Ethan Zuckerman has been writing about  Innovating from Constraint in which he offers seven rules that “appear to help explain how (some) developing world innovation proceeds”.   This post was riffed on beautifully by Design in Africa prompting Ethan to produce an extended dance mix version of his post.  All of the above are well worth the read.

What struck me in Ethan’s first go at constraint is what he expands on in his extended mix, namely, that not only does innovation happen in spite of lack of access to resources but because of it.  It is a paradox that a lack of resources can actually be a greater spur to innovation than abundant access to resources.

Examples of self-imposed constraint and innovation are everywhere.  Poetry is a great example, from iambic pentameter to the haiku. Constraint is like the reflective chamber of a laser which turns ordinary light into a directed beam of focused energy. There are numerous examples from literature where authors voluntarily constrain the manner of their creation.  One of my favourite examples is in the Miles Davis’s use of modal jazz in albums like Kind of Blue.  Jazz aficionados will recognise the incredible expression achieved in a song like So What which is performed entirely in a D and E flat Dorian mode.

There are more obvious ICT-related examples of constraint leading to innovation such as the 160 character constraint of SMS messages leading to an entirely new form of expression. This innovation has helped accelerate the growth of similarly-constrained microblogging services like Twitter.  In fact, the discipline enforced by Twitter and text messaging has proven so popular that we see proposals like which propose to constrain email to a more distilled format.

For me this can also be seen as an incremental edging up of the quality and clarity threshold for communication on the Internet.  As we are overwhelmed with increasingly amounts of information, our tolerance for poorly crafted, excessively wordy communication decreases.

Constraint and Complexity

Interestingly, about the same time as Ethan was writing about constraint, Dave Snowden was offering his own tentative rules of complexity in the 5 Cs of Complexity.  The first of which is, you guessed it, constraint.  He says that

Constraint is key to understanding complexity, it governs the transition between the three ontologies. Increase constraint and you create an ordered system; do that inappropriately and you create the conditions for catastrophic failure; remove constraint and the system is chaotic…

Understanding the boundaries and critical variables in the environment that you are operating in is the key to intervening successfully in any complex system.  Too constrained and there is no innovation, witness most development projects based on a logframe.   With no constraint, innovation also doesn’t happen because (I believe) that innovation is a dialogue involving people and things.  With no control, innovation is easily dissipated in many possible directions.

Innovation and Evolution

Aydin Örstan has a great quotation from François Jacob (The possible and the actual, 1982) in an interesting post on evolution.  François says:

In contrast to the engineer, evolution does not produce innovations from scratch. It works on what already exists, either transforming a system to give it a new function or combining several systems to produce a more complex one. Natural selection has no analogy with any aspect of human behavior. If one wanted to use a comparison, however, one would have to say that this process resembles not engineering but tinkering, bricolage we say in French.

I’m oversimplifying a bit but the rest of Ethan’s rules (with the exception of the cardinal rule number 5 i.e. don’t imagine you know what the hell is going on without being there…) could be a variation on the theme of creating a healthy environment for evolutionary innovation.

  1. Innovation (often) comes from constraint
  2. Don’t fight culture
  3. Embrace market mechanisms
  4. Innovate on existing platforms
  5. Problems are not always obvious from afar
  6. What you have matters more than what you lack
  7. Infrastructure can beget infrastructure

Putting it another way: create a culture of tinkering.

Constraint as a Design Tool

So how to now turn constraint into a practical design strategy?  I don’t have the answer yet but one way to try to unpack this is to look at a specific project.  I am only speculating at this point but I suspect that constraint will turn out to be one reason why the Village Telco may succeed where wireless networking in the developing world in general has been something of great potential but that has failed to take off the way many expected it to.

WiFi is a great platform for tinkering and innovation but it is possible that it is simply too much of a blank canvas to grow virally in the developing world.  There are individual cases of success like Onno Purbo in Indonesia whose indefatigable passion and expertise has driven a wireless revolution but they are still more the exception than the rule.

With the Village Telco, we have a wireless project that has a number of self-imposed constraints.

  1. Get pay-as-you-go voice services right.  Data services are a given on a wireless platform but the one thing we want to make bullet-proof is affordable, simple-to-bill voice services.
  2. Make a telco as simple to set up as a wordpress blog.  Wireless meshes, least-cost-routing, etc.  Let’s make as much of that complexity disappear into default behaviours that can be tweaked as the owner/entrepreneur becomes more comfortable with the product.
  3. Be as open as possible.  This is more of a philosophical than a practical constraint.  We believe we can attract maximum participation by making software and hardware as open as possible.  We believe that Open Hardware strategies devices like the Mesh Potato can change the way people think about hardware.
  4. Break even in six months.  The technology ought to be cheap enough and easy enough to deploy that anyone with a reasonable head for business could have recouped their investment and be making a profit in six months.

I am still unpacking the idea of constraint as a design tool.  One thought that comes to mind when evaluating projects that have innovation as an objective is to simply ask the question, what design constraints have you placed on yourselves?  I like the idea of looking at constraint from a complex systems point of view.  It helps me understand why constraint is important but also opens up other avenues for exploration such as creating attractors and inhibiting negative patterns within the context of a project.  More to come…

Posted by Steve Song

@stevesong local telco policy activist. social entrepreneur. founder of @villagetelco #africa #telecoms #opensource #privacy #wireless #spectrum #data