So You Think You Can Innovate

In an admission that will do nothing to increase my non-existent tough-guy street cred, I have to say that I thoroughly enjoy watching the television series So You Think You Can Dance.  My wife and I watched season 7 of the American series this year (thank you bittorrent, piratebay, et al).  I think the last time I’d seen it was about 4 years ago and what blew me away in watching it now was how much the dancing had improved in 4 years.  Something interesting has been going on.  The show has created a massive feedback loop where the standards for winning on the show have gone, in no time at all, from pretty good to world class.  More than just learning from each other and previous performances, contestants are instructed to go watch classics by Gene Kelly or Bob Fosse on YouTube to get a sense of original masters of dance.  Forms of dance allowed on the show have gone from the conventional to now including Bollywood, Capoeira, and others.  There is a giant innovative feedback loop going on here fed by access to watching others, over and over again.

This notion of feedback loops and innovation has been on my mind for a few years.  In late 2008, I wrote what I thought at the time was my best ever blog post on why being online and equally importantly of participating online is fundamental to innovation.  More recently, I’ve been harping on about why “It’s the Cost of Access, Stupid” that is a huge barrier to innovation in Africa.  I don’t feel like I’ve done a very good job in getting the idea across though if only because it hasn’t yet sparked the kind of “burning issue” response in readers that it has ignited in me.

Happily there are better communicators than me out there and I was overjoyed this morning to come across Chris Anderson’s recent Ted Talk on how web video powers global innovation.

His talk also begins with dance illustrating the story of Angelo Baligad who, at 6 years old, was performing a calibre of breakdance not seen in kids twice or three times his age.  Chris points out that access to watching online videos, over and over again, has given Angelo access to the best dance instruction in the world.  Equally by uploading videos of himself to YouTube enabled his discovery by other dancers and impresarios, leading to spots on primetime US television.

Chris paints a very optimistic point of view of the world in which what he calls “Crowd Accelerated Innovation” leads to non-linear improvements in all kinds of things.  He argues that there are three characteristics of Crowd Accelerated Innovation.

  1. Crowd - a group of people who share a common interest.  He points out that not everyone in that crowd are innovators, in fact most people have other roles such as interpreters, evangelists, superspreaders, commenters, skeptics etc.  This notion fits with the general non-linear nature of the Internet.
  2. Light – innovation must be visible, it must be open to other to see what the best people are capable of
  3. Desire – there must be the personal need to improve, whether that is for social status or for growth… innovation takes work

I generally agree with the above.  The notion of crowd is self-explantory.  Light is more contentious in some quarters but my experience with the radically open approach we have taken with the Village Telco leads me to agree that the more you open things, the more you benefit.  And finally, desire.  This sounds like a synonym for what Dan Pink in Drive calls Mastery, our built-in desire to be really good at something.

What is amazing for me is that he doesn’t even mention access.  Access in the United States has achieved the status of invisibility.  No one thinks about the cost of watching hours of YouTube videos.  In South Africa, none but the wealthy are unaware of how much bandwidth they are consuming at any one time.  Have I reached my “cap”?  What’s the price per gigabyte now?  Fact: there will be no Angelo Baligads in South Africa with the current bandwidth prices.

And there’s the rub.  The affordably-connected world is on a path of accelerated innovation.  The key word there is accelerated.  That means that the innovation gap between the connected and the unconnected world is increasingly non-linearly… twice as bad tomorrow, four times as bad the next day and eight times as bad the next.  You get the picture.

Interestingly Chris ends with the example of TEDx Kibera in Kenya which highlights some of the amazing things going there.  I wish they were illustrative of the entire continent.  Kibera has become a bit of a poster child for ICTs in the last year or two through things like TEDx and remarkable mapping projects like MapKibera.  I think at least part of the reason for that is proximity to the tech buzz that is going on in Nairobi at the moment; a city bursting with tech entrepreneurs.

So what’s my point here?  Simply this.  If African governments don’t take the broadband bull by the horns and invest where necessary, divest where necessary, knock heads together where necessary to create a thriving competitive broadband environment in their countries, they will be stifling what in the knowledge economy is the single most valuable resource they have, more valuable than gold, oil, diamonds, or coltan…. their people.

So come on African leaders.  Step your game up… oh.