Monday, May 11, 2009

The Rules of innovation

Over in White African, the author, a Kenyan who is Caucasian (yes, they exist), describes principles that drive innovation in Africa in general. The "White African" is his personal blog, he has another one, AfriGadget about African inventions in general. Technically, this is a reposting of Ethan Zuckerman's expose on the innovation that he routinely sees.
Africa is rather different from much of the rest of the world. It has been bled white of resources in a series of wars, after a long history of colonial rule, often kleptocratic. Many of its natural resources have grotesquely deteriorated. The northern part was, in ancient history, a lush forest, but is today the Saraha desert, a burning wasteland of sand and little else. The Savannah to the south is likewise difficult for human habitation.
Africans have generally been described as hungry for education and jobs to pull themselves out of desperate poverty. These things are not readily available, as the people are poor, the government is poor, the infrastructure was all destroyed in the last war, and even if the resources were available, many people are afraid to help out because the wars could restart at any minute now. (The less stable countries tend to abruptly collapse into a coup, which then decides that a border war would be an excellent idea.)
That said, apparently lots of Africans own cell phones, which they buy from Latin American companies. (Land lines? Long destroyed.) When there's no schooling to be had, Africans feel that owning a cell phone is prestigious. You can make calls, transfer money, even make some money. Apparently Africans will forgo eating for a week to afford a good phone.
Anwyay, I see these rules as relevant not only to Africa, but to me, here, in wealthy America. Innovation proceeded poorly in many of the wealthier eras, which had a remarkable lust for snake-oil, Veblen goods, and the most comedicly wrong thinking of all time. It was during the poorer and more threatened times that the real innovation shines through. Incidentally, my home state was initially populated with a gold rush, but guess who actually made the money? It wasn't the gold miners, it was the people who sold them things. (Forgot a pickaxe? Want eggs for breakfast instead of those iron rations? Need a pair of jeans that doesn't have a huge hole in the knees? I accept gold nuggets!) This is a wealthy time currently, so much of the discourse is bitching about how expensive everything is and wondering how to offshore more of it.
Working with culture is important because it's the basic framework of people's lives. It defines their sense of time, space, good and evil. Working against culture will make people find your work pointless, stupid, evil, or some combination of the three.
Use market measures. Giving stuff away encourages people to just take all they can until your resources are exhausted. People better respect what they have to pay for.
Start with what you've got. To build a train, you'd need rail, fuel, trainyards, train station, and a train engineer, but a bicycle fleet can be put together with what you've got.
Problems are not obvious from afar. The framework that applies to me does not apply to the various frameworks of Africa, nor would any of their frameworks apply to me. Tanzanian children love stationary bicycles and can use them for power generation because it's a fun novelty. American children probably have their own bike, yawn, boring. Many Africans are surviving on $1/day, an amount at which I would be homeless and on a starvation diet.
Infrastructure can produce more infrastructure. If trains are really important to you, you will find a way to build the rails. Cars are important to America, since we like the idea of a vehicle that obeys our personal individual will, so roads and highways are built up at great expense. In Africa, cell phones are quite common, so a network of solar powered car batteries have been developed to recharge them, and a young genius has a system to use cell phones to prevent grand theft auto. (Note to self: Find way to fund this.)
Most importantly, I want to see how running lean might work out. Anything of which I can reduce the expenses is a thing that can sell for cheaper, and hence more. Muhahaha.

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