Innovation in Chunks, episode one

For a thousand years Alchemists pursued a common goal of transmuting lead into gold. Their craft was sophisticated. They employed standardized lab techniques, systematically trained apprentices, wrote down and disseminated results, and traveled the known world to share knowledge with colleagues. But all their work was folly in the end, because the goal sought was simply impossible. It takes a nuclear reaction to transmute lead into gold.

Had the alchemists unleashed their efforts on the many simpler and easily attainable goals lurking just beyond their sphere of knowlegde, they might have discovered electricity, water purification, lighter-than-air travel, and the true vectors of disease a thousand years earlier. Instead the Alchemists made a Big Push for imaginary shortcuts to Wealth, Wisdom, and Immortality.

This modern world is still full of Alchemist leaders who promise the Big Push, a Great Leap Forward, and global prosperity. Instead of meeting these challenges head on, why not look for simple innovations that lay just beyond the scope of our current knowledge, yet well within the confines of one’s imagination?

That’s what I’m after – a system that can help people imagine and innovate little solutions that work better than the old ones. Instead of chaotically questing for the elixir of life and the philosopher’s stone, prosperity comes from fixing the little stuff. Brighter leaders build a better world when they see how their personal choices are connected to our common goals.

Here are examples of innovation that came in ways that experts were not expecting:

Grameen Bank

Since the age of antiquity, money could only be loaned to those who could offer something of value as collateral. Serfs and penniless peasants owned none of the sort of things that banks valued, and so the poor could not borrow to build a more prosperous future.

Recently (just 30 years ago), someone reframed the problem in a new and more general way. Wealth had always meant stuff, land, gold, and food. What if we used one’s reputation as collateral for a loan? A poor person may own nothing, but she cares a great deal what her neighbors and family think about her as a person. By thinking about the problem in a new way, Grameen Bank was able to come up with a system that would hurt a person’s standing in the community when he or she failed to pay back a loan. This broke with a very deeply-held idea: collateral must be valuable to someone else, so that the bank can sell the item to someone else and recover losses. Reputation obviously can’t be resold once it is taken away.

Grameen’s idea opened up microlending to a billion new customers, and made these social lenders very rich too. Anyone could have come up with the same idea, if they had guts to reframe the problem in new and unfamiliar ways.

Acid rain from Pitsburgh Steel factories

The l890s were the age of steel. Half a century later, steel mills in Pennsylvania had spewed tons of smoke into the air, filling the skies with sulfuric acid (acid rain), and killing the forests.

Something had to be done. But how could you shut down the backbone of the US economy? (We hear this often.) One leader defended it as “burning incense on the altars of industry.”Experts argued that no process existed for making steel without producing dangerous pollution.

Then, fortuitously, some engineer realized you could make the smoke stacks much taller and line the insides with a catalyst that would scrape the smoke of sulfur dioxide, causing a chemical reaction that allowed the plant to recover and sell sulfuric acid. Today the sulfuric acid byproduct from the factory is more profitable than the steel itself.

This innovation could have happened much earlier. The chemistry was known. The reason adoption was slow is that “experts agreed” that the problem would be difficult to solve, because no other process for making steel existed.

This is another example of reframing the problem. Instead of asking how to change the process for making steel, someone asked how they could recover the caustic materials afterwards, and sell them for profit. The next great fuel won’t come by trying to grow it or extract it; it will come from some other ubiquitous process that generates a useless or harmful byproduct. The trick to innovation is to reimagine that junk as something of value in a different context. The most common materials on the planet are sunlight, nitrogen, and water. The most common pollutants is carbon dioxide. Of these, two sustain animal life and a third sustains plant life but is currently in excess of what plants need (CO2). Nitrogen just sits around doing nothing. Maybe any process that uses sunlight to change nitrogen into a fuel (nitrate or ammonium?) would change the equation immensely — but this is one of the most most expensive (energetically unfavorable) reactions in nature. But some plants do it, so anything is possible.

VAP’s more cost-efficient printer

You don’t need to change the world to make a difference. I was impressed by the creative modifications some Kenyans at a local NGO (Vijana Amani Pamoja) made to their InkJet printer. One of the world’s most expensive liquids is inkjet fluid ($5000 a gallon) – not because it is expensive to make, mind you, but simply because producers have a monopoly on the cartridges used for delivery.

If cartridge costs are locking up resources you could use for community development, then the key is to trick your printer into thinking there’s a standard cartridge installed, as VAP has done:

As you can see, ink flows into each cartridge from an external reservoir that can be filled with any standard ink. There’s a waste collector on the other side.

And I can attest that the printing looks just as good as ever. I printed 62 pages on it and they looked great. If you are interested in learning more about how they did it, leave a message and I’ll put you in contact with the guy who made the modifications.

Innovation in chunks begins with divergent thinking

Here are three examples of little ideas that worked. I don’t know how we support massive system-wide innovation. I do know we need ways to be more aware of the limiting assumptions we are make everyday. Imagine a magic mirror that reflects back just our perceptions, isolated from reality. That would reveal the gaps between what we believe and how the world actually works.

Sir Ken Robinson talks about an experiment in which people were asked to come up with as many uses for a paperclip as possible. (The source is a book called Break Point & Beyond thinking):

200 uses for a paperclip - sir ken robinson - Changing Education Paradigms

The results of tasking 1500 people of different ages with brainstorming about paperclips is that experience and education actually impede our innate ability for divergent thinking!

The older people get, the smaller the fraction of the population that is capable of coming up with over 200 uses for a paperclip. Ken blames Education, but living in Africa where few kids get a good formal education, I tend to blame the rigorous structure of society itself: As we get older, we learn how to navigate increasingly rigid and complex social situations, where purely innovative thinking is not nurtured. Sometimes creativity is shunned, punished, and feared because it reveals flaws in our world’s rules. It can be dangerous because it leads to chaos, and chaos tends to punish both those on the top and the bottom of the social pyramid equally. (I’m assuming that stable social structures favor those who have been blessed with the most favor in the past.)

Wow. Suddenly I sound like some sort of antidisestablishmentarianistic-counterrevolutionary. I don’t mean it like that. I’m just pointing out that whatever helps us reveal to ourselves the limiting assumptions we make in the world is a good thing. No, a GREAT THING! Innovation cannot happen without it.


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