More on Reverse Innovation

To the right of my first “Innovation Writ Large” announcement, you could read the flier for a column of July 2 “Discover new possibilities with Reverse Innovation” by my IM colleague Gunjan Bhardwaj. This – Reverse Innovation – is a theme that I would like to return to, not because there was anything wrong with that contribution but rather the, well, reverse: I’d propose further emphasizing its importance and future potential.

For a subject of growing importance, reverse innovation is but one moniker employed, one of the alternatives being frugal engineering. Vijay Govindarajan is another vocal advocate, forwarding more ideas than his own also. It has been suggested that the idea may even bring about a new way of living (certainly meeting the description ‘innovation writ large’). General Electric is one large company trying to profit from innovation “from the bottom and up”, Philips another.

The idea is of course not entirely new but it has often previously taken on a somewhat condescending hue – or at least some observers have felt so. Early on, E F Schumacher, of “Small is beautiful” fame, proposed the idea of Buddhist economics and what he termed intermediate technology. Thus he saw founded, in 1966, a British outfit, the Intermediate Technology Development Group, ITDG, since 2005 renamed Practical Action, that undertook to develop a number of technological solutions more adapted to both the acute problems and the infrastructure (often lack thereof) in the developing world. Some of the ideas and solutions percolated back into the industrial world and its technology. More and more, the label intermediate technology has given way for ‘appropriate technology’ (cf the web addresses given here, versus the headings in Wikipedia).

Yet another initiative, now long gone it seems, was a Philips initiative, the Proefzentrum. One of its foundations was the fact that many countries imposed import quotas to support indigenous industry. To cater to such markets, production series could only be small compared to the normal ones in and for the industrialized world. Consequently, products, production processes, and even organizations and skill requirements had to be structured very differently. The Proefzentrum started around 1960 and some results trickled back – indigenous solutions had been designed – to Philips’ main markets, but obviously, since not even Google can trace much of it, the effort did not pan out, or was an effort too early.

One might look at initiatives such as Negroponte’sOne Laptop Per Child” as something in the same vein – as Philips’ early efforts into Stirling engines constituted a result of the need for producing electricity for radios in, for example, the Dutch Indies (now Indonesia), lacking in infrastructure, specifically a reliable electric grid.

A bit and a piece

Heralded as a major step in idea management, Kindling offers idea assistance. The idea is to connect to collaborate. Somewhat akin in the sense that connections generate collaboration on ideas, in this case open innovation ideas, is that which underpins an IDEO – the famous design firm – initiative.

Featured Law: Clay Shirky’s principle

This time, our law is a principle, associated with author and Internet analyst Clay Shirky, an outspoken crowd-sourcing enthusiast (book: “Here Comes Everybody”; “Cognitive Surplus” is the more recent one). He has coined (perhaps the exact wording is Kevin Kelly’s) the principle that “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution”. In other words, created to solve a problem, institutions rather come to perpetuate it. The association with innovation is obvious: institutional innovation to solve a problem may instead result in the problem being preserved, in effect institutionalized.