Tayo Akinyemi

Innovate or Die

planet earth’Innovate or die’ is the challenge issued by the pedal-powered machine contest sponsored by Google and Specialized Bicycle Components. All 102 inventions are based on basic bicycle mechanics; entries range from a pedal-powered tennis ball launcher to the grand prize-winning invention, a self-described mobile filtration vehicle.

In simple terms, MFV is a modified bicycle that filters water as one rides it. All entries were evaluated based on “creativity, environmental impact, and design” as determined by its three judges: Mike Sinyard, Founder & President, Specialized Bicycle Components, Dan Reicher, Director, Climate Change & Energy Initiatives, Google and Rich Silverstein, Co-Chairman, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners.

The contest winners, who were on announced January 16th, were appropriately-compensated given the theme of the contest. The Mobile Filtration Vehicle team won $5000 and five new Globe bikes. Brand new bicycles were also awarded to the five finalists:

  • MIT cycling team, who used pedal power to run a computer analyzing data for research on clean nuclear power;
  • Pedal-powered snowplow, which is exactly what it sounds like;
  • Multi-use bike machine that acts as a corn husker, grinder, blender, tool sharpener, etc.;
  • Velocytraptor mobile cinema that enables spectators to watch a ten minute movie and then subsequently “pedal back” the electricity expended for the show;
  • Dual-purpose bicycle, which is a regular bicycle that doubles as rice thresher, peanut sheller, corn shucker, circular saw, or woodworking lathe;

I would encourage anyone with a healthy sense of imagination and a free afternoon to watch the brief YouTube profiles of the winning inventions and submitted entries. It’s an outstanding testament to man’s ingenuity and desire to create.

Nonetheless, a part of me wants to hold up a sign exclaiming, “Welcome to the land of the false dichotomy!” Innovate or Die? Really? Yes, perhaps. But what really exists along the continuum between innovation and death?

Ironically, this is the very subject that the intrepid members of my Sustainable Global Enterprise Immersion class tackled during a five-day introduction to the origins and evolution of the social, environmental, and financial imperatives for BoP innovation. (For those of you may not know, the Johnson Graduate School of Management offers a concentration of sorts in Sustainable Global Enterprise that combines a course and a practicum project.)Throughout the course of the discussion, we confronted the notion that the conflation of several serious challenges, i.e. the poverty and daily struggle faced by two-thirds of the global population, the stress being placed on our planet’s natural systems, and the saturation of “rich country” markets presents a massive obstacle to our continued existence.

At the same time, we recognized the tremendous opportunity represented by these weighty dilemmas. As any good entrepreneur knows, the key to success is one’s ability to identify opportunities in seemingly untenable circumstances.

Nonetheless, I still have to ask. Is technology the answer or will these new technologies introduce new problems for us (or our children) to solve? For example, let’s just say for the sake of argument that we mass-produce a slew of green, carbon-free bicycle-centric products. How many of these are fully recyclable? If they aren?t, will we trade reduced carbon emissions for a pile of burning rubber?

Devil’s advocation aside, there is no doubt that contests like Innovate or Die, GoodVenture at JPMorgan, Ashoka’s Changemakers, Echoing Green, and a host of others are changing the way we think about social problems. But where is the ’tipping point’ for this way of thinking? To what extent is innovation defined by the degree to which social, environmental and financial imperatives are leveraged to create sustained, competitive advantage for companies? Is a “big push” paradigm shift required or can we depend on the grassroots, viral exchange of ideas through media like YouTube to radically change the innovation discourse?

In any case, I would love to know how many of the inventions and business models that emerge from contests like these become bona fide, profit- generating ventures. The answer could lend a clue as to whether we will, in fact, cheat death via innovation.

In closing, I’d like to offer a friendly (albeit tongue-in-cheek) suggestion regarding the name of the contest. ’Innovate or Die’, although undeniably compelling as a value proposition, spurs one to make an unscheduled trip to one of Ithaca’s many gorges. How about ’Innovate So that We Might Live!’ Just a suggestion?hold the Prozac.