The future is not technology, it is human

When Apple launched iTunes no-one could have predicted its success. In a market where piracy abounded, who would ever have imagined that anyone could find a way to profit from the sale of music? Yet, its success is legendary, and the reason, says Stafford Masie, former Google Africa boss, is because Apple’s CEO understood people.

Famously quoted as saying that he did not have faith in technology, but faith in people, Steve Jobs recognised that the reason people were going to Napster and pirating was not because they were inherently bad and didn’t want to pay, but because traditional payment models were broken. By giving people an easy way to pay for exactly what they wanted when they wanted it music sales shot up.

For Maisie, this story exemplifies the truth that innovation is not about technology, but about people. In fact, speaking to students at the UCT Graduate School of Business recently, he argued that the future of technology lies not in the invention of more technology, but rather in its gradual receding into the background. In the same way that electricity is no longer the noisy, show-off presence that it once was and we take it for granted; technology inevitably moves into the background and the human story takes centre stage.

Through the ages, the most successful innovators, like Jobs, have understood human nature, and the inventions that have defined civilisations largely came out of a single purpose; to make every-day living easier with less hindrance for human beings. From the pivotal engineering construct of the arch, which enabled the Romans to construct ever more elaborate structures and, literally, to conquer the earth, to the much-contested success (contested in South Africa at least) of taxi-app Uber, successful innovation and design makes things easier, simpler, more efficient and more fun for people.

David Kelley, legendary design-thinker and founder of IDEO and Stanford Design School, calls it human-centred design, and he says that it all boils down to good old-fashioned empathy. “Try to understand what other people value,” he says. Masie agrees. He says that innovative business should set out to derive less value than it creates and that this is one of the key pillars of building a sustainable economy – something the world could do with more of.

In Africa, the definition of business model innovation should lie in offering real solutions to real problems impacting real people. Were we simply to innovate technologically, in order to compete globally, we may come up with products that are totally irrelevant to African citizens. I would like to see us developing products and services instead that are relevant. How can business improve service delivery in rural areas, for instance?

This is not to say that technology is irrelevant in Africa – far from it. Technology is essential in overcoming the challenges on the continent. Added to that, the next billion users of the internet and other technologies are going to come from Africa – and the scramble for their custom has already started. If local is lekker, innovators who understand their market’s own challenges have a built-in advantage.

You don’t have to look far for inspiring examples. Lumkani, an innovation that was refined on the UCT GSB Masters in Inclusive Innovation, is a tech start-up and social enterprise that wants to minimise the loss of life and property caused by fires in slums via the world’s first networked heat-detector. M-Pesa is a mobile-phone money transfer service born in Kenya that allows users to deposit, withdraw, transfer money and pay for goods and services with a mobile device and is busy taking the developing world by storm. Wyzetalk is a South African social business platform that drives intra-business communication and collaboration that is also hovering up market share at home and abroad.

Ironically, the combination of the social and infrastructural challenges faced in Africa might mean that the innovations and products made on the continent are more robust because they have to work that much harder to succeed. Maisie believes that African innovation leads the world precisely because of this.

The opportunity for needs-driven, human-centred design on the continent is vast. And there is no guessing where the combination of empathy and innovation in such a context will lead.

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Dream big. Limitations can come later

If you want to design a car that runs at 600 km/h, the last person you should hire is an engineer. Why? Because they will tell you it’s impossible. But you already know it is impossible – that is why you want to innovate in the first place!

“An expert is someone who can tell you exactly how it can’t be done,” says Peter Diamandis, the founder of the x prize foundation, an educational non-profit organisation that wants to bring about radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity. And he has a point.

I have nothing against experts and engineers you understand; they are extremely handy at the end of the innovation process, the building stage. But to start with you need dreamers: the creatives, the artists – the fantasists.

The bigger the dream, the more chance you have to succeed. Along the way, several critics are going to cut that dream down to size, so the bigger it is at the start, the better. Some the major breakthroughs in human civilisation have come from dreamers. Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison both credit their discoveries of relativity and electricity respectively to their dreams. Dr Frederick Banting famously woke up at 2 am on the morning of 31 October, 1920 with the idea that led to the discovery of insulin and won himself a Nobel Prize. Stravinsky, Wagner, Beethoven, Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney all claimed to have heard their music first in their dreams.

