Heather Fleming

Perceiving Innovation

In September, Catapult Design ran a short workshop on product development with Villgro, an incubator in Chennai, India for social ventures. The session initiated a post-workshop discussion between Mayank Jaiswal, a Villgro Fellow, and myself on the differing concepts and approaches to “innovation” and its impact on product development across continents. He asked: “How does product design and systemic innovation in the developed world compare to the developing world?”

Products and technologies, everything we touch on a daily basis, are artifacts of culture that represent its belief and value systems. All societies design their own artifacts and systems, whether it’s an iPhone or a community-based judicial system for convicting local criminals. In this context, what is innovation, where does it come from, and can it produce products that are able to translate across all cultures?

In his blog on the topic, Jaiswal writes, “from first-hand experience, the details and attention to efficiency, ease of use and the ’user experience’ derived from a salt shaker or an airplane, I can say product design is executed better in the developed world than the developing world.”

Does the lack of fancy salt shakers coming out of Africa imply its citizens are less innovative? No. They are. But perhaps not in a way that we, as Westernized culture, recognize. Novel solutions to problems are developed every day and everywhere by necessity. Tin cans are turned into kerosene lamps, a business is launched with a cell phone and a bicycle, mobile banking systems evolve a cashless economy and give purchasing power to even the most remote customers. In places where resources are scarce, the decades-old practices of reuse and resourcefulness are only now emerging in U.S. and European companies as sources of innovation.

Innovative ideas are subjective and contextual. What another culture may dismiss as everyday life, we perceive as novel ideas and methods. Let’s explore some of the differences we identified in attitude and approach to innovation that drive these differing perceptions.

From the societal perspective, Western culture associates success with innovation and successful individuals as innovators (and sometimes heroes): Bill Gates, Muahamed Yunus and even fictional characters like Iron Man’s Tony Stark. Risk taking is a trait that is to be aspired. Compare this to an impoverished, risk-averse, and community-driven society. Here, the odd man out (AKA: the local innovator) risks isolation from society if he/she is not a community leader.

From a resource perspective, U.S. government funding for fundamental science research by academic institutions and national labs is higher than any other country in the world. New research in physics and chemistry enables the creation of new materials, which inspires the realization and ground-breaking form factors of new products and technology. Quantum mechanics research, for example, led to the development of lasers in the 1960s, which in turn enabled high-capacity transmission of information through optical fiber as well as physical consumers goods such as DVD players. Abundance versus the complete lack of resources plays a huge role in how we think about development and innovation.

From an infrastructure perspective, capitalist society supports and incentivizes ownership of ideas and the government’s ability to enforce ownership of ideas. What’s the point of entrepreneurship if nothing prevents someone else from taking your idea? If we look at companies selling (design and innovation firms) or branding (Apple) innovation, we see tools and methods in place for generating new ideas. Access to a wealth of ideas and new information is literally at the fingertips (of anyone who can access a solid internet connection).

Looking forward, we see new trends in innovation and entrepreneurship and research incentives for academic institutions growing in countries like India and China, and emerging in urban Africa. Will it produce products and services that cross continents? Can we develop new technologies that find a cultural fit and application that benefit both sides of the gap in social inequality? Could Western culture, for example, follow Africa’s lead and adopt a cashless economy? (Square is half-way there).

It’s easy to conclude that innovation is lacking in underdeveloped regions. I don’t believe that’s true, but rather that invisible, revolutionary innovation is happening in many places out of necessity and survival. Let’s bring a light to more examples.


Good reading on the topic:

“Guns Germs and Steel” Jared Diamond (Chapter 13 “Necessity’s Mother”)

“From Jugaad to Systematic Innovation: The Challenge for India” Prof Rishikesha Krishnan

Impact Assessment
incubators, product design