… My heart’s in Accra Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

October 17, 2008

Innovating from constraint

Filed under: Africa,Developing world,Geekery,Global Voices,Media — Ethan @ 4:06 pm

One of the great fears as a speakeris that you’re going to give a talk too similar to the person you’re sharing the stage with. Clay Shirky and I gave talks at an event a year or so back, and discovered that we were using two of the same stories in our presentations. (I, unfortunately, found this out by listening to Clay’s talk and frantically editing mine in response.)

That wasn’t a problem today at the seminar on the Information Society in Barcelona I’m participating in. I had the good fortune to share the stage with Carlos Domingo, who runs the R&D unit for Spanish telephone giant, Telefonica. Domingo is working hard to bring some of the most successful tools and techniques of web 2.0 into a large and often conservative telehone company. He’s a classic
early adopter, with a Nabaztag and a Pleo in his office, and a blog that he’s abandoning so he can spend more time Twittering.

Inside Telefonica, Domingo’s hoping to unlock information and increase communication between members of his team by aggresively embracing social media. Rather than trying to dig ideas out of a giant document repository, the knowledge management system that so many large companies have embraced, he’s instituted an internal video sharing service. Researchers working on projects get two minutes to explain their work to their colleagues – some break the rules and run long, but most as well-behaved, and it’s possible to get the gist of most projects with just a few seconds of video, making it far easier to surf through than a huge document repository. (I assume they’re heavily tagged and annotated to make them highly searchable.) Using Yammer, 350 members of his team share ideas on a Twitter-like network that’s closed to the company, and encourages employees to share what they’re working on and what problems they could use help with.

I’d been asked by the organizers to talk about how NGOs and social change organizations innovate, with the special challenge that I wasn’t supposed to celebrate innovative projects so much as I was to talk about the process of innovation. As I thought about this, I realized that I a) didn’t have much understanding of how social entrepreneurs innovate and b) didn’t have much confidence that social entrepreneurs generally did a good job of innovating with social media tools. Generally, I think that social entrepreneurs place far too much faith in social media tools and assume that they’ll be more popular, useful and powerful than they actually turn out to be.

So I offered a talk about some very different types of innovation – African innovations including the zeer pot, William Kamkwamba’s windmill, biomass charcoal, and endless examples of innovation using mobile phones. My argument was that innovation often comes from unusual and difficult circumstances – constraints – and that it’s often wiser to look for innovation in places where people are trying to solve difficult, concrete problems rather than where smart people are sketching ideas on blank canvases.

I offered seven rules that appear to help explain how (some) developing world innovation proceeds:

– innovation (often) comes from constraint (If you’ve got very few resources, you’re forced to be very creative in using and reusing them.)

– don’t fight culture (If people cook by stirring their stews, they’re not going to use a solar oven, no matter what you do to market it. Make them a better stove instead.)

– embrace market mechanisms (Giving stuff away rarely works as well as selling it.)

– innovate on existing platforms (We’ve got bicycles and mobile phones in Africa, plus lots of metal to weld. Innovate using that stuff, rather than bringing in completely new tech.)

– problems are not always obvious from afar (You really have to live for a while in a society where no one has currency larger than a $1 bill to understand the importance of money via mobile phones.)

– what you have matters more than what you lack (If you’ve got a bicycle, consider what you can build based on that, rather than worrying about not having a car, a truck, a metal shop.)

– infrastructure can beget infrastructure (By building mobile phone infrastructure, we may be building power infrastructure for Africa – see my writings on incremental infrastructure.)

The most experimental part of a very experimental talk was applying these seven principles to three ICT4D experiments – One Laptop Per Child, Kiva and Global Voices. Ismael has a review of my talk including the scores I offer for each of the projects on these criteria.

The talk was pretty well received, and it’s great, great fun to try out new ideas on stage. I’m looking forward to thinking through whether these seven rules are the best way to characterise the lessons of the sorts of innovations I watch on sites like Afrigadget, and just what these rules mean for those of us trying to use internet tools for social change – thanks to my friends in Barcelona for a chance to start playing with these ideas, live on stage.


  1. It was great to have the opportunity to have you in Barcelona sharing your views. Also, it was the needed counterpoint to the technocentric view of the apparently unconstrained “first world”. Actually, we have also many scenarios here where all this conditions applies and more generally your rules should be of great interest also for “regular” organizations.

