I was greatly honoured when Accenture approached me to give a talk on reverse innovation at their recent Innovation Conference, held on 26 February. I was the only African speaker among the internationally renowned Sebastian Thrun (the inventor of Google Glass, and founder of Udacity), Lisa Bodell (the author of Kill the Company), and Prof. Clayton Christensen (Harvard-based author of The Innovator’s Dilemma/DNA). So, the task was quite daunting, especially because at that stage I had no idea what reverse innovation was. To add to the pressure I was feeling, I was sent pictures of my face on pole-boards all over Sandton! (I’m grateful to the friends who sent those pictures.)
At first I thought of reverse innovation as reverse engineering, but I thought it wise to do a Google search. Reverse innovation seemed to describe innovations that were primarily developed in, exported to and used in developing economies. Yes, I was also confused when I first read that! Was this simply nomenclature so we don’t always have to say “it was an innovation from/by a developing economy”? Or was it a signal that innovations from developing economies are not deserving of simply being called ‘an innovation’?
I suspected that the answer was a combination of both, but instead of arguing this point I decided to focus my talk on how we should define innovation and what I think it should mean in an African socio-economic development context.
Innovation by my definition is research and development (seeking the best solution through a scientific method of reflective trial and error) in order to understand a problem and ensure the effective implementation of its solution. It’s not always about doing something new but realising when simply doing something different would be more effective. It’s the combination of humanity’s best attributes: our ability to imagine the unseen and to leverage our abilities to manipulate nature so that the dream manifests into a reality. The challenges that society faces will be solved by people who think logically, live empathically and are committed to doing their desired work to the best of their abilities.
The country’s ability to develop excellent science and math skills among its citizens has been dismal. In addition, the society has become emotionally dysfunctional – people are still learning how to relate to each other emotionally while coping with the accelerated impact of technology. Before we can see such overall socio-economic progress our continent’s people first need sustainable jobs. In order to create these job opportunities and craft a significantly inclusive African society, we need to pursue socio-economic growth based on the strength of the innovators leading our organisations.
While I can’t speak for other African countries, I do think we all should focus on cleaning our backyards first, learning from each other’s successes and failures. In South Africa we spend less than 2% on Research and Development. The global average is 6%. My presentation argued that the problem is not a lack of money but rather a lack of willingness from all the stakeholders. With mechanisms such as BBBEE Enterprise Development funding (think EMEs, Exempt Micro Enterprises), companies could be using a significant portion of their budget to invest in industrial or new-market-creating innovations (remember my definition of it) in a manner that increases South Africa’s (and other African countries’) manufacturing self-sufficiency.
BBBEE EME is an ignored tool that can be used to effectively enable companies with the potential to list in the next 10–20years. Headboy Industries Inc. is seeking to leverage this tool through our Polymath Innovations unit and the process of validating a sustainable impact-and-profit model is the focus of my MPhil in Inclusive Innovation thesis.
I gained many insights from the conference. Among others, they were that the bureaucratic organisations (with their much needed resources) are finally seeing the importance of innovation, but they will only provide supportive resources to trusted talent that can produce measurable results (profit and impact). I realised that resources should be dedicated to creating a generation of skilled problem-solvers, not more entrepreneurs – the solution that everyone seems to be throwing at the problem. It is a fact that not all problems are best solved through businesses and I think poorly-skilled problem-solvers will only serve as ineffective entrepreneurs.