The Context of Innovation: Informality for Problem Solving

Last week, I attended the MIT Global Challenge and IDEAS generator dinner. The contest asks teams to submit new ideas to solve important social challenges around the globe–blending innovation with entrepreneurship. Celebrating its tenth anniversary at MIT, IDEAS has produced a range of successful, innovative, and fascinating winners. At the event I was able to hear from old participants and new teams preparing to enter the contest.

From past winners working on alternative energy models in East Africa and sustainable fuel projects in South America, to upcoming entrants working on a range of new devices, methods, and systems, there is clearly a lot of energy being devoted to these new innovations. The current projects are all in very different stages — some have a new device that they are refining and looking to deploy, others have identified an unsolved problem (or even business opportunity). Some teams have been in touch with local partners who have helped to frame their challenges, while others are now looking to identify where their solution fits best.

In all of these projects, along with clear advice from past participants, is a clear emphasis on the context of their project. What I mean by this is that every group is hoping to make sure that their project has the necessary local infrastructure, a promising market and environment, and a local relevance that will make it successful. Teams are looking to make sure what they are doing hasn’t been done, has the necessary inputs nearby, and solves a pressing problem. The next step is of course to find out how their solution will fit locally. This is not anything near a trivial process. Some organizations have done a great job of slowly reworking their projects to fit in this context–very often leading to an entirely unrecognizable version. This iterative approach can take a long time and end up with a jerry-rigged local version that loses all of its initial flexibility or scalability. Other groups won’t have the patience to do this, or the experience to iterate or question their process when something isn’t working as expected. This whole process doesn’t always lead to failure, but it can stifle success. That’s why if you want to solve these problems scalably or efficiently, context is really a much better jumping off point than any new device, abstract problem, or existential need.

I have already written a bit about technological agnosticism, and an introduction about the difficulty of solving a problem when you have already picked the tool. Essentially, the context of the problem is the context of the solution. Any invention must be framed by the context and circumstances of the particular issue, and the solutions, or infrastructure for a solution, that is already in place. Just because a project has never been done, or a problem hasn’t been solved exactly how you see it, doesn’t mean there is no competition.

While the agenda of identifying problems is essential to making positive changes, it is also imperative that we identify the solutions that will influence a good design at the same time. It is not adequate to identify a large problem and come up with a great new plan, technology, or invention that could solve this problem — as soon as the local context can be integrated into the solution.

This is one of the reasons that I think understanding informality is essential in understanding innovation in development. The main competition, and the main ingredients for a solution, are the informal mechanisms that keep things operating in the meantime. In this way informality is still a proxy for (more scalable or transferable) local systems and cultures. For every new system, device, or invention that is being considered, the first investigation must be to consider what is or isn’t already happening in the project area — and really ask why this is the way that it is.

Just because a new device can speed up the process of cleaning a medical tool, or can deliver electricity with less infrastructure, or can lower the cost of taking a shower, Fake Oakleys doesn’t mean that this technology actually solves a true challenge when it is re-framed via a local context. If people currently don’t spend any money on a shower, than no matter how cheap the new device makes it, there is a much larger challenge than simply designing the new cheaper shower. If the time or travel it takes to clean a medical supply is enjoyable or social or used for other purposes, than a faster more convenient tool might never catch on no matter how brilliant and simple. The framing of the problem, and solution is essential. Context counts for a lot more than localization or finalization of a new idea.

Instead, let’s start with informality. Why are things working the way they are and what mechanisms, as informal, scattered, or organic as they may be, can be integrated combined, or organized into a new solution. By default, this approach begins, rather than ends with context, and as a result innovation has the local subtleties infused throughout.

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