    Comment by Juan Freire — October 17, 2008 @ 6:22 pm

  2. […] talking about innovation in Africa and how that is brought about by resource constraints. Go read the whole post here. In the meantime, here are his 7 rules explaining how developing world innovation […]

    Pingback by 7 Rules Explain Innovation in Africa | White African — October 17, 2008 @ 10:04 pm

  3. […] Innovating from constraint […]

    Pingback by robert.schuppenies.de - weblog » Innovating from constraint — October 19, 2008 @ 5:01 am

  4. Ethan,

    I hear that you feel OLPC is passing on the “Does it fight culture?” question. I’m not so sure about that.

    I think that the XO laptop itself does work with children in an amazing way – it brings out their natural inquisitiveness and desire to learn.

    However, the method in which OLPC has tried to introduce the XO – via large government purchases through Ministries of Education – is in direct conflict with the normal way education is provided in much of the developing world. A model that looked to local communities or parents to invest in their children would be more consistent with current practices.

    Comment by Wayan — October 19, 2008 @ 8:06 am

  5. I’d add a bit of nuance to that, Wayan. When I say “don’t fight culture”, I’m talking about the cultures of people who build the tools as well as the culture of where they’re deployed. XO leverages high-end geek culture rather well. And the ability to put local content on it strikes me at least as a concession to local culture. But I agree with your critiques v. working against educational systems. I was addressing those mostly in reference to the point on economic models, where I mentioned that OLPC fails.

    I should also mention that this was a deeply experimental talk, and I’m reserving my right to change my mind about these seven laws or their application to any concrete examples… :-)

    Comment by Ethan — October 19, 2008 @ 9:04 am

  6. […] with his amazing projects in e-democracy and transparency. Also Ethan Zuckerman pointed out (link to his talk), that this is the way things are happening in Africa – people just do things. Folks there are […]

    Pingback by ICT4D.at » Blog Archive » Reflections about Network Society 2008 — October 19, 2008 @ 10:36 am

  7. […] I read with interest on Ethan’s blog that Telefonica in Spain have gone one step further. They use Yammer but they have also introduced […]

    Pingback by social media for innovation at the BBC (and elsewhere) « Lucy in the sky — October 19, 2008 @ 1:23 pm

  8. […] …My heart’s in Accra » Innovating from constraint […]

    Pingback by Michael Nielsen » Biweekly links for 10/20/2008 — October 20, 2008 @ 6:55 am

  9. […] BBC is trying Yammer for internal communications – a sort of private Twitter service – and notes via Ethan’s blog that Telefonica in Spain use Yammer plus an internal video sharing service by which researchers […]

    Pingback by Socialreporter | Short updates and video for internal comms — October 20, 2008 @ 3:01 pm

  10. […] just posted some rules for innovation which are interesting. The one that speaks most to me right now is #7, which states, […]

    Pingback by jra’s thoughts › Ethan Zuckerman’s Rules for Innovation — October 21, 2008 @ 9:52 am

  11. […] talks in eight days, four cities in three countries. (Tihany, Hungary; Barcelona, Spain; Camden, ME; Manchester, NH). I’ve come to two conclusions. One, I need to travel less. Two, […]

    Pingback by …My heart’s in Accra » Geeks love librarians — October 22, 2008 @ 10:47 am

  12. […] From Ethan Zuckerman’s post ‘Innovating from constraint‘: […]

    Pingback by Appropedia Blog » Blog Archive » Innovation in Africa tips — October 26, 2008 @ 11:18 pm

  13. […] See: Jonathan Gosier (1, 2, 3), Jason Harris (1, 2), Ethan Zuckerman, Amy Smith, Paul Polak, Ben […]

    Pingback by Mobile for Development Innovations in Africa | Gauravonomics Blog — October 29, 2008 @ 12:29 pm

  14. […] Zuckerman writes about innovation in developing countries in Innovating from constraint and suggests seven “rules” or propositions about how innovation proceeds in the […]

    Pingback by Ethan Zuckerman’s Propositions for Successful Development Innovations at Resilience Science — November 3, 2008 @ 2:45 pm