By contrast, history is cluttered with expert opinions that have been proven catastrophically off the mark. From the president of the Royal Society of London pronouncing in 1895 that: “heavier than air flying machines are impossible”, to the unfortunate Ken Olsen, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Foundation (who just happened to be an engineer) stating confidently in 1977 that “there is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home”.

The lesson here for organisations desperate to create innovation cultures to keep them competitive in tough economic times, is to limit the role of the experts and the engineers upfront and fan the flame of creatives. And it starts at the top. It is critical that innovation leaders have big dreams (or in organisation speak – a vision)and that they are able to communicate these clearly to their teams, those (yes, including the engineers) who will be responsible for actualising this vision.

Writing in Harvard Business Review recently leadership development consultants Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman identified the ability to paint a clear picture of the destination and the ability to set stretch goals for their team as two core characteristics for innovation leaders.

The reason for this is not just because leaders need to be motivational (although of course that helps in creating infectious action), but more practically because a clear vision helps you to decide which ideas to pursue and which to shelve. When Alice in Wonderland asks the Cheshire cat which way she ought to go, the cat asks Alice in turn where she wants to get to. When Alice replies that she doesn’t much care, the cat responds sagaciously, then it doesn’t matter which way you go.

In the absence of a vision, any decision is the right one. This may be fine if you’re Alice in Wonderland, but it could be problematic when there is more at stake.

Joe Nocera writes in the New York Times that Steve Jobs “never stopped relying on his singular instincts in making decisions about how Apple products should look and how they should work” and that, despite his famously nasty streak, his “instincts have been so unerringly good — and his charisma so powerful — that Apple employees were willing to follow him wherever he led”.

Much lip service is paid to innovation in organisations, yet few manage to achieve the magic formula, becoming innovation legends like Apple. The secret, I believe, lies, in part, in dreaming big – like Jobs – and granting your people a licence to dream too.

In Africa we are surrounded by seemingly impossible tasks. Daunting social and environmental challenges, which only a dreamer might be crazy enough to think we can solve.

The continent needs leaders who can dream these dreams and who can keep the space of possibility open and allow others to dream alongside them. As Walt Disney – one of the most famous dreamers of all time once said: “if you can dream it, you can do it!”

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Four innovation habits to cultivate in 2016

Benjamin Franklin, one of the US founding fathers, said that most people miss opportunity because it shows up in overalls and looks a lot like work. The same can be said of innovation. The word conjures up cool gadgets and clever ideas, but in practice, innovation involves a lot of hard work and is often more practical than sexy.

Another popular misconception about innovation is that it is the work of exclusive creative geniuses, working alone. On the contrary though, by adopting a few basic habits of mind, business leaders can train themselves to be more attuned to finding better ways of doing things – which is a different way of saying being innovative.

So, as South Africans brace themselves for an increasingly tough 2016, here are four of my top innovation habits that business leaders can cultivate to help them ride out the storm.

1. Don’t throw money at the problem
Instead of paying consultants or getting outsiders to tell you how to fix problems in your organisation, ask your people for suggestions. Employees are the ones at the coal face after all, and they will often have the answers. “The knee-jerk reaction is to say the problem is a lack of budget, or skills, or training,” says Professor Norman Faull, director of the Lean Institute Africa. “But this is not a sensible way of thinking.” Faull recommends that you first take stock of what you have and then reorganise, eliminate waste, and liberate the capacity that is already there to unlock innovation.

The acknowledged innovation giants (Google, Apple, 3M etc.) all have at their core an innovation culture that motivates and encourages staff to step forward with their ideas.

2. Keep one eye on the future
Always think ahead. No matter how stressful the present, there will always be opportunities. History is full of examples of innovative thinkers who were able to run successful businesses in hard times because they saw things coming. Take Floyd Bostwick Odlum, a US investor who became one of the country’s wealthiest men during the Great Depression after seeing how markets were behaving before the crash and selling stock instead of buying it.

Applying your mind to the future is a key habit of innovative thinkers, says Gareth Reese, senior manager with the Deloitte strategy and innovation team. Reese told students at the UCT Graduate School of Business (GSB) Business Tomorrow conference recently: “If you are focusing on responding to current trends, it’s already too late.”

3. Think about how you can add value
There is a global business shift towards social innovation. In emerging market economies like South Africa, there is a need for social venture entrepreneurs who are able to come up with viable business plans to solve social and environmental challenges – from education and health to water scarcity.

