Innovation: Lost in time

Innovation: Lost in Time

Written by Duncan Fogg, Summer 2014 Kericho Fellow

We have been surrounded in recent years by futuristic technology. Our world around us has been flipped forward: social media, 3D printing, big data, cloud technology and all sorts of futuristic jargon that has infiltrated our every day lives. Sure, we don’t have the hoverboard just yet, but it looks like we aren’t doing too shabby.

So how do we actually predict the future? We are all futurists in some shape or form, whether that is betting on the next football score or guessing what the new iPhone will look like, and undoubtedly, most of the time, we get it dead wrong. Most economists, futurists and entrepreneurs alike would argue that the future is dictated by what we create in the present, guided by the often overused and frequently misunderstood concept – innovation. It seems innovation is a perennial buzzword, agnostic to industry or context, ubiquitously announced but rarely achieved.

Sometimes companies who also try to predict the future can also get it dead wrong. Occasionally companies know that there is a need, but they don’t actually create anything new. Ask yourself, when was the last time the new iPhone model blew you away? Similarly, not every idea has its place in the mass market; sometimes we get something we haven’t asked for. How many of you are rushing to the shelf to buy the Google Glass? Sure it’s a novelty and I wouldn’t mind playing around with one for a day, but I can’t imagine it becoming a part of my everyday. I just don’t need it.

At Balloon Kenya, we also advocate that innovation is the best guide to the future. However, innovation often comes from multiple and completely unexpected places. We cannot purport to have the means or capital to invest millions in new technological innovation. For us, innovation looks a little different. It comes from the grassroots, it comes from testing, exploring; a journey that has no goal, just a wave of discovery.

Balloon Kenya uses just about the broadest definition you can think of for innovation. In simple terms, they argue that innovation = creativity + added value.  Let’s take a look at these two components individually.

When we talk about creativity we really look to explore the world back again for crazy ideas. We regress, back to childhood, where nothing was a stupid answer, new ideas were on tap, imagining was as natural as breathing. When challenged with developing a business model for a start-up with just two bikes, ideas ranged from a street cleaning service, a circus, and an energy-generating gym. Trying to adapt a creative lens means you can be unbound by practicality, unbound by adages like ‘that would never work’ or ‘don’t be stupid’.  Sometimes I think being involved in a start-up is a little like being one of Peter Pan’s lost boys, embarking on one endless adventure and just flat out refusing to ever grow up.

The second half to innovation – added value, takes all that imagination, and grounds it within a framework of application. This by no means kills the creativity, in fact quite the opposite, added value just looks to create a solution to an existing problem, creating both a commercial and social incentive to a new idea. Take the energy-generating bike for example. The constant blackouts in Kericho often drive us fellows’ crazy, but wouldn’t that be a perfect opportunity to hit the gym and charge our phones at the same time? Creativity + added value: the perfect couple.

So as I reach my last week here in Kenya, I now look at innovation with fresh new childlike eyes. No longer am I sitting around waiting for the hoverboard, I’m playing with what we already have, I’m looking for the cheapest, easiest, most efficient way to create something new. I’ve moved far beyond the future and looked backwards, towards what we already think we know, asking why we do things, looking for the cause before the cure. For me, that is something I can rely on, something that can be achieved again and again, we don’t have to guess whether innovation will work because we have already asked why a million times; the innovation is in the mindset. And now I think that maybe companies could predict the future a little differently, maybe innovation is a bit like a time machine, sometimes you have to go back to go forwards.