Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Innovating from constraint

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.

3 Responses to “Innovating from constraint”

  1. Juan Freire says:

    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.

  2. Wayan says:


    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.

  3. Ethan says:

    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… :-)


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