Friday, August 30, 2013

Integrating Simplicity into Innovation

Thanks to @VivaDadwal, I have just finished reading a series of articles on reverse innovation in the healthcare sector. I was fascinated to learn that current antimalarials draw their origins from Chinese medicine and that variolation in Africa and Asia was a precursor to modern inoculation and vaccination. Clearly, the concept of reverse innovation is not new. And the beauty of innovation is that it can happen anywhere- from a Northern California garage to a township in South Africa. As long as a product or process meets a need in a new way, we should take it seriously and learn from it. I would go even further to say that we all need to adapt a "reverse innovation" mindset and learn from innovation under extreme resource-constraints.

In their book on Abundance: The Future is Better than You Think, Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler mention the importance of two trends that make lives better for the base of the pyramid- dematerialisation and demonetisation. Dematerialisation is the notion that we now need fewer products . Using the example of smart phones, we can see how functionality that used to live on a number of separate products (computer, phone, video game console, portable disc player, camera, etc.) can now fit onto a single device. Demonetisation is the process of making existing products cheaper by an order of magnitude. The book initially uses the examples of drones, which initially cost governments billions of dollars. After a series of hacks by do-it-yourself enthusiasts, the price of drones dropped dramatically. One can now buy a simple drone for $100.

While these concepts are interesting, they focus on a primarily Western model of innovation. Spinning military technology for civilian use is a common concept in the United States and Israel, but for countries where military R&D is minimal, this method of innovation is irrelevant. And even more disconcerting is the idea that cramming more features into a single product is always better. It was brilliant in the case of the iPhone. But for new entrepreneurs and innovators, starting with this level of complexity as the end goal can lead to confusion and a lack of focus.

We can learn so much from the focus on simplicity that entrepreneurs in low-income circumstances have, a focus they have developed out of need and lack of resources. I met with my mentor Robyn Scott earlier today, who brilliantly described entrepreneurs in slums as innovators trying to build using one wobbly block. In the developed world, we often focus from the outset on our vision of a mansion. We move quickly from a minimum viable product to an expanded suite of offerings, thinking that constant upgrades and additions are integral to success.

What if we used this concept of simplicity to look at the crux of an innovation, the one core element to its success? What if we used our energy and resources to do one thing exceptionally well?

Friday, August 23, 2013

Could Slums be Communities of Opportunity?

About a month ago, I was fortunate enough to hear Ralph da Costa-Nunez speak about turning homeless shelters into communities of opportunity. The concept has thoroughly inspired me, and since then, I've been thinking about this concept with another type of informal housing: slums.

The UN estimates that over 1 billion people around the world live in slums and that the number could increase to 1.39 billion by 2020. In two regions with a high concentration of slum-dwellers compared to the overall urban population, South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, the urban population is expected to double over the next twenty years. We absolutely need to work towards lifting individuals out of poverty and ensuring access to basic needs, such as sanitation and clean water. In addition to that effort, how do we ensure that those living in slums are living in communities of opportunity?

In many ways, slums are vibrant ecosystems. A writer visiting Kibera, Nairobi's biggest slum, described it as a thriving economic hub. "There wasn’t a square of street front property unoccupied by activity: pharmacies, butchers, restaurants, grocery stores, and cell phone shops lined the streets." Most slum dwellers are entrepreneurs and approximately 85% of new employment opportunities occur in the informal economy.

But enterprises in slums are generally micro-enterprises that focus on survival, not growth. Without a formal education, limited access to resources, and an unrecognised status by local governments, slum-dwelling entrepreneurs are operating under extreme difficulty. And often, entrepreneurship is one of the few employment options available, particularly for women. How can make the lives of these entrepreneurs a little bit easier? How do we turn these hubs of micro-enterprises into entrepreneurial ecosystems? 

Imagine if we focused on slums as the next Silicon Valley. With the vast opportunities for businesses at the base of the pyramid, we could help the "bottom billion" solve its own problems and lift itself out of poverty in the process.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Long-Tail Impact of our Social Media Posts

I just got home from the welcome dinner of the second Annual Curators Meeting of the Global Shapers Community, where I met Mykolas Majauskas, the Curator of the Vilnius Hub in Lithuania. Lithuania has a troubled history with Poland, and after an anti-Lithuanian banner was held up at a Polish football match, tension was high.

Lithuania responded with a viral campaign based on the Israel loves Iran effort launched by Rony Edry, an Israeli graphic designer, in 2012. Apparently Mykolas was inspired by the campaign, which he heard about through a post I shared last year in the Shapers' private social network.

I was blown away.

We share stories and read countless posts per day. I very much believe in the cumulative impact of this information exchange, but it often feels like our posts and comments go out into the ether.  I never thought that a single post, particularly one that I shared, could galvanise someone that I had never met.

It was an inspiring moment.

I encourage you all to support Mykolas' campaign and to think about the long-tail impact of your social media posts. Because someone out there just might be reading them.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Debate Over Artificial Intelligence

I've been reading quite a bit about artificial intelligence (AI) lately, and I'm fascinated by the polarisation surrounding the topic. Today's breed of smart computers and robots can beat humans in chess and outperform financial traders in investing stocks. They can also auto-drive cars, detect tumours, and, in the case of drones, drop bombs without any human intervention required. Like all technology, the potential uses are endless and AI can be used for "good" or "bad" purposes.

I see the advantages that artificial intelligence can offer. Smart computers can carry out rote work that we all loathe, and process mass amounts of information, enabling humans to synthesise, analyse, and creatively design solutions. Robots can also provide an opportunity to support humans in becoming more efficient and effective. This is critical in the fields of development, rural medicine, and disaster relief, where coordination is difficult and resources are stretched.

But there are several key debates that we must iron out as we move to more AI. (I will not discuss the concern that, as computing power increases, evil robots will take over the world. This is a great leitmotif for science fiction movies but not exactly relevant for today's AI.) The two biggest concerns around AI today are morality and humanity. Robot ethics is an emerging field. If cars can drive themselves and machines can prescribe medicine, how do we ensure that these robots behave in a moral way? This isn't as straightforward as it seems. Imagine a drunk cyclist swerving in front of a self-driving car. To the left of the car is a sidewalk with a child walking; to the right is another car. What does the self-driving car do in that situation?

Another fear of AI is that it will make us less human. Many technologists describe a near future where humans implant chips into their bodies- enabling them to check their emails and search Wikipedia without the need for a device. Google Glass is seen as a gateway to this new way of accessing information. The debate here centres around our sense of humanity. What does it mean to be human if we suddenly integrate machines into our bodies? Will this evolution turn us into something else? Or is this just a seamless extension of our smartphones?

I love Shyam Sankar's view of cooperation between man and machine, as opposed to man vs. machine. With the aid of smart computers, human can make better decisions and achieve exceptional outcomes. My favourite example from his TED talk is a human + machine chess tournament. Humans entered the tournament with the assistance of machines. The winner of the tournaments was not a chess master with a super computer, but rather a team of two amateurs working with three regular laptops. When man and machine work together effectively, exceptional outcomes are possible.

I hope that a man with machine paradigm is the future of AI. But as we programme robots to take humans out of the equation, we need to find ways to ensure moral outcomes (both by programming moral robots and by understanding the consequences of virtual warfare using drones.) And we need to carefully consider the possibilities of infusing robot-like technologies into our bodies. I am optimistic about the future of man and machine, and I believe that healthy debate will be key to guaranteeing positive outcomes with AI.

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