Take Lakheni, a new social venture established by two MBA students from the GSB that has won awards and big venture capitalist-funding for its bulk-buying grocery-shopping service for parents and crèches in underprivileged areas. This simple idea makes people’s lives easier and saves them money, while the crèche benefits and the business makes a decent profit as well.

“What was critical for us was looking into a system, not to fix what we thought to be broken, but to find what is working and building on its strengths,” says Lakheni co-founder, Nokwethu Khojane.

4. Always look for efficiencies
Khojane’s words highlight another truth for innovation today: the world does not necessarily need more products or new technologies, but rather better services and more efficient ways of doing things. The secret of the success of AirBnB and Uber is not just that they are clever services using clever technology – it is because they give people something they need in a more convenient and cost effective way.

The future may look more challenging than we would like right now, but there are literally dozens of industries and organisations that are crying out for new and better ways of doing things to which these principles or habits could easily be applied.

Don’t wait for better times. The time for innovation is right under our noses – and seizing it might make the different between success and failure in tough times.

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The god, Profit, must step aside

The catastrophic plunge of Volkswagen share price last year, following news that the automotive legend has been systematically gaming the system and faking measured emissions of nitrogen dioxide, is yet another cautionary tale of capitalism gone awry. More specifically, it is tale of wasted opportunity and innovation failure.

Given the degree of ingenuity required to develop special software that closed down nitrogen dioxide emissions during tests and fooled American regulators, I can’t help wondering if the culprits had put as much energy into actually solving the problem of emissions, what the outcome might have been.

At the risk of sounding like Pollyanna, it is worth focusing on the right things in business – by which I mean things other than profit. And when it comes to innovation, you just might be rewarded, not only with good returns, but with a business that is more sustainable in the long-term.

A recent study from Harvard and the London Business School shows that over 18 years, businesses committed to sustainability delivered annual financial returns 4.8% higher than those that did not. The hypothesis is that in order to deliver sustainably they had to organise themselves around a core purpose, and then embed checks and balances to keep themselves honest. This included factoring in outside stakeholders with whom they checked their strategy and embedding metrics beyond share price in their reporting measures.

A focus on sustainability worked for these companies in the longer term, in part because they were able to attract better human capital, establish more reliable supply chains, and avoid conflicts and costly controversies with nearby communities. This allowed them to engage in more product and process innovations in order to be competitive under the constraints that they experienced. Purpose and sustainability are also, it seems, good for innovation.

By contrast, in traditional firms, the authors wrote, “executive compensation based on short-term metrics may push managers towards making decisions that deliver short-term performance at the expense of long-term value creation.” Sound familiar Martin Winterkorn?

Imagine what Volkswagen – a company with a great brand and engineering excellence – could have achieved if it also committed itself to a more sustainable future for itself and the planet? Or what about just being honest with its customers and stakeholders?

In the business of tomorrow, we can’t underestimate the role of values and purpose as key drivers of sustainable success. We are living in the “shift age”, a term coined by futurist David Houle, where change is the new normal. And in these times, it is not enough simply to be faster, better, cheaper, we also need to think bigger – not just literally, in terms of expansion, but holistically, in terms of purpose.

A strong purpose can act as a compass for business in chaotic times. It can keep us oriented. It can assist leaders to match the need to the possibility, knowing when to commit resources for the right purpose. Without it, we can lose ourselves and run the risk of barrelling forward without ever asking where our path leads.

The issues at stake may sound abstract, but really, purpose is ultimately very concrete. The success of every aspect of business depends on a search for meaning. As Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, who teaches a course on the role of purpose in leadership at the UCT Graduate School of Business, says, “We are all searching for meaning. We are all looking for dignity.” If a product or service does not offer meaning, or does not add to the purpose and dignity of the consumer’s life, and to the lives of the people who are producing it, it will have a limited shelf-life.

Robert Haas, former chairman and CEO of Levi Strauss sums it up with these words: “A company’s values – what it stands for, what its people believe in – are crucial to its competitive success. Indeed, values drive the business.”

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Make an impact not just an income

We need to recognise and celebrate that African entrepreneurs are leading the world when it comes to business innovation with a social and environmental impact. Take, for instance, Kenya’s Lorna Rutto, who was born in the Kaptembwa Slums and as a child gathered plastic litter and then melted it down to make ornaments. Today, her company Ecopost, which she founded in 2009, makes use of waste plastic by turning it into an alternative to wood. Rutto has sold more than 20,000 posts, made from more than one million kilograms of plastic waste and has saved over 250 acres of forest. The company generates over $120,000 in income per year, has created over 400 jobs so far, and is growing at such a rate that it is expected to create another 100,000 jobs in the next 15 years.

