Are there any good ideas out there?
I was fortunate enough to represent Social Finance as one of the 1000 young people from over 100 countries that were selected for this year’s Unleash Innovation Lab in Singapore.
Now in its second year, the goal of Unleash is to find new solutions to some of the world’s most challenging problems — which in doing so will bring us collectively closer to achieving the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). To reach this ambitious goal, all Unleash participants are organized into different tracks, each corresponding to an SDG, and within those tracks they form teams that focus on specific areas related to the SDG. Each team then clearly defines a problem related to that SDG, ideates on and designs a solution to it, and pitches their solution at the end of the week to their peers and a panel of experts.
The idea behind Unleash, at its core, is a simple one. Bring bright, passionate, young change makers together from all over the world, and let the collision of their ideas about big problems produce novel insights. Do this enough times, and the probability that a few massively innovative ideas will emerge increases.
Working at Social Finance gives me exposure to a lot of impactful social innovations being delivered by passionate organisations — which can at times lead to a skepticism about this kind of “one idea can change the world” thinking, or what you might call capital ‘I’ innovation. That is to say, sometimes it can be easy to think there are no new ideas under the sun. However, the opportunity Unleash presented became concrete to me during the event’s open ceremonies, when we were given six Lego bricks…
We were given 30 seconds to turn this bag of Lego bricks into a duck. After frantically jamming bricks together, when the time was up and we had the chance to compare our creations to the other delegates around us, the premise of the week became clear — we all had different ducks.
This led to my first key takeaway on innovation from the week. We all had the same inputs, a limited amount of time, and different mental models of a duck — which resulted in hundreds of variations. This is a powerful example of how divergent thinking in groups can result in innovation.
Divergent thinking is a thought process used to generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions. This type of thinking occurs in a spontaneous, free-flowing, “non-linear” manner (i.e. 30 seconds, six Lego blocks, make a duck). Different solutions are explored in a short amount of time, and unexpected connections are drawn. The power of divergent thinking in groups, is that you can surface a vast number of these ideas, and then have the group learn from each other’s solutions. This can lead to some surprising revelations that can be used to make the next iteration of an idea better (“Ahhh I didn’t think to use the second red brick as feet!”).
When in our teams, this divergent thinking became very apparent. My team had two finance professionals, one entrepreneur, and three engineers — each with their own conception of how our problem (rural access to electricity) could be solved. The engineers saw a technical problem, the financiers focused on how solutions could be funded, and the entrepreneur was worrying about delivery. This made coming up with one unified solution difficult, but also meant that each unique way of approaching the problem was valued and considered during the design phase, which ultimately strengthened our solution and led to what we thought was an interesting innovation.
Our team designed a scalable, modular, renewable, off-grid energy generation system that could be part-owned by rural communities in Sub-Saharan Africa. A product of divergent thinking, but sad to say, not entirely innovative. Turns out a similar model had been tested in some rural communities in India. To be sure, we had some interesting differences in our model, but the core of the solution was not necessarily revolutionary. This led to my second reflection on innovation: replication leads to innovation through action.
While the idea of capital “I”, innovation can be seductive (completely new ideas that change the world), there are a lot of innovations that could be massively impactful if they saw replication at scale. Let’s not forget, there are innovations that come along with replication as well. Adapting a successful social intervention, or base-of-the-pyramid product in a new location will invariably require innovation to adapt to new local contexts.
When we talk of reaching scale to ensure no one is left behind in the pursuit of the SDGs, it’s important to remember that we can reach scale the Facebook way, or the McDonald’s way. Facebook is one big idea, with very little local variation, that has reached an incredible scale. Open Facebook in the London or Bangalore and it looks almost identical. One platform, massive scale. McDonald’s on the other hand is a network of franchises, locally adapted to meet consumer preferences and needs. The McDonalds in London looks very different to the one in Bangalore (they don’t serve McPaneer’s in London, or Big Macs in Bangalore), and yet when you go to a McDonald’s you are almost assured of a certain level of service and quality. That is high fidelity replication to reach scale.
Unleash was a great opportunity to think big with a group of enthusiastic young people. I am sure there will be few opportunities to be in such a diverse group in my life. The kind of idea exchange that can be done with that level of diversity is special, and thinking big with that group was incredibly fun and energizing. With that said, it is important to remember that achieving impact at scale can take many forms, through many channels of ‘innovation’ — and in any case the real hard work comes in implementation.
If we were lucky, teams at Unleash got 2% of the work done — getting some ideas on paper. Real impact comes from ideas doggedly executed with relentless optimism and persistence. That takes hard work, but I have faith that my fellow talents, and other young people around the world looking to make a difference can make it happen.