Innovation is the means to an end. Stop innovating just to feel special.
I met some friends the other day and was discussing various ideas for information dissemination among the urban and rural poor via information kiosks. They had a great idea and it seemed doable, but then they shook their heads. They said this idea was "ok" but it just wasn't "innovative" enough.
They were in the business of social sector problem solving. They stated the problem clearly. They found a solution. They knew how to implement a solution. But the solution..... eh, it just wasn't cool enough.
I find this to be a big problem among people of my generation and the one coming next. Every social solution has to be the one thing that changes humanity, a brilliant yet simple idea that no one has figured out before. That one trick, that one loophole, that one something. If it's not the next best thing, that new thing no one is doing, it's just not worth doing.
- Every young person in the social sector wants their social solution to be like a software package or a cellphone app - discrete, specific, user-friendly, attractively packaged, mass replicable, and technology-dependent. Every social solution has to be like a new iPhone model.
I'm not different from others of my generation. I want to solve all the problems of my target urban slum by doing that one unexpected thing that yields astonishing results. That hasn't happened yet. Everything at the bottom is very chaotic but often, surprisingly simple.
For example, "entrepreneurship training for the urban poor" sounds awesome, but honestly, here is what it looks like:
So what are the high-tech interventions that our entrepreneurship training has used in the slum community so far?
- Automobile. We used a large van to take the women on a tour of the local markets, meet with various wholesale retailers, and take a guided tour of the campus where we also run vocational training programs.
- Cellphones. For coordinating our in-person meetings and our training sessions. I'm not sure that any household in the slum has a landline. But every household - typically the male head - has atleast one cellphone. We don't do facetime or skype. We just call each other to coordinate our schedules.
We have needed to foster a lot of communication and coordination among the demographic that we've targeted so far - women and school-age girls. So yes, of course it would be damn cool if we came up with an online platform (with a cellphone app) that allowed them to network with each other and build consensus around various project activities, or enable them to establish group-owned businesses.
But I really can't imagine that investing in such a platform would yield as much as a conversation over a cup of tea. That has worked well so far. My team of 2 and I walk into the community, say hello to a few people, and go to the house of an especially enterprising & enthusiastic project participant. He or she gives us a cup of tea, then runs out and hollers at some neighbours. A few neighbours come over and start chatting with us. Very soon, we find that it's been 2-3 hours and we're still discussing microeconomic problems with this whole group of people that we had never met until then.
It left me dissatisfied at first, I can tell you that. I felt as if I'm doing nothing at all. But then I realized what was happening. During the first week of our project I was overwhelmed. 1200 households and 2 team members and my own novice self. I didn't know where to start. But once we had identified a couple of community leaders and convinced them to work with us. Once we had met with the community a few times. Once we had had these cups of tea.... just a couple of weeks later, the impact on community mobilisation was magical. It's as if I have 50 team members now. The community members talk to each other about our projects, they cajole each other into becoming our project participants, they convince each other to give our training programs a try, they support each other to go out in a group and visit local markets.
It's hard to admit, but that's much more than a "Facebook for the Urban Poor" would have achieved in just 4 weeks.