Hers is a great example of the new African zeitgeist of business making a difference. Ecopost is a business innovation that is not simply filling a gap in the market, but is meeting multiple needs and solving problems – environmental and social – at multiple levels.

And the continent is brimming with such examples. Often born out of necessity, green and social business is thriving in Africa. African entrepreneurs want to do more than just earn an income – they want to make an impact. More than that, they recognise that there is a need for an impact to be made.

Now, many commentators on innovation will tell you that having the right mindset and culture is 99% of the challenge in building an innovative organisations or system. As IBM Lou Gerstner famously said: “I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game, it is the game.”

In Africa, the social and infrastructural challenges we face can’t help but foster an innovation mindset. We don’t need to consider if our businesses should have a purpose beyond profit. Here, surrounded by social and environmental degradation, we know there is no choice. This takes some of the noise out of the system, allowing us to focus on the task of creating sustainable products and services and business model innovation – finding novel ways of delivering and capturing value that will change the basis of competition.

How the continent capitalises on this advantage is up for debate. Clearly we still lack the enabling framework that can fan this spark of wanting to make a difference through business into a roaring flame. Innovation and collaboration can be encouraged and rewarded, or – in many formal and subtle ways – discouraged. The question is which do we want to choose?

At the moment, too often the answer is to discourage. While education level and type is shown repeatedly to be strongly correlated to entrepreneurship, education levels in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) are still appallingly low relative to the rest of the world. In fact, according to the latest Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) report on global youth entrepreneurship, youth in SSA have the lowest level of education in the world with one quarter having less than a primary school education while 55% have not completed their secondary education.

Added to that, our business schools, in many ways the custodians of the next generation of leaders and entrepreneurs, are often stuck in a rut – emulating established western models and teaching and rewarding a limited set of behaviours and outcomes.

But this is changing. There is a new drive among African business schools to create an impactful and relevant model of business and entrepreneurship on the continent. And a tangible output of this is a new African accreditation system being mooted by the African Association of Business schools (AABS). This will complement the existing and highly influential European and American accreditation systems and will seek to find new ways to shape and reward a uniquely African style of business and leadership.
According to a recent report from AABS, African business schools, not being rooted in years of tradition, are inherently more adaptable and flexible than the European and American models on which they are based. They are therefore uniquely placed to drive innovation in business education to support the new African mindset of impact.

An African hallmark and quality assurance process is sorely overdue. It is also a mark of the continent’s coming of age that we begin to recognise in ourselves that quality is not foreign. We can, in fact, define it. African entrepreneurs like Lorna Rutto are setting the pace for the rest of the globe in terms of green and social innovation. Let’s recognise and celebrate that.

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#Innovation must rise

In October 2015 the higher education sector was brought to a standstill as students across the country took to the streets to protest against fee increases. The protests rapidly expanded to include a call for free education and a demand that universities insource workers engaged in services like cleaning and security.

These actions were unprecedented and, some argue, overdue. As the gap between rich and poor in the country continues to widen, it is clear that urgent action needs to be taken to build a more just society and economy.

It is also clear that there is a hefty price tag that comes with meeting these demands. What is not so clear is where the money will come from.

In innovation terms, this is something of the perfect storm. And as the dust settles, South Africa is going to need its brightest and best to step forward to figure out how to increase inclusive access to education while at the same time ensuring the high quality and relevance of that education.

That we get it right is beyond important. The link between quality education and economic growth and development has been shown repeatedly. The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) shows a clear correlation between level of education and an individual’s propensity to start and run a successful business that employs others, for example.

Of course, quality education starts way before tertiary level. The entire education ecosystem from Early Childhood Development to professorial level and everything in between needs to be pulled apart and put back together again to ensure that it is delivering what it is supposed to.

Across the country, many are already doing just this. Ironically, in the same month that the protests broke, the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship, a specialised unit at the UCT Graduate School of Business, published the Education Innovator’s Review. This little booklet catalogues 120 initiatives that have demonstrated success in addressing the challenges in the education sector in innovative ways. The stories range from a project to develop talent through creative play using LEGO for Grade R through Grade 7 (by Hands on Tech in partnership with the LEGO Foundation), to an initiative from educational technology company Siyavula (meaning ‘we are opening’) to produce open-source, curriculum-aligned math and science resources under the Creative Commons copyright, allowing learners and teachers to freely access the content.

