Elon Musk on keeping on keeping on

As a promoter of innovation and good decision making, I am always hesitant of getting too attached to what the icons like Google, Tesla, GE and others are doing. People take ideas from these organisations while forgetting about the culture, the context and the past of these organisations. Trying to copy and paste things that work in a US firm into a South African one is simply not that straightforward.

A few months ago I received this URL about an interview with Elon Musk from a friend. I filed under “to do when I have nothing important to do”. My friend raved about this video because it showed that even superheroes like Musk can cry on camera. This did not convince me to make space (!!) for this video.

So this morning, while attending to some administrative things, I watched this youtube video of an interview with Musk. I liked it very much. He talks about the difficulties of promoting an idea that is not supported by people that he admired. Yes, he gets a bit moist, but that is certainly not the main reason to watch this clip. Watching the SpaceX rocket return safely to the landing pad was just breathtaking!

So here it is. Take a look.

For me, the moral of the story is this. Don’t think that the current thought leaders will always appreciate your genius, your progress or your ideas. Challenging the Status Quo is tough. Even with lots of money it takes time, probably much longer than we all think.

I hope that you can today also decide to push harder despite not always receiving the recognition and the admiration that you believe you deserve!

Futurists and local economic development

Futurists use a forward-looking philosophy to chart their organisations’ strategies. They are not so caught in the here and now. Rather they imagine and then mobilise people towards a future that does not yet exist. It means you can not yet plan for it, you first have to imagine it. Futurists are not caught up like most of us with trying to make what we have to work better, nor are the plugging gaps. They force us to think about completely new architectures of technology, social arrangements and capabilities.

Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are considered global futurists. Many of the near emergent technologies, like driver-less cars or advances in artificial intellegence were hard to imagine just a decade or two ago, now they seem to be around the corner. Yet, cities, business and governments are still planning with a short term cycle, mainly using what exists or what is lacking as guiding their decisions.

A lot of emphasis here in South Africa are placed on data, prioritising left behind areas and dealing with social integration. Every now and then I wonder if we are not simply getting better at preparing for the past? You know, that one that will never come back? What if the very industries that we have now will not be viable in just a few years? What if the cities and towns that emerged around old industries are no longer viable or sustainable?

This morning I read about New York hiring a futurist to help them imagine and plan for the future on a CNN site.

“In an unlikely move for a city, New York is also hiring a senior futurist to gather insights on possible cultural, economic and environmental changes ahead”

Wow, imagine we could do that here in South Africa? I know we have a long list of problems that require our immediate attention, but should we not set aside some time to also imagine the longer term future? That way, bureaucrats and technocrats can develop better models and designs that can be presented to politicians and citizens. More important, we can get more designers, engineers, scientists and business people mobilised to think about and design for a future that is imminent.

“New York’s latest efforts are designed to be proactive, rather than reactive”

From my perspective, most of our companies and local governments are not ready for what is coming. We are all caught with trying to cope with what is and what should have been done. Then our local political climate sucks a lot of energy from our economy, resulting in resource rich companies growing while all the rest is holding up their breaths, waiting for something to happen.

I know this sounds negative, but with the digital revolution in manufacturing, and the rapidly integration of fast numbers of enterprises into the networked knowledge economy, I see many of our industries falling behind. Not all companies, but many. I often ask my students to imagine the following:

  • What does the future of local economies, secondary cities and the currently unemployed in South Africa look like?
  • What are technologies that we can expect to have a profound change on our country in the medium to longer term? What does this demand from our institutions, policies and businessess?
  • Can we get more people involved in thinking about the long term future?
  • How do we shift from a low skills labour intensive economy towards a knowledge economy without leaving millions behind?
  • What do we have to equip our students and children with to empower them to shift with the times and prepare for this future?

We have so many priorities that we have to address at the same time. Perhaps while we are running on this treadmill we need to also think further into the future.

Just thinking out loud!

The photo at the top of this post was during a Local Economic Development study tour I led to Germany together with Frank Waeltring in 2009. The tour group was a diverse range of senior government officials and the objective was to learn about Germany’s experience with economic change, industrial change and cooperation between many different stakeholders in a decentralised way.

 

New series: Instigating Innovation

I have been developing a new capacity building method and training approach that brings together my work in innovation systems promotion  and my work on improving technology and innovation management. I call it “Instigating Innovation”.

I chose “instigating” because it has a more positive ring to it than provocation or incitement. While it is a noun with mainly a positive tone, it is a bit more aggressive than support, enable or encourage or even stimulating. I have been referred to in my past as an instigator of change so I thought this was a good idea.

Why was this effort firstly necessary and secondary so rewarding?

My work on innovation systems is mainly aimed at assisting meso-organizations such as technology transfer centres, research centres and universities to be more responsive to the needs of the private sector. While it only takes a few interviews by a senior decision maker from one of these institutions to a few leading enterprises to get the organization to improve its offering to the private sector, it does not solve the problem that these institutions often needs a continuous process of innovation itself. So while they can respond to the needs of the enterprises (for instance by launching a new service, or making a key technology available, etc), they often are not able to innovate constantly in order to anticipate what they private sector might need in the future.

