Posts Tagged ‘invention’

Breaking System Constraints

During a class discussion this week the idea of ‘constraint’ came up- how we’re constrained by elements of our environment and the systems within which we work. I think we’re coming to an interesting point in the cycle of development for those systems. For hundreds of years, we’ve  worked to make processes more efficient and to make life easier. We’ve developed systems to accomplish this. But as these systems have grown, they’ve become so efficient that, in many cases, we’ve placed constraints on our ability for organic innovation. This is especially true in business systems.

What I find extremely interesting is how current technologies are beginning to explore this tension between business systems and innovation- and are trying to use systems to push innovation rather than stifle it. Social media is a great example of this, per my summer experience at NewsGator. NewsGator’s solution echoes informal online interactions that are a part of our personal lives – and transfers that form of communication to a company setting. The goal is to allow firms to leverage the speed and sharing capabilities of online systems like Facebook, thereby driving communication and innovation throughout the company.

So while Facebook turned informal in-person chats into a system of online communication, new technologies are turning that system of personal online communication into a system of business communication. What organizations that adopt NewsGator (like Citi, the US Air Force, etc.) realize are that the typical business systems they use are placing constraints on innovation and that something needs to change. By leveraging communication that allows faster sharing of information, greater informality in brainstorming, additional freedom in visual expression and the ability to create teams, NewsGator (and like companies) provide a system through which companies can replicate the informal interactions that can lead to fertile ideas while managing the process of that creation in a searchable, repeatable way.

This construct (using next-generation technology to take systems to another level of human interaction replication) becomes really interesting what you consider what companies like Oblong are doing (watch the awesome video below):

Once our operating systems begin to visually replicate how our minds and bodies work, we’re breaking a big constraint in a very cool way.

Education Needs More Chinese Resturants

Charles Leadbeater’s TED presentation “Education Innovation in the Slums” blew me away; I’ve been thinking about it since I saw it a week ago.

The man spent years researching innovation in education (and the need for it) and his speech is drawn from the innovation and change he saw happen in places as challenging as Rio and Kibera slums. What was most striking to me is how important innovation and change in education is for not only the developing world, but for first world countries as well. From his presentation:

  • Motivation: The challenge, as Leadbeater points out, is that education in the developing world can’t afford the luxury of time in motivating students- “Education in these settings works by pull, not push.” Curriculum and compulsory education won’t motivate students to learn, because they offer rewards that don’t apply in the developing world.
    • In the developed world, info was pushed on us and we tried to learn it well so we could move on. We did so because the motivations fit (or we thought they did).
      • Extrinsically there was a payoff 10 years down the road (do well now, get into good college, get high-paying job later).
      • Intrinsically there was a payoff- our self worth (and the value we see others put on us) was linked to performance.
    • In the slums of Rio and Kibera, though, that doesn’t work! Payoff for education 10 years down the road doesn’t apply when you have no food or both your parents have died of AIDS.
      • Motivation must therefore be different- education must contain information that is necessary and useful now, in this moment, and it must be engaging. Education that succeeds in the slums begins with the premise that you must engage students before they will learn.
  • Chinese Restaurants: To accomplish this on a worldwide scale, a “Chinese-restaurant” model of education is necessary. Schools shouldn’t follow the McDonalds franchise model (exactly the same, precise and dependable everywhere) but rather the Chinese-restaurant model of growth.
    • Leadbeater talks about Madhav Chavan, who helped found Pratham, and how he came up with this model. Typically you don’t see Chinese chains, but you see restaurants everywhere. And yet, despite that they are not chains, everyone knows what to expect inside, although there will be subtle differences. Schools will feature new and different ways of learning that will catch on and spread across to other cultures, in slightly different ways.
    • He points out we spend a lot of money on sustaining the model of education we have in places like the U.S. (trying to improve it by sinking billions of dollars into it.) What we need is innovation in how we do it.
    • “We need a global wave of social entrepreneurship to create highly motivating, low cost ways to scale in the developing world.”

I thought this was an amazing speech and it is frightening in how it applies even to countries like the U.S. I won’t go into details to argue about for education in the U.S. and how it’s failing- suffice it to say that I think most of us can agree it needs to change. Not only does it need to change because it’s not working, but it needs to change because the world that students are entering is vastly different as well. Extrinsic motivation in the United States must change to mirror our circumstances. Seth Godin writes in his excellent and inspiring new book “Linchpin” that we have been indoctrinated in a system that has failed us. We went to school believing that if we did well, we would find good jobs. If we found good jobs, those companies would take care of us. We would rise through the company, be rewarded and have a pension.