The researchers behind the Review want to identify the components of these models that have helped them to make a difference. The hope is that they can be replicated and scaled up to make an ever-widening contribution to fixing the problems. And there is not just a social purpose motive here. There is evidence that the development of low cost, transformative education tools is becoming big business globally, with Said Business School in the UK setting up an edtech accelerator last year and venture capital interest in this sector on the upswing.

But before we get there, there is considerable work that needs to be done to change the mindset of those working in education in South Africa. As Professor Jonathan Jansen points out in the forward to the Review, there is an urgent need for a paradigm shift in the way we approach education. “South Africa will fall ever further behind in the global competitiveness stakes unless we invest in quality education for all our children, built around innovative cultures of open-minded, inventive, and courageous thinking,” writes Jansen. “Innovative cultures do not emerge from teaching and learning environments that are risk-averse, test-driven, teacher-centered, authority-based, and that value rote learning over experimental thinking.”

It takes courage to create the kind of space that will make innovation possible and this approach requires strong leadership that is grounded in ethics and values. There must a clear WHY this is important and a strong call around which to rally.

Currently there is not a culture of bravery in the education sector. The student protests have done much to shake some of the key role-players out of their complacency. They have also shown us the value of unity in addressing these challenges; one of the most striking things about the events on campuses across the country was the amount of support from the university administration, as well as staff and faculty.

Let’s hope that innovation will flourish in the space created by the students. It is only through innovation that we can transform education and build a more inclusive economy and society for all.

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It’s what you do with innovation that counts

Creativity may provide the spark for innovation, but structure and process are its oxygen. And this is a tension that innovation leaders need to embrace.

In a recession-threatened world we grab at innovation and creativity as one would a lifebelt and indeed often it is our greatest chance of figuring out a way to achieve sustainable growth in a world of constrained resources and economic instability.

But, successful, long-lasting businesses also have to organise and structure; to establish the systems and processes to ensure that good ideas take root and add value.

For example, Carrol Boyes, one of South Africa’s most successful creative entrepreneurs, is first and foremost a sculptor and an artist. But using structured business processes she has also been able to turn her innovative designs into a commercial success and now exports South African design to over 30 countries around the world.

Pure innovation can go nowhere – there are plenty of great ideas that never get off the ground. On the other hand, pure structure leads to bureaucratic hell. In fact, in creating the innovation powerhouses of the future, it is the tension between these two poles that matters.

Dr Hilary Austen, author of Artistry Unleashed says organisations have long been struggling with this tension. “You see it as they reorganise to get more efficiency, and then again to get more innovation, and then again to regain efficiency, and so on. It is not something organisations are going to solve once and for all. Rather, it’s an ongoing tension they’ll need to recognise and manage,” she says.

So, if you want to be the next Steve Jobs, the most important thing that you have to learn is how to manage this tension well – and the second is to let that ethos permeate throughout your organisation.

The code for innovation is embedded in an organisation’s people, processes and philosophies, say innovation thinkers Jeff Dyer and Hal Gregersen. While innovation, they say, has to start at the top it is those leaders who manage to create organisational processes “that mirror their individual discovery behaviours” that will succeed in turning their companies into something truly and enduringly great.

Not all CEOs are lucky enough to be creative geniuses. What’s important is that innovation leaders have the ability to think differently and act differently to generate creative ideas for new products, services, processes and businesses – and that they create the conditions in their organisations for everyone (not just the R&D department) to do the same.

Without question sustainable growth is not going to come out of old ways of working, leading and managing. Existing practices will keep us in the past. Business clearly needs the creative thinkers and the crazy mavericks to come up with new ways of doing things. And innovation leaders need to allow these thinkers free rein and, somewhat paradoxically, give them structure. They need to fight the institutional urge for stability, and allow the disruptive forces of surprise, uncertainty, ambiguity and change – things that we typically avoid or fear – to simmer throughout their organisations, and to harness this effectively.

To do this takes a combination of deeply held values, vision, and conviction, combined with the application of good old fashioned business savvy.

Creativity is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for successful innovation. It’s what you do with it that counts.

