Reverse Innovation is not a recent phenomenon – it’s been happening for hundreds of years!

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Image Source: Afritorial.com

Anyone who’s followed my thoughts would have deduced by now that I’m extremely passionate about GLOBAL innovation, and I vehemently disagree with insinuations that there’s a region in the world where people are particularly more innovative than others.

However, I do think that there are regions in the world where the social, economic, and legal infrastructures are more favorable towards fostering ideas and measuring the value of their intellectual property. Taking those latter points into consideration, the “Mecca” for such a place is the United States of America, where we are consistently within the top 3 patent holders, partly due to our somewhat lax patent laws, and many of the greatest companies in the world have their roots here. But let’s also keep in mind that, many of the founders of those companies immigrated from other regions of the world, many of them third world or developing countries.

That said, I’d like to introduce to you, if you’re still unfamiliar with it, the concept of “Reverse Innovation” which Vijay Govindajaran, Professor of International Business at Tuft School of Business at Dartmouth College, discusses in his book with Chris Trimble “Reverse Innovation: Create Far From Home, Win Everywhere“. The strong point Mr. Govindajaran makes is that “Innovation is no longer the exclusive domain of the Silicon Valley elite”, that there’s a fundamental shift on the “dynamics of global innovation”. Simply put, the rest of the world is innovating and those ideas are impacting the West, instead of the way around.

Traditionally, innovation has been considered a Western asset to be imported by other countries, especially developing countries. However, this is increasingly changing – “no longer will innovations travel the globe in only one direction, from developed to developing nations” it reads. Professor Govindajaran provides a great example of a world-leading, portable, easy-to-use ultrasound scanner developed by GE in China in 2002 at an ultra fraction of the costs of the ones GE has developed here in the United States.

Mr. Govindajaran’s book has been a success – it’s a New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Amazon bestseller – and I’d like to applaud him for bringing this topic in the forefront of business and economic discussions.

However, I have slight reservations about a few statements made in the book. I also do realize that these may not necessarily be Mr. Govindajaran’s intended thoughts given that most things nowadays are pretty much left wide open for interpretation. But here I go.

Firstly, as I stated above great ideas happen everywhere and Silicon Valley, where I’ve spent a good deal of my time here in the U.S. is not and most importantly should not be thought as the “exclusive domain” of innovation. Making such arguments only reinforces those false beliefs – and I find them just as dangerous as flaunting the term “American Exceptionalism” – though that’s for another conversation and blog.

Secondly, “Reverse Innovation” is NOT a recent phenomenon. It’s been happening for centuries! There’s a track history of developing nations greatly benefiting financially and economically from innovations that took root in developing and third world countries. It’s the social and legal infrastructure in the West that has enabled them to benefit most often at the detriment of the other countries – these are facts and we should paint the entire picture.

This debate about innovation reminds me of another, property rights, and arguments made by the economist Hernando De Soto in his book The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else, where he asserts that the lack of a legal structure, unlike in the West, in the allocation and tracking of property rights in developing nations impedes with their ability to attract capital. Effectively, it’s this absence of legal structure in the development and protection of intellectual property rights in developing and third world countries that’s always been the problem.

The fact is, Western nations have been inspired by great ideas that originated in other regions such as Africa, Asia, and Latin America but the problem, or missed opportunity rather, is that these regions for thousands of years evolved as communities where everyone benefited from the contribution of others; people benefited from the inventions of inventors just as they (the inventors) benefited from the crops from farmers and the meat from hunters. It’s not easy to change thousands of years worth of that approach to life into one a capitalistic model where one person innovates and charges everyone else in the community a fee to access the invention. Times and laws have long changed but cultural behaviors have not.

Let me give you some examples. Did you know that the first condom, pen, shoe with heels (there goes one for the ladies) were invented by Egyptians? Now, how many condom, pen, and shoe brands do you know are owned by an Egyptian person or company.

Anyone who’s lived or spent a considerable amount of time in a developing country knows this or at the very least has witnessed great ingenuity that regrettably is either not fostered or shipped away to a country in the West.

I traveled to Africa in May 2013 to get a better sense of how people were innovating and see the extent of Internet penetration in some of those countries. On my flight, I sat next to one of the most invigorating woman I’ve ever met – Urginia Warwick. She lives in London but travels to Cameroon frequently to oversee a school and program she put in place to train teachers on how to work with special aid students in their classrooms.In Cameroon, you see, there’s no such thing as a special aid teacher, at least not in public schools. But Ms. Warwick was donating her time and money, traveling from London to Cameroon, four times or more a year to create that opportunity. That is inspiring! During our conversation she told me of a young man she met in Bamenda, a city in the North West of Cameroon, who invented an incubator for premature babies that worked better than the ones they had in the city’s General Hospital. Amazing! Is that something not worth encouraging? I’d planned to take a trip with her to go meet him but unfortunately those plans were derailed. Had it not been for Ms Warwick I would have most likely never heard of that young man. And had it not been for me, you’d most likely never heard about him too. There are great things happening far from our eyes and ears, as well as those of the wonderful writers and journalists at Mashable and TechCrunch.

Innovation is a wonderful thing and we shouldn’t leave it to chance to discover great ideas and people to foster, nor should we reinforce false beliefs that certain regions or countries have a monopoly on the best innovations.

We should work collectively on finding and introducing a globally accessible and scalable solution that allows innovators anywhere in the world to thrive by leveraging each other’s experience, savoir-faire, and the interest of the general public.

 

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