None of that is true anymore. You don’t get paid for showing up, you aren’t sure of a promotion, and your company won’t take care of you in the future. The world has changed; if it weren’t already dead, this recession killed it. And if that extrinsic motivation no longer exists, then why should we learn?

Just as the developing countries need to change their method of teaching, so do we. Seth Godin thinks we need to teach two things: (1) solve interesting problems (2) lead. I think it may be a few more (Cameron Herold gives an interesting TED talk about teaching kids to be entrepreneurs) but regardless of what it is, it has to change.

The world is no longer the same- why do we continue to reward educational achievements that don’t connect to reality? Shouldn’t these things align? Don’t we need them to?

Swetsville Zoo – Amazing Backyard Sculptures in Fort Collins

Bill Swets spent the last 25 years using car parts, farm machinery and scrap metal to build what has to be the most amazing backyard in the world.

The “Swetsville Zoo” boasts hundreds of metal sculptures of all shapes and sizes, most in the shape of animals or dinosaurs. I stumbled onto this cool description of it a while ago and last week we visited. My pictures are below- if you’re in the Colorado area, you definitely need to check it out.

It’s impressive to see what a dedicated life can create. From what I could tell, Bill Swets didn’t do this as a job and there’s no entry charge. He just liked doing it and so kept doing it- for 25 years. It’s pretty incredible.

Rice Husk Power in India: Guest Blogger Samir Shah

Samir Shah, a classmate at Darden, guest blogs today on a visit our class had from Chip Ransler, co-founder of Husk Power Systems, which delivers power to over 50,000 rural Indians in a financially sustainable, scalable, environmentally friendly, and profitable manner. Samir’s post below:

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What stinks?

Look around your immediate location.  Take a second to analyze what’s there, the purposes those things serve, and how they could be made better.  It might be a small issue like the ergonomics of your computer mouse, or something more significant, like the difficulty of keeping documents organized (As you might have guessed, I am looking around my own desk right now).  Take another second to think about how you would fix it, and what you would need to accomplish that fix.

So what stinks?  And how can you make it less stinky?  Chip Ransler, co – founder of Husk Power Systems recently discussed this idea with our Entrepreneurial Thinking class.  He felt that ‘what stunk’ was the fact that 350 million individuals in rural India lived lacking reliable electrical power.  What stunk even more is that these individuals could not be part of the economic revolution currently revitalizing and invigorating much of the country.  Rice, a large agricultural product, produces a waste product, rice husks, which were also being wasted.  That stunk too.

Now what do you do?  You found something that stinks, something that needs a solution.  Ransler and his partners found a way, through technology and the free market, to develop a power system that used rice husks to generate electricity for villages in rural India.  Facing obstacles like working with clients who are not easy to reach, ‘not in tune’ with paying for electricity (read: they usually steal it), a 40% payment default rate, and a corrupt government, Husk Power has grown to reach these rural Indians and provide power solutions to more and more people.

It has been largely successful, and the exact details of their growth story are made clearer on the company website. The story of Husk Power Systems is inspiring and compelling, and Ransler brought forth some key ideas in developing solutions for problems that stink.  So what ideas are relevant for aspiring entrepreneurs and creative thinkers?

  1. Get it done.  Put your feet to the fire and get your idea out there.  You need to have passion that borders on insanity and be willing to go to the mat for your idea and vision.  Be ready to sacrifice (Ransler, along with his partners, lived in rural India for months at a time to get the system running properly), adapt, and give up what is secure.  Finally, talk to people.  Then, talk to more people. After you finish talking to everyone, find some more people to talk to.  Communicate your idea so that you can find a way to put things together.
  2. Know your customer and frame your idea properly.  Husk Power wasn’t giving away electricity, but selling power units to a market that had a demand for energy.  They tailored their product to their market, and made sure it was a sustainable way to earn revenue, grow, and maintain the initial objective of fixing what stinks.
  3. Ransler talked about the concept of second and third right answers.  I probably need more time to digest this idea, but he noted that while developing a power solution was the first right answer, subsequent right answers came from adapting ideas to develop the target market – for HusK Power, this included selling smaller amounts of power, and having customers prepay for power, bringing the default rate from 40% to 0%.  These second and third right answers have helped Husk Power develop and grow, reaching more people in an ever expanding market, which has in turn helped them develop their technology and infrastructure and continue the cycle upward.