This is an abridged version of an article published in Fast Company. The full article can be found on the webpage:

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Gearing up for new age of technological innovation in Africa

We’ve all heard that mobile is the future in Africa and that growth on the continent continues to outstrip the rest of the world, rising 18% per year over the past five years in sub-Saharan countries. When mobile technology arrived in Africa 20 years ago some predictions pegged market penetration at 2 million. Today, 353 million Africans are dialled in, with GSMA predicting that the figure will be 346 million by 2017.

The estimate is that around 65% of households in sub-Saharan African have at least one mobile phone. Such numbers are what makes it possible for US-based non-profit organisation, the Grameen Foundation to use its Mobile Technology for Community Health (MOTECH) platform to monitor trials of a new Ebola vaccination and help turn the tide on the virus which has killed nearly 9 000 people in East Africa.

There is no shortage of such tales of the impact of mobile technology in Africa. And yet, despite its pervasiveness, too many are still waiting for the life-changing effects of technology to reach them; the continent still boasts some of the worst poverty and inequality in the world.

This situation demands a new response from us and now is the time to act. On the one hand a burgeoning middle class and healthy economic growth has investors lining up on our shores, on the other, cheaper broadband and the convergence of technology is leading to the shaping of new industries and value-adding services, with the potential to truly transform lives and experiences.

We need to remember, though, the importance of investing in local knowledge and institutions. Africa is littered with misguided attempts to solve its grand challenges from the outside in. As authors Duflo and Banerjee point out in their book Poor Economics, “Even the most well-intentioned ideas can get bogged down by ignorance of ground-level realities and inertia at the level of the implementer.”

In developing the right technology products and services for the future, local knowledge will be key. Companies with their roots in Africa should have an advantage in the coming technological boom, therefore, and there are many stepping up to ride the wave. Fast Company’s top ten most innovative companies in Africa for 2014 includes the likes of, a start-up that is rolling out a trial of its mobile e-learning service to 75 schools in Nigeria, and Aweza, a South African translation app that aims to leverage the growing mobile arena and encourage cultures to interact. Companies such as these are showing that the combination of technology and local application is indeed a powerful one.

Developing and investing in this new generation of African tech entrepreneurs must become a prime focus for government, business and training institutions alike as we seek to build an African innovation ecosystem and gear up for the age of technology innovation on the continent.

Partnerships will be key here. At the 2014 SEED SA Symposium, a multi-stakeholder forum fostering social and green entrepreneurship in Africa, it was said that one of the challenges for African entrepreneurs is securing partnerships with technical experts and research institutions, in particular, to ensure cross-fertilisation. When different areas of expertise collide – magic can happen. Different hybrids are already emerging. Novel partnerships, such as those recently concluded between the UCT Graduate School of Business and the MTN Group (see and Silicon Cape and FNB, are exploring innovative forms of business and challenging the traditional roles of business in society.

And this is just the beginning. With the right partnerships and attitudes Africa is perfectly positioned to take the lead in the next generation of technology and in so doing has the opportunity to build a new economic framework where business and communities prosper.

The above is a shortened version of a column co-written with Sifiso Dabengwa, CEO of MTN, for Fast Company. The full article can be found on the Fast Company webpage

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Innovators in waiting

We are living in the age of boundless innovation – or so we are told.

Most companies, governments and academic institutions will insist that innovation is the key to unlocking greater productivity and competitiveness and that it is our best bet for solving some of the world’s greatest challenges, such as sustainable energy, mass unemployment and universal healthcare.

Yet these same organisations remain remarkably resistant to creating the conditions that might allow this innovation out of the starting blocks.

It’s a problem that has its roots in an entrenched schooling system that by and large, does more to extinguish creativity than spark it. As Stephan Turnipseed, president of LEGO Education North America, remarked: “At two years old, when one does the standard creativity test, almost 100% of us are creative geniuses. By the end of 12 years of education only 3% score at that same level.”

And when that 3% go on to study further – and invent and create – all too often their bright ideas fail to make it over the great wall that still exists between academia and the rest of the world. Thus they fail to be turned into useful and practical products or services.

This is because innovation is not just about bright ideas and technology. You can invent the most fantastic things, but without enabling mindsets and processes they may never see the light of day. And what is the value of an invention that is never used?

Increasingly, academic institutions are trying to put structures in place to bridge this gap – from technology transfer offices to innovation labs – but few of them are getting it right on a significant scale. A notable exception, of course, is MIT.

