The Future is Already Here – Find It!

bank with tweets

William Gibson famously said:

The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.

Here’s an example.  On one of my trips to Silicon Valley, Matt Perez invited me along to a workshop on the future of money.  As I described previously, there were a range of ideas put forward about what the future of money will look like.

Some visions included the smallest possible increment of progress – like the bank that had invented the world’s first social credit card.  What makes it social? You can like it on Facebook.



Other ideas were much more ambitious, like the guys that wanted to replace the entire global financial system with currency based on tweets.

bank with tweets

But here’s the thing: the future of money is already here – in Africa.

Last week on Bloomberg, Charles Graeber described a ten day trip to Kenya, where he paid for everything with a mobile phone.  Everything!

You can’t do that here in Brisbane.  You can’t do it in Silicon Valley right now either.

The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed.



That picture is from Jan Chipchase’s great presentation called Designing Services for Financial Inclusion, which you can download here.

The main mobile payment company in Kenya is M-Pesa – and if you look at that picture from Chipchase, you can see that it doesn’t even need a smartphone to work.

Graeber describes how the M-Pesa system has leapfrogged the need for both landlines and banks in Kenya:

M-pesa took off almost instantly because it made it safer for Kenyans to send money home (instead of having cash carried by a cousin, say, on a bus prone to breakdowns, traffic accidents, and theft) and because M-pesa on a SIM card allowed millions of Kenyans without a bank account to become their own personal ATMs, especially appealing to farmers between harvests. If a Kenyan didn’t have a phone, she could simply borrow one; all she needed was a SIM card to be in business.

Much of a One Acre Fund field officer’s time involves collecting payment in person from the 80,000 client farmers in Kenya. That involves carrying around small piles of bills. The field officers have been robbed, and fraud is always a concern. Now, instead of a weekly collection, they use M-pesa to quickly deposit money. The next step, currently in large-scale trial, allows farmers to send micropayments directly to the central One Acre Fund account.

It’s all part of a larger trend of using mobile technology and incremental payment plans to bring basic grid services to off-grid people. Companies such as Angaza Design, Off Grid Electric, Mobisol, and M-Kopa Kenya are doing this with digital microfinanced solar. Tone Kwa Tone Pata Pump (Swahili for “drop by drop gets the pump”) does something similar with farm irrigation systems; Sustainable Water & Sanitation in Africa installs M-pesa payable clean water stations.

Here is one of the shots from Graeber’s photo essay that accompanies the piece:

pay with M-Pesa

This story illustrates some important innovation points.

First off, we simply must get better at scanning and connecting ideas.  It’s not enough just to look at what our direct competitors are doing – in fact, it might be counterproductive.  Instead, we need to look into areas that face similar problems.  For example, the NHS and then other health services started to learn how to work more effectively and more safely by adopting some of the methods used by Formula 1 pit crews.

This is one of the key components of the innovator’s DNA identified by Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregorson and Clayton Christensen.  They say:

Innovative breakthroughs often happen at the intersection of diverse disciplines and fields. Author Frans Johanssen described this phenomenon as “the Medici effect,” referring to the creative explosion in Florence when the Medici family brought together creators from a wide range of disciplines—sculptors, scientist, poets, philosophers, painters, and architects. As these individuals connected, they created new ideas at the intersection of their respective fields, thereby spawning the Renaissance, one of the most innovative eras in history. Put simply, innovative thinkers connect fields, problems, or ideas that others find unrelated.

As Nilofer Merchant says, the social era is about connecting things, people and ideas.  So you need to travel, meet people, and read.  By doing these things purposefully, we can improve our scanning and connecting skills.  Even if we’re introverts, we can look for experiences and ideas outside of our comfort zones.  Especially if we’re introverts…

Finally, we need to check our assumptions. Would you have guessed that Kenya is ahead of Silicon Valley in mobile payments?  I wouldn’t have.  And yet, it is.  It’s important to break down our assumptions about how the world works (more on this later this week).  I specifically recommend paying attention to business stories coming out of China, India and Africa.  There is amazing stuff going on in all three places.

One important point, however, is that mobile payments in Silicon Valley won’t work in exactly the same way that they do in Kenya.  We always need to adapt an idea to our local context – that’s what makes it innovation!

But if we’re not scanning widely for ideas in the first place, we won’t even have a chance to do that.

If the future is already here, our job is to go out and find it.  Then bring it back home and make it work there.

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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