Sitting around a table at WIL (Women’s Initiative in Leadership) on Friday, I got to talking with some incredible undergraduate women about social innovation and impact here– and abroad. Our guest for the day was Ginny Hunt, an incredible female leader in her own right working on civic innovation over at Google. Not too long into our conversation, we landed on an interesting topic: Innovation.
Innovation is an interesting thing. China wants more of it. America wants to keep it. And just about everybody else wants to know how exactly you create it. Is it the engine of economic productivity? Is it the savior of democracy? Can you create a Silicon Valley just about anywhere? I’m not quite sure.
But tangential– and yet still incredibly important– to this conversation is a larger one. You see there’s an interesting gap between innovation and resources that I know Ishani and I have run up against time and time again. On Friday during this very conversation, I thought one of my peers addressed it really well.
You see, it’s really sexy to invent glasses that let you compute things and computers the size of your hand and wireless headphones that cancel out the noise. Cool gadgets, great market, definite profit. But as Harriet from Kenya put it– they try and put new computers and new iPads in schools where really all the students need is lamps. So that they can read.
It’s an interesting dilemma. Angel investors, start-up founders, people like you and me are all looking for those high-impact, highly innovative solutions to sometimes really simple problems. Problems that could be fixed with a lamp. Or a bottle of water. Or a vegetable crate. It’s not always the case but sometimes–and I’d endeavor, more often than we think– the solutions to big problems have already been created. A vegetable crate could save 30% of vegetables in Sri Lanka. A $2 solution and you drive down food prices, cut down on food wastage, and feed more people.
But tell me, what angel investor will tell you they invested in crates? Or proudly furnish their portfolio with an investment that in reality could probably service more people in the long term than a fancy mobile app or “e-service” meant to introduce new technologies and new devices to a society and context that doesn’t know or trust such interventions. My point is, innovation is not just a fancy new gadget. Sometimes its taking something that already really works very well in one place and implanting it in another. Sometimes problem solving requires understanding a context really well while you’re in it– not from a thousand miles away. And sometimes, investors and ‘changemakers’ need to think more realistically, sustainably, and innovatively about how we solve problems in the way that they need to be solved– and not in the way that we want to solve them.
Bottom line: It doesn’t have to be sexy after all. It just has to work.