With my other hat on, working in the private sector to improve the management of technology and innovation is focused on helping individual and on rare occasions, groups or networks of enterprises to formalize or improve their management of innovation. Here my challenge is that most enterprises innovate by accident, or have elements of an innovation management approach in place without knowing it. But it is not systematic nor is it consistent.

So both supporting institutions and enterprises lack some very basic frameworks to focus their existing development and learning processes to ensure not only short term results (new products & services, process improvements, cost reduction, etc) but to also ensure longer term success (playing in the right markets, selecting the right technologies, investing in the right kind of knowledge, partnering with the right people, etc). Furthermore, most enterprises and supporting institutions have something else in common: they often face resource constraints with the most versatile of their staff being involved in problem solving and not thinking about the future and what may be possible sometime down the line.

I set aside most of March and had great fun reading through my collection of articles, books, reports of past missions, and speaking to entrepreneurs and development practitioners I trust. Based on this investigation I decided on the following criteria for instruments to include in the Instigating Innovation module:

  1. Each instrument or concept must be relevant to both enterprises and meso-level organizations05 building innovative capacity small
  2. Each instrument must provide a very simple framework that can be illustrated on a flipchart
  3. The simple framework must be usable as a workshop format that allows people to reorganize or explore their current and future practices
  4. The frameworks must be scalable, both in depth (allowing pointers for a deep dive into an issue) and in width (useable for a product, issue, portfolio or the strategy of the organization as a whole).
  5. Lastly, I did not want to be the consultant with a project, I want to be the facilitator that enables change and that builds long term sustainability into the organizations that I work with.

This was a very rewarding exercise. Not only do I love reading about innovation, change and technology, I love finding better ways to explain these concepts. It was also great to find a way to connect my work on innovation systems, which often seems abstract, with the tough decisions that the enterprises that I work with must confront and address. I tend to work in the more technical domains dominated by academics, engineers, scientists and manufacturers, so finding a simple yet convincing way to add value to what these clever people do was important.

I will in the next few posts reveal a little bit more of the tools I selected and how it can be used.

Thank you for the EDA team in Bosnia and Herzegovina who motivated me to turn this idea into a capacity building format and who agreed that I try “Instigating Innovation” on their team during my visit to Banja Luka in May 2015!

Instigating Innovation in Banja Luka with the team from EDA
Instigating Innovation in Banja Luka with the team from EDA

Linking – Posts on innovation and science

Somewhere in December I started to rest and neglected reading some of my favorite blog sites. I have now caught up and here are some important posts that I would like to share with my readers.

One of my favorite authors on innovation, Tim Kastelle, made the following posts:

  • Innovation: Are you a gardener or an architect? You can guess that architects plan their innovations, while gardeners are sensitive to what emerges from their environment. When we deal with economic development, we have too many architects and too few gardeners.
  • Failure is ALWAYS an option. This post is also relevant for practitioners working in economic development. We must use our resources to assist our counterparts to experiment. Their resources are often to scarce or expensive for them to experiment with things that might just fail!

One of my other favorite authors, Duncan Green, posted an excellent summary of research on what White House Policy Makers want from Researchers? This is an important question for practitioners working on promoting science to industry and to government. He provides some interesting comments on the original research that is available from his blog article.

In future I will post articles on systemic thinking and complexity on the Systemic Insight Blog that I co-author with Marcus Jenal

UNU-MERIT: How firms innovate: R&D, non-R&D, and technology adoption

You may be interested in the following paper from UNU-MERIT by C. Huang, A. Arundel & H. Hollanders

The official abstract is below.

Non-R&D innovation is a common economic phenomenon, though R&D has been the central focus of policy making and scholarly research in the field of innovation. An analysis of the third European Community Innovation
Survey (CIS-3) results for 15 countries finds that almost half of innovative European firms did not perform R&D in-house. Firms with weak in-house innovative capabilities and which source information from suppliers and competitors tend to innovate through non-R&D activities.
In contrast, firms that engage in product innovation, find clients, universities and research institutions an important information source for innovation, or apply for patents or use other appropriation methods are more likely to perform R&D. However, non-R&D performers do not form a consistent block, with several notable differences between firms that use three different methods of innovating without performing R&D. Many of these determinants also influence the share of total innovation expenditures that are spent on non-R&D innovation activities. Furthermore, an analysis of the determinants of the share of each firm’s total innovation expenditures for non-R&D activities shows that the
factors that influence how innovation expenditures are distributed is generally consistent across sectors and European countries.

What I find interesting is that these empirical findings are very similar to what I have found in my interviews with South African firms. Many firms do a lot of innovation without spending any money on R & D. A large number of firms use specialised product developers (or freelance experts) to do research on their behalf. Or they depend on universities or technology stations for research. Amazingly, the majority of the firms doing product development (as their area of specialisation) are small firms.

I wish we had this kind of data in Africa…..