Ransler didn’t talk much about the effect of injecting this power system on rural Indians.  I can only imagine how the company has allowed thousands of people to expand their productivity.  He did give us one quote from a local resident, who noted that “We gained independence from England 60 years ago, but it feels like we just gained our independence today”.  I have to admit, this quote choked me up just a little bit – the image of rural Indians being empowered was an inflection point in the presentation being made – things didn’t stink as much for these folks anymore.

Having visited India, and having family who grew up in lower class areas of the country, I can empathize with this quote, and it made me stop thinking about the story of entrepreneurship and start thinking about the power of the free market to fix what stinks.  In what some might call the heart of human poverty, an idea and product have been developed to promote social good and economic development.

So what stinks?  What can you do to fix it?

Samir Shah

Secret Innovation that Saves Our Life

I’m often struck by how many important things are going on behind the scenes of our daily lives- and how little we know about those very important things. Quick test of this fact:

  • Google “iPad” – you get around 52MM hits.
  • Now google “Ug99 fungus” – you get less than 50K hits.

Which one of those two could lead to a billion deaths worldwide unless stopped soon? Despite what the Oranges (Apple-haters) think, it ain’t something Steve Jobs built.

Wired has an amazing article on the spread of the Ug99 fungus, a stem rust plague that could decimate worldwide wheat production- as it did in the past. Science beat it before (it was an important part of Norman Borlaug’s Nobel Prize winning, high-yield, disease-resistant wheat varieties) but it’s back, and we’re racing to beat it again. From Wired:

  • “This distinct new race of P. graminis, dubbed Ug99 after its country of origin (Uganda) and year of christening (1999), is storming east, working its way through Africa and the Middle East and threatening India and China. More than a billion lives are at stake. “It’s an absolute game-changer,” says Brian Steffenson, a cereal-disease expert at the University of Minnesota who travels to Njoro regularly to observe the enemy in the wild. “The pathogen takes out pretty much everything we have.”
  • “Indeed, 90 percent of the world’s wheat has little or no protection against the Ug99 race of P. graminis. If nothing is done to slow the pathogen, famines could soon become the norm — from the Red Sea to the Mongolian steppe — as Ug99 annihilates a crop that provides a third of our calories. China and India, the world’s biggest wheat consumers, will once again face the threat of mass starvation, especially among their rural poor. The situation will be particularly grim in Pakistan and Afghanistan, two nations that rely heavily on wheat for sustenance and are in no position to bear added woe. Their fragile governments may not be able to survive the onslaught of Ug99 and its attendant turmoil.”

How much do our lives depend on unforeseen innovation? A great deal I suppose…..

Daily Innovation

Don’t worry, this isn’t a try at some deep definition of innovation where I wax philosophical for thirty paragraphs. There have just been a few items over the past few days that made me think a little differently about innovation.

  • Seeing new uses for what already exists: Watch the amazing video below, “Inspired Bicycles” –  it features Danny MacAskill riding his bike all over Edinburgh, doing tricks. I saw it a few months ago, but when I saw it again this week, I realized the unique vision that  bikers/skateboarders have of the world. Walkways, trees…these things are different to them than they are to me- they represent a canvas on which the athlete is free to innovate on. I have looked at streets very differently this past week, considering the angles and physics of them.
  • Taking something further, to a new purpose: I used ChatRoulette for the first time today. It’s a website you go to to speak with strangers from across the world through live audio/video. You go to the site, click play, and you are linked with a random person through your computer camera and microphone. It gets pretty crude, as the class of people on their ain’t great, but it is a new iteration of social networking that uses the internet to immediately replicate meeting someone at random in a bar…only they’re halfway across the world. It uses simple existing technology, combined with a new idea…and is very different than what’s out there. (Note: It feels really weird to be on this site; although it’s people who choose to be on there, it still feels like some kind of weird spying.)
  • Finding a different or new way: The fiancée and I were walking around Charlottesville last Saturday, and stopped into a nice looking store on the downtown mall. She spotted a pretty designer chair and we checked out the price – a shocking $2,400 for what looked like a child’s easy chair with a colorful quilt woven on. Now, we both liked the style, but we don’t have that kinda money. Knowing that she’s an artist, however, and that I can occasionally figure out how to use a tool, I suggested we look into doing it ourselves – within a day she found a way for us to do that. This is probably the most common innovation of them all- finding a different or new way to what we want.

All in all, a lot of different thoughts this week!