Institutional Innovation

Here’s a fairly radical idea: if the problem with economic development is that many poorly developed countries have poor institutions, maybe instead of trying to improve their institutions it makes more sense to move the people that live there to a place with better institutions. Let’s break that down a bit.

There is a line of economic research that I find pretty persuasive – it says that the biggest problem in economic development is poor institutions. One of the leading researchers in this area is Dani Rodrik – his book One Economics, Many Recipes: Globalization, Institutions and Economic Growth is the best development economics book that I’ve read. His basic idea is that economic institutions both drive and constrain economic growth, and the the correct mix will vary from country to country based on each nation’s history, culture, economic system, and so on. The research that supports this approach is solid, and to me it makes a lot more sense than the one size fits all approach followed by the IMF, among others.

The second part of the opening paragraph paraphrases some of the recent talks by Paul Romer – another outstanding international economist. His fundamental idea is to try a charter cities approach to develop – the overly simplified one sentence version of that idea is that he wants to create more Hong Kongs.

Here’s a slightly longer explanation from his piece that came out last week in Prospect Magazine:

So, two days later, I opened my own TED talk with a different photo, one of African students doing their homework at night under streetlights. I hoped the image would provoke astonishment rather than guilt or pity—for how could it be that the 100-year-old technology for lighting homes was still not available for the students? I argued that the failure could be traced to weak or wrong rules. The right rules can harness self-interest and use it to reduce poverty. The wrong rules stifle this force or channel it in ways that harm society.

The deeper problem, widely recognised but seldom addressed, is how to free people from bad rules. I floated a provocative idea. Instead of focusing on poor nations and how to change their rules, we should focus on poor people and how they can move somewhere with better rules. One way to do this is with dozens, perhaps hundreds, of new “charter cities,” where developed countries frame the rules and hundreds of millions of poor families could become residents.

It’s a pretty good example of how hard it is for ideas to spread – even good ones like electricity. We’ve already talked about how Edison’s idea for the light bulb didn’t diffuse until he built a generating station and power lines. So it clearly take a fair bit of effort to get ideas to spread. And there are still issues with electricity in some countries. The idea that is gaining momentum in development circles is that it is structural problems that are leading to a lack of development.

Romer argues that the way around this is to stop fighting to change the institutions, but to create new ones in protected regions. I’m not convinced that the idea will work, but I think it is a pretty good example of re-thinking problems that seem intractable to those that are deeply embedded within a system that needs to change (see the discussion from yesterday’s post and the day before’s).

William Easterly has looked at the same ideas about institutions, and advocates an approach quite different from Romer’s. He talks about about the need to take a more bottom-up approach. In his books (The Elusive Quest for Growth and White Man’s Burden), Easterly talks about experimenting with a lot of different development and aid ideas, find the ones that work, and scale those up. It is pretty similar to the idea of algorithmic innovation that I’ve discussed previously.

What does this have to do with you if you’re trying to make innovation work better within your particular organisation – a firm, a university, a government department or whatever? I think economic development is an important issue in and of itself, but there are also a couple of useful ideas for organisations in this. The first is that if you are in one of those organisations that seems highly resistant to innovation, the approaches that Romer and Easterly are using can be taken as blueprints. Both are trying to address the issue of how to get good new ideas to spread within systems that appear to be completely stuck. As I argued yesterday, this is actually a common problem within many organisations.

So one way to attack this problem is to completely reformulate your basic assumptions, like Romer is doing. The advantage to this is that if it works, the payoff might be huge. The risk is that the overall level of risk is also high. This is basically the Apple approach to innovation – trying to reconfigure every market they enter.

A different angle of attack is to unleash a barrage of small experiments, find the ones that work, then scale these up – the Easterly approach. The advantage to this approach is that the cost of failure for each individual experiment is small, and if you try enough, you have a good chance of stumbling across a big idea that will work. Or the cumulative effect of the small institutional innovations might lead to a bigger change. The risk is that you might come up with a number of successful small innovations that fail to change the larger system. This has been the Google approach – their 20% rule for working on your own projects is a classic bottom-up innovation system.

Risks and payoffs – both paths are hard. But both are better than sitting around doing nothing, and better than continuing to try things that demonstrably don’t work. Some ideas to think about at least…

If you’d like to learn more about the Charter Cities idea, there is a good website for it, and Romer’s TED talk is also very good:

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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3 thoughts on “Institutional Innovation

  1. In the context of charter cities, perhaps a scalable approach might begin with a “Charter Mindset”. Until we have a vision for something better (freedom and success) and a proven system to climb up and out of our circumstance (continuous improvement) we may not be willing to take the effort or the risk required to “scale the wall” (or cooperate at the larger scale of community iniitiatives). That is a widely known concept but a seldom used construct – in relationships, business, or governance.

    That vision must begin with the expectation of equitable representation – and anticipate equitable reward at its destination. The mental approach (and the ultimate realization) must align with and within those two basic constructs or it is likely to fail.

    So if we seek better answers – perhaps we need to begin with better questions. And if we seek better questions – what are the most basic ones that offer us the core insight needed for our situation – and are also applicable to yours – and theirs as well?

    I’ve narrowed it down to four. Perhaps you have a better idea**…, and that** is a “Charter Mindset” and it engages both the vision and process and the cooperative approach needed to launch us toward a better result – to find answers that work – for both of us, and them – continuously, and globally.

  2. Thanks for the comment George. I think you’re absolutely right about the need for a new mindset, and that this will come from asking different questions.

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