A sophisticated pill bottle that harnesses the internet of things by glowing when medication is required, failing which an audible alarm is activated, before finally sending a text message to a designated person to ensure that chronic medication is never missed; A unit to process sewerage in a way that harvests methane, water, biomass and nutrition for growing food; A shopping cart that automatically calculates the cost of items through sensors as goods are placed in the cart; Public sleep cubicles that address the rampant levels of sleep deprivation affecting society; An unsnoozable ankle alarm bracelet that only turns off once sensing consistent foot movement; Imagining a new battery system that allows phones and other electronic devices to be charged using energy from other devices transferred via Bluetooth; and so the ideas keep rolling in.
These examples are a small sample of the some 1 300 ideas that were submitted last year as part of our Fellowship programme to develop future entrepreneurs.
It is a process to instill what we call intellectual imagination in these individuals – an ability to see the unseen, challenge the status quo and suggest that things could be done differently.
In this pursuit of developing entrepreneurial capacity there is often the question – why start in the realm of the imagination? Surely this is not tangible enough, lacking the practical application of actually getting things done.
This focus on action, rather than thinking is quite pervasive in the execution orientated world of entrepreneurship.
Recently, Gallup the global research company and home to the Clifton Strengthsfinder Test, came out with the Entrepreneurial Strengthsfinder. A tool that measures an individual according to their 10 defined talents of entrepreneurship which includes: creative thinker, knowledge seeker, independent, risk-taker, determination, confidence, promoter, delegator, relationship builder and business focus.
Despite coming up with a powerful definition of entrepreneurship as the art of turning an idea into a customer — a closer look at these talents shows that only one, creative thinker – described as having “a curious intellect that helps them constantly imagine new products, services, and solutions” — as a thinking talent. And yet doing is the easier part of the process.
As Y Combinator founder Paul Graham explains to prospective entrepreneurs at university, the doing part of entrepreneurship is the easy part. “What you should be spending your time on in college is ratcheting yourself into the future. What a waste to sacrifice an opportunity to solve the hard part of starting a startup—becoming the sort of person who can have organic startup ideas—by spending time learning about the easy part [the doing]. ”
There is another problem in this action first approach and that is it limits one to doing what is immediately apparent and in front of you. It lacks the core ingredients of a truly entrepreneurial mindset, the requirements for curiosity and creativity. It ignores the fact that entrepreneurship is not about what is likely, but rather about what is possible. It lacks what Graham describes so well as “living in the future”. Simply it lacks imagination.
And a lack of imagination is much more serious than a flawed approach to developing entrepreneurs. If Thomas Friedman is to be believed, the future will be most decisively categorised by dividing countries into high imagination enabling countries and low imagination countries with the latter failing to develop their people’s creative capacities and abilities to spark new ideas and industries1 .
The importance of imagination was confirmed again when at the beginning of this century ‘Evaluate’ was replaced by ‘Create’ (including the sub action of imagine) at the pinnacle of the hierarchy ofBloom’s taxonomy for learning objectives within education.
It is not hard to find examples of the impact when people and industries harness the imagination that is required to be at the forefront of a rapidly changing world and look to ‘live in the future.’ Elon Musk is perhaps an extreme example of this. When he was in college, he decided three things would affect the future of humanity: the internet, sustainable energy, and multi-planetary life. He wanted to contribute to all three. This clarity of purpose and scale of imagination has been converted into reality with Paypal,Telsa and SpaceX.
In South Africa we have a powerful example with the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Project. A dream to create a radio telescope that will survey the sky 10,000 times faster than any other telescope and look to answer some of the fundamental unanswered questions of the universe. On completion it will be the largest scientific instrument in the world processing a significant fraction of the world’s entire data production (an exabyte per day) from the tip of Africa. Already opportunities are opening up around its ecosystem for big data, fast computing and very fast data transport.
When I was much younger I was inspired by the words of Lawrence of Arabia in his famous quote: “All people dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.”
These words were a powerful personal motivation to make sure that stuff actually happened. Yet looking back, I realise that what I missed about this call to action was the truth that the action is still entirely dependent on the dream, daytime or otherwise. It is the dream that paints the future and focuses the action to live there.
And finally, imagination is not the product of some gene pool lottery. We can all develop our imagination.
It starts with the simple act of practicing a new way of thinking and using your daily experiences to grow this thinking through noticing challenges or inefficiencies.
It is a thinking that creates a habit out of a lifestyle of questioning and creating solutions. It will most probably start with pill bottles, shopping carts and ankle alarms, but it may well end in multi-planetary life and dark energy, such is the journey of living in the future.
1As an initial proxy of this, the current African situation is troubling. In the 2013 Global Innovation Index, the average ranking for all 32 Sub Saharan Countries, out of the total 142 countries participating was a lowly 114.