible.  This explosion of innovation is non-linear.  Increasingly, any country without  very low cost access is like a child left on the platform as the train of the knowledge economy pulls out.  Africa has a billion resilient, amazing, creative people in it. A very tiny percentage of them have the kind of wealth that would give them freedom to innovate without fear of failure.  It’s great that mobiles have created more efficiencies on the continent and some innovation.   Driving down the cost of access will give African countries super innovation powers… and when everyone’s super….

  • http://brianpagan.net Brian

    Perhaps that’s part of the reason it’s so difficult to gather support for development initiatives…. If everybody’s super, and nobody’s super, nobody can exploit anybody else.