Before you head off on vacation, let me take a moment to set out my preliminary – and only partial – takeaways from my travels through the world of innovation, a journey that will conclude in October. After visiting 33 cities, interviewing more than 200 people and researching the subject in books and articles, I’d have to say that the key to innovation is the ecosystem: a complex play of technological creations and human connections, which profit from the widest diversity.
Innovations are always the result of combining already- existing elements in such a way that they create “objectively new or improved” products, processes or services, according to OCDE. Such is the case with NandiMobile.com, the Ghanaian company that joins short message service (SMS) and artificial intelligence to create a customer-relations service adapted to African realities.
Steven Johnson’s book, Where Good Ideas Come From, explains that ideas are always the fruit of slow-moving processes, and are thus linked to the notion of creation and diversity. The necessary elements have been there for a long time, but innovation occurs the day someone figures out how to use them in a new way.
Such combinations depend on people with different backgrounds but the same entrepreneurial spirit, the decision to assemble resources one does not (yet) control, in order to bring an idea into being. An idea that begins as a dream. It’s up to the individual whether their goal is to make money (traditional entrepreneurs), create a socially responsible business (social entrepreneurs), or to mobilize people to change their world (activist entrepreneurs).
There is a need, therefore, for people to meet and exchange ideas, to share projects and to consider collaboration. I found these places in mall cafes in Kuala Lumpur (which all offer WiFi access), in places dedicated to “pollinating new ideas,” like Dakar’s JokkoLabs, and conferences like Arabnet.me, held throughout the Arab world.
The only thing left is finding investors who finance these risky ventures. The phrase I heard most often in my visits is, “There’s money here, but the people who have it don’t invest in virtual things or ventures they don’t think are sure-bets.” This represents a real roadblock.
To get beyond that roadblock, an ecosystem needs an example of enormous success, which strengthens the belief that you can succeed with an idea. This is what happened in Tel Aviv, when AOL acquired ICQ in 1998, and in Mumbai when Disney bought IndiaGames in 2011.
Everywhere I go I meet people willing to gamble on innovation as a part of development, a way to get rich, or change the world. But this takes time, for the simple reason that ecosystems are by definition complex and alive. Even if governments and legislation play a decisive role in creating conditions that aid its emergence, they cannot create the ecosystem. That’s “our” role.
These are some preliminary thoughts, but I haven’t finished my journey yet. I still have a trip to Eastern Europe (Belgrade, Warsaw, Moscow, Saint Petersburg and Berlin – this runs until July 15), and my second trip across the globe, which will last from August 20 to September 30. This trip will include Singapore, Ho Chi Minh City, Manilla, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo and San Francisco. I will reflect further upon my conclusions when I reach Silicon Valley.