A sophisticated pill bottle that harnesses the internet of things by glowing when medication is required; a gaming concept that customises the game to the beat of the song that you choose; a unit to process sewerage in a way that harvests methane, water, biomass and nutrition for growing food; public sleep cubicles that address the rampant levels of sleep deprivation affecting society; n unsnoozable ankle alarm bracelet that only turns off once sensing consistent foot movement; subsidising coffee on campus to establish a new advertising platform on the cups themselves, and so the ideas keep rolling in.
These examples are a small sample of the over 4,000 ideas from the last few years that have been submitted by Candidate Allan Gray Fellows at university as part of the Allan Gray Fellowship. These ideas, known as ignitions, are part of a holistic intervention to instil 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.
And this imagination has power as these somewhat wild, sometimes almost ridiculous ideas have planted the seeds of future impact. For these ideas represent the first steps in a long-term process that has so far led to a current portfolio of Allan Gray Fellow businesses valued around R600 million.
But despite these numbers, in the pursuit of developing entrepreneurial capacity there is often the question – why start in the realm of the imagination? Why start with the mind? Surely this is not tangible enough, lacking the practical application of actually getting things done.
In fact at the Foundation in our first few years we fell for the logic of the same argument and initially developed an approach that focused heavily on entrepreneurial action – on training for practical application. In doing this we lost the opportunity to catalyse people into greater entrepreneurial mindset first. For in truth once the thinking is right, once the imagination has been sparked, all the other elements of practice are pursued with significantly more passion and commitment. There is certainly time for the learning and perfecting of practical application but this application is limited if it hasn’t been preceded by a full exploration of the possibilities of imagination.
In time we found support for this approach for getting the thinking right first, from one of the world’s most respected enterprise developers in Y Combinator founder Paul Graham. He 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].”
New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman takes it even further when suggesting the future will be most decisively categorised by dividing countries, not by high and low growth, but 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 industries.
Even mainstream education has recognised the central importance of imagination when at the beginning of this century ‘Evaluate’ was replaced by ‘Create’ (including the sub action of imagine) at the pinnacle of the hierarchy of Bloom’s Taxonomy for learning objectives within education.
We have all become increasingly aware of the opportunity that exists in our moment in history where we can start to harness the exponential technologies to address some of the greatest challenges of our era. Where it is no longer naïve to believe that a single initiative might touch over a billion lives. We really are only limited by our own imagination. Let us therefore not be limited in that imagination!
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