Rob Katz

Innovations: From Base to Top, A Must-Read

From the Base (of the Pyramid) to the Top (of the Ivory Tower)

Rarely do I get excited about academic journals. They conjure up memories of researching my undergrad political economy thesis (on political conditionality and microfinance). So when the inaugural issue of Innovations crossed my desk, I was naturally skeptical. Well, consider me converted–Innovations is a must-read for anyone interested in creative, local solutions to the world’s problems. Its content bridges the gap between ?whatever works? BOP practice and rigorous academic analysis. Not only that – all the articles in the current issue are available for free!

My first clue that this was not a standard (read: boring, niche) academic journal was the list of authors for Issue 1. Stuart Hart and Erik Simanis, Bill Drayton, Martin Fisher, Jean Lanjouw, Zoltan Acs (and more) all show up here. The editors of Innovations are Philip Auerswald (GMU’s Center for Science and Technology Policy) and Iqbal Quadir (Harvard’s Center for Business and Government; founder of Grameen Phone). This list is a who’s who of base of the pyramid, social entrepreneurship, and innovation for development. I?m excited (yes, this stuff excites me).

Innovations intends to complement existing literature by focusing less on field-specific problems and more on how specific action can solve such problems. The first essay, by KickStart’s Martin Fisher, describes in detail how their appropriate technology approach to income generation in Africa is alleviating poverty–a unique action, with lessons learned, that’s achieving results in the field.

Simanis and Hart follow with a critique of Fisher’s case study, challenging KickStart’s formula-driven approach to appropriate technology as ?tautological.? Rather, the noted BOP researchers believe that KickStart’s success (and other firms? success at the BOP) stems from a good organizational strategy they call ?real options.? Arguing against applying generalized lessons from one success story, Simanis and Hart assert that BOP success stems from a ?staged process of rapid, low-cost continuous learning supported by flexible resource allocation and organizational structure.?

Translation: like successful start-ups, good BOP firms take a trial-and-error approach, shifting investment towards successful products and maintaining a niche focus at first. Simanis and Hart’s article is notable in that it demonstrates an increasing discourse between BOP practitioners (Fisher, Simanis, and Hart are well known throughout the field). In the past, such disagreement probably wouldn?t have been published sequentially. Such is the value-add of Innovations.

I’ve read the articles by Acs (nice econometric modeling of ?necessary? vs. ?opportunity? entrepreneurship) and Drayton (we must enable youth to catalyze change while providing formal, for-profit financing to the citizen sector) and am working through the rest. I’d recommend you do the same. Kudos to Philip Auerswald and Iqbal Quadir for putting this together; keep an eye out for the next issue of Innovations, coming in Spring 2006.