  15. […] I gave a talk a few weeks ago in Barcelona that was pretty well-received and widely blogged. Specifically, several bloggers have picked up and amplified the seven key points I offered in the talk – a list of principles that I believe characterize much of the best innovation coming out of Africa. I was deeply flattered that the blogger behind Design in Africa put these principles into dialog with advice offered by a couple of my heroes: Paul Polak and Amy Smith. And given the interest in the ideas expressed in those points, I thought I’d take the time (a flight from Dubai to JFK…) to offer a more thorough picture of the talk. […]

    Pingback by …My heart’s in Accra » Innovation from Constraint (the extended dance mix) — November 10, 2008 @ 4:45 pm

  16. […] Zuckerman has been writing about  Innovating from Constraint in which he offers seven rules that “appear to help explain how (some) developing world […]

    Pingback by Using Constraint to Design for Innovation at Many Possibilities — November 11, 2008 @ 7:36 am

  17. […] I gave a talk a few weeks ago in Barcelona that was pretty well-received and widely blogged. Specifically, several bloggers have picked up and amplified the seven key points I offered in the talk – a list of principles that I believe characterize much of the best innovation coming out of Africa. I was deeply flattered that the blogger behind Design in Africa put these principles into dialog with advice offered by a couple of my heroes: Paul Polak and Amy Smith. And given the interest in the ideas expressed in those points, I thought I’d take the time (a flight from Dubai to JFK…) to offer a more thorough picture of the talk. […]

    Pingback by Innovation from Constraint (the extended dance mix) — November 11, 2008 @ 2:21 pm

  18. […] this article by Steve Song who recounts the strategy, inspired by Ethan Zuckerman’s idea of Innovating From Constraint: With the Village Telco, we have a wireless project that has a number of self-imposed […]

    Pingback by Mesh Potato, Community Wireless, Design by Constraint | Clicknoise — November 12, 2008 @ 10:22 am

  19. […] Zuckerman (2008) Innovating from constraint […]

    Pingback by ICTlogy » Network Society course (XI). Ethan Zuckerman: Innovation in the Network Society (II) — November 19, 2008 @ 2:57 am

  20. […] In the recent issue of brand eins there is an interesting article on “Design for the other 90%”. It is about an exhibition in New York and Toronto which focuses on simple solutions for big problems – various articles designed for “the other 90%” of the world’s population. The designers focused on an easy and feasible production process so the products can be manufactured in less developed countries by local craftsmen – innovation from constraint. […]

    Pingback by ICT4D.at » Blog Archive » Design for the other 90% — January 18, 2009 @ 7:50 am

  21. […] Ethan Zuckerman has written a beautiful blog on the proceedings related to Africa and Innovation. You can find it here. […]

    Pingback by Innovation in Africa .. « All the best things in life are free .. — January 11, 2010 @ 9:13 pm

  22. […] has some great advice.  Like the following point from a post of Ethan Zuckerman entitled Innovating from constraint: Dont fight culture (If people cook by stirring their stews, theyre not going to use a […]

    Pingback by ARG’s, Innovation and Evocation – Tinderblog — March 17, 2010 @ 6:43 pm

  23. […] From Ethan Zuckermans post Innovating from constraint: […]

    Pingback by mishy » Blog Archive » Futon - the short story continued — June 2, 2010 @ 6:42 am

  24. […] I’ve written previously about how I think Africa is a model here. Most Africans don’t have the ability to live beyond the constraints that the environment puts on their behavior. To be sure, this is the source of much woe and privation in Africa. But conceptually — consumption in line with an environment’s ability to sustain production — it is a behavior well worth imitating. It is, in short, a recipe for innovation. […]

    Pingback by » Going Native Ascent Stage — November 25, 2011 @ 1:44 pm

  25. […] of the companies, too, are quite impressive. Telefonica (NYSE: TEF), the Spanish global operator, uses it in its 350 member R&D unit, while the UK’s BBC has some 500 employees trying it out. […]

    Pingback by Twitter Copycat Yammer Already Earning Cold Hard Cash — Tech News and Analysis — April 4, 2012 @ 1:57 pm

  26. […] Ethan Zuckerman, from Innovation from Constraint […]

    Pingback by Wisdom in Health — April 26, 2012 @ 10:25 pm

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