Grassroots Innovation

Veronica Vera pointed me to a great talk by Anil Gupta from TEDIndia. He talks about grassroots innovation, and methods for getting ideas to spread in poorer regions. It’s a fascinating talk:

Innovation in developing countries is a wildly unappreciated phenomenon – there are incredibly interesting things going on in places like India, China and Brazil. Some of them are built around finding innovative ways to provide goods and services to poorer people at much lower costs. Aravind Eye Care and the Tata Nano car are just two good examples of how this works.

Gupta is talking about something different though. He is not approaching poor people as consumers, but as inventors. This is reflected in one of the slogans of the Honey Bee Network – minds on the margin are not marginal minds.

The Honey Bee Network has done some great work in cataloging thousands of inventive ideas that people have developed. Most of them are things that make their own lives better, but many of them also have much wider potential applications. There are several important things that we can learn from this.

  • Innovations diffuse through networks – inventions inventoried by the Honey Bee Network have gone through two steps of the innovation process. Someone had a great idea, and they figured out how to make it work. The next step is to get the idea to spread. The HNB takes a network approach to getting people to share ideas. Their objective is the creation of technology commons – ideas are free for people to people use, but a license is required for firms. By cataloging the ideas in one central registry, it is much easier to help people connect up with the ideas. To get the ideas to spread they are creating a network.
  • Use a portfolio approach to take advantage of the long tail of innovation – one of the big issues in diffusing these ideas is that many of them are of use to a relatively small number of people. Guptil argues that this should not discourage attempts to get the ideas to spread. By developing a broad network of people interested in grassroots innovation, it is easier to locate the people in the long tail. The central registry of ideas makes it relatively easy to sort through them and find ones that are appropriate to use in particular circumstances.
  • Not all good ideas come from where we are – Guptil says this when trying to encourage Indians to be more willing to adopt ideas from China and Brazil. The idea applies more broadly too. It doesn’t matter where you are – there are plenty of great ideas that come from someplace else. It benefits us to be humble enough to realise this and to learn from others.

This is actually a great example of an aggregate, filter and connect value creation strategy. The Honey Bee Network does all three very effectively. They have aggregated over 10,000 great inventive ideas from around the world. By assessing and describing each one, they enable potential adopters to filter through this huge database to find the ideas that will be most useful. And they have created an extensive, strong network that they can leverage to connect ideas to ideas, and ideas to people. This is how they get the great ideas to spread.

There are great ideas everywhere – the key to innovation is developing systems that allow us to test these ideas and get them to spread. The Honey Bee Network is a great example of how to build a platform that enables the process of innovation to take place – even in locations that many people don’t often think of as innovative. There’s a lot we can learn from this.

Here is a full slide show from Anil Gupta that has more detail on a lot of the examples that he uses in his TED talk:

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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6 thoughts on “Grassroots Innovation

  1. Hi Tim!
    I’m glad you liked this talk!
    It’s really very interesting
    I think these words are very powerful:

    “Minds on the margin are not marginal minds”

    and I also liked the origin and essence of his idea, as he explained:

    “one day , while coming back from the office towards home, it occurred to my mind, that if I could be like the honey bee, life would be wonderful.
    What the honey bee does: it pollinates, takes nectar from the flower, pollinates another flower, cross-pollinates.
    And when it takes the nectar, the flowers don’t feel shortchanged. In fact, they invite the honey bees through their colors. And the bees don’t keep all the honey for themselves.
    These are the three guiding principles of the Honey Bee Network — that whenever we learn something from people it must be shared with them in their language. They must not remain anonymous”

    Thanks and have a great weekend!
    PD: this week I was working on this talks translation, so Spanish subtitle is already available!

  2. Thanks for the tip on this one Veronica – it’s a terrific talk! Translating this must be a fair bit of work – I saw the work you did on your blog with the Itay Talgum talk – another one of my favourites!

  3. dear Tim and Veronica
    i really appreciate your comments and ideas,
    hope through you honey bee network will connect with new friends who wish to recognise, respect and reward green grassroots innovators and trad knowledge holders . pl do visit and look forward to anmy contacts around your areas of influence who can help us share what we have and learn from what they have discovered

  4. Thanks for stopping by Anil. I will definitely look into what I can do to help spread the word – it’s a terrific initiative and I would like to do what I can to help.

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