MIT is widely regarded as the world’s top innovative university and for good reason. The Martin Trust Centre for MIT Entrepreneurship, together with other initiatives such as the famous MIT Media Lab, have been nurturing tech entrepreneurs and churning out an astonishing number of start-ups since the early 1990s. Between 2000 and 2006, MIT graduates started more than 5 800 companies and the Institute produces more patent applications than any other university in the world.

MIT does this in part by creating the right environment; one that encourages the cross-pollination of ideas, people and finance – without restrictions and without pretension. In the words of William Weldon, chairman of Johnson & Johnson: recognising that innovation is no longer just about money, it’s about climate, MIT has created spaces where people are allowed to flourish and take risks.

As a result, MIT has not just lowered the barrier between ideas generation and the realisation of new products and services, it has demolished it.

On this continent, where the challenges are often overwhelming and the opportunities for innovation similarly vast, there is no reason why we can’t build an MIT-equivalent of our own, with a national culture to match. It’s not a question of expense as much as focus and choice. And it starts with what and how we teach, both at schools and universities.

What you exercise gets stronger, so let’s broaden the curriculum to include such topics as the basics of management, design thinking, entrepreneurship, and the technology-human interface. Over and above that students need to have the freedom to think without restrictions, and they should also be encouraged to consider the purpose of what they do. The guiding principle should be how they can make a contribution to society and do so in a sustainable way.

Beyond the classroom we need to ensure that there are multiple platforms and spaces that encourage co-operation and interchange between academia, business, civil society, government, and communities. In essence, we need to build an ecosystem where good ideas can grow and develop for the benefit of all.

Authors Vijay Vaitheeswaran and Iain Carson have argued that human ingenuity is the one natural resource that the world has left in infinite quantity. There is an innovator-in-waiting in every one of us. Let’s make sure we nurture people and give them the space to do what we need them to do.

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Designing a better future at all levels

Design thinking may be the cool new kid on the block in Silicone Valley, but it can also be used to improve the lives of millions of consumers at the bottom of the pyramid.

In designing a product or a service, it is important to stay as close to the user’s experience as possible, otherwise customers, and/or potential consumers or users are likely to do their own thing and either find another service that works better for them, or undermine the value of yours.

Once upon a time most people thought that design and business were two very different things: fashion and architecture vs commerce. Today some of the world’s most successful and fastest growing companies are design-led and the value of design-thinking is recognised.

Take Airbnb for example. In just seven years this company has taken the international hospitality industry by storm with its innovative online platform that allows people to list, discover, and book unique accommodation around the world. At its helm are two designers: CEO Brian Chesky and his co-founder and chief product officer, Joe Gebbia, who are both graduates of the Rhode Island School of Design.

Staying close to the customer experience is one of the key factors of their success. A recent article in FAST COMPANY tells how Chesky and his team think about Airbnb as “being more than just a place to find a room” and take an explicitly empathetic approach to each “emotional moment” of the customer’s experience.

This helps them to be responsive and to consistently tweak the service they offer. For example, when they identified that many of the users of Airbnb transact on the go, they upgraded their mobile products accordingly.

Design thinking is keeping close to your customers and their needs. But it is also inherently disruptive, entrepreneurial, insanely optimistic and creative. It is not afraid to try and fail and it knows no boundaries. As a philosophy it invites you to integrate your business; or as one of my colleagues put it, to “think in 3D”. Design thinking is essentially about the intersection between three dimensions: business/economics, technology/science and people/society. For a business to have economic value it must also serve a purpose for people.

The opportunities for innovation occur at every level of an organisation and often – as with Google – in the creative coupling of unexpected elements (it was by combining search engine wizardry with advertising opportunities that the company hit the jackpot).

Through design-thinking, social challenges like education, energy and access to clean water might be countered.

This was one of the stated aims of the Cape Town World Design Capital (WDC) initiative. Director Richard Perez has said that employing design thinking to resolve the city’s entrenched problems, such as segregation and unemployment, was one of the key aspects of the WDC – setting it apart from other world design capitals which have had a more conventional focus on design.

Perez hopes that design thinking might dripfeed through WDC projects and change the way the city approaches issues in the future. In the same way that Airbnb is setting an example of the value of design in business, so too can cities and other social purpose organisations draw inspiration from the WDC.

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