Putting the Iin innovation to help change the world

CERN; NASA; Claude Shannon: courtesy of MIT Museum; public domain | collage & design: NODE Berlin Oslo
CERN; NASA; Claude Shannon: courtesy of MIT Museum; public domain | collage & design: NODE Berlin Oslo

I used to think that innovation was somebody else’s job.  My job was just to envision the future by becoming a part of small bands of elite creative thought leaders that had access to the best minds and the biggest budgets within large institutions. Then members of those small bands started to meet up with greater challenges that we all can face such as cancer, heart disease, or mental illness. Wasn’t there something that I could do to help tackle these larger world problems? Who am I, as just an individual, to be able to make a difference? Whose job is it to address these problems? As I explored, I realized how many ways that innovation can be my job; it’s everybody’s job. Those who can, must, for those who can’t. Below are emerging ways where you can put the “I” in innovation and help change the world.

Small is the new big

In working for large companies, universities and organizations, I realized what authors Richard N. Foster and Sarah Kaplan concluded in their book “Creative Destruction.” Large institution’s greatest strength, “operational excellence,” is their greatest obstacle to innovation. Large institutions, like large ships have a hard time changing directions and innovation is about making changes. In reality, it is small businesses and institutions that start most of the radical of innovations, led by creative, visionary and compassionate entrepreneurs or “intrepreneurs.” 

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. – Margaret Mead

15 years ago, I took a 100% pay-cut to become an intrepreneur, which is the same thing as entrepreneur, but without owner’s privileges. I started a small laboratory in one of the country’s largest universities to make a difference. That laboratory has since spawned other successful laboratories and I spun-out into becoming a social entrepreneur, so I could bring research advances to the real world (see post our work in Aphasia, Innovation: Liberating, not Disruptive). Our lean team was able to embed into large global entities to stimulate innovation from within secure establishments. 

However, we were seeing how smaller entities can be even more effective working outside of larger entities. With new networks of social enterprise, there has never been a time in human history where an individual could be so effective in sparking innovation that can change the world. In the last ten years, we have seen  social innovation become central to our innovation economy to be repeated on a consistent and global scale thereby creating our modern  innovation culture where an individual can make a difference.

Below are five powerful emerging ways that you can become a social innovator and put the “I” in innovation (quitting your day job is optional).

1. Open Innovation: Creating a role for everybody

Innovation is increasingly in the hands of the communities they serve and are driven by their users who are the true innovators (see previous post). Thought leaders in those communities create, collaborate and share their process and succeed beyond the constructs of rigid institutions to crowd-source new ideas, financing and critical skill sets.  Charles Leadbeater in his TED Talk on the “Era of Open Innovation,” explains how open innovation is stimulating new market and consumer behavior that is driving new thriving economic ecosystems.

Open innovation uses the opportunity to go beyond one’s limited means as an individual or institution to leverage bright minds, ideas and solutions around the world and transfer them into unique solutions for diverse problems. The assumption, explains Henry Chesbrough, author of “Open Innovation,” is that the smartest people are not working on your staff. The internet community can provide sharing networks, crowd-sourcing and problem-solving that can bring powerful insight and creative ideas you may not be able to purchase otherwise.  Also, Intellectual property in your vaults (or mind) may have limited value and be delaying innovation by not circulating. You can be leveraging internal intellectual capital to develop new external intellectual assets, improve value chains and reduce costs.

Small acts take on big problems

Research and Develop It Yourself  is working to tackle a serious global environmental problem and urban health issue by recruiting urban dwellers to start their own Window Farm laboratory. Apartment windows can harvest abundant energy from the sun and grow fresh food produce for their very own Farm-to-Table Restaurant. By avoiding the carbon footprint of transportation of fresh vegetables across the globe and getting a higher yield of nutrients from fresh vegetables in your home, you are making a better world. Imagine the growing urban culture doing this to reduce carbon footprint, childhood obesity or adult diabetes in the inner-city?

2. The Sharing Economy:  Limitation is the Root of Creativity

Your first excuse for not leading an innovation initiative may be, “How can I change the world with my limited resources, skills and knowledge?”  The Sharing Economy is all about leveraging resources of others to bring an innovative solution to the customer.  AirBnB started by sharing a San Fransisco loft in 2007 and is now valuing close to $20 billion dollars to become the fastest growing lodging company by sharing rooms in other people’s homes. With over a million rooms, they are more than double the size of the largest hotel company in the world. This is without owning a single hotel. While only starting in 2009, Uber is dominating the taxi business with expected revenues of $10 billion without owning a single taxi.  By sharing the resources of many, you can leverage them into a product solution to better fit a need for customers. Your limitation can spur the creative concepts behind the next big innovation by using the assets of the Sharing Economy.

After 50 years of the best minds and billions of dollars of investment into Virtual Reality (VR), it took a young upstart (and his start-up Oculus) to bring VR into the mainstream with Oculus Rift.   Palmer Luckey, through social networking, professional collaboration and lots of perseverance,  KickedStarted his vision through Crowd Source Funding that turned a wild dream into $2.4 million dollars. With the participation of future customers and developers he created the brand Oculus Rift brand that was bought out by Facebook for billions of dollars. Starting as an 18 year old, he had the ambition to jump in and ask for support from users, universities and commercial participation. This not only sparked a whole new consumer market, it stimulated billions of dollars more of investment from other corporations to develop similar and competing products.

So, what is your excuse for not becoming a social innovator?

3.  Creative Commons & CoWorking in the Creative Economy

You may be asking, “how can I do it myself?” The answer is that you don’t! That would be your first mistake.  Everybody has a secret wish to make a difference and to be respected for what they offer to the world. They just want to be asked to help. You need to create or find an innovation culture to either lead or to follow. 

The Creative Economy today is based upon the concept that ideas, not money or machinery, are the source of success. The key is to find creative ideas and recruit creative talent to make that vision become real. The reality is that we are all creative and enterprising. As Nobel Prize winning Social Innovator,  Muhammad Yunus, says, “we are born entrepreneurs (or intrepreneurs).”

You don’t even need your own ideas to start your quest, you can find creative ideas within the Creative Commons. You add the passion to make a difference. The Creative Commons provides intellectual capital and open source products that others want to share.  In addition, other start-up innovation firms are offering ‘freemium’ cost models on products that are critical tools for business and organization.

 You can find creative talent at a local CoWorking studio or FabLab. Co-Working spaces come in all shapes and sizes and provide a stable of independent, creative talent and skills. Co-Working provides shared resources and access to potential clients that offer minimal start up costs and allow for rapid growth.  With a global network of Co-Working spaces and communities, you can mobilize in most any city in the US and the world.

Are you still looking for a problem to solve?

4. Social Innovation Labs: Transforming Problems into Progress

The Horizon Tracker has reported the trend of “Open Innovation is going mainstream” and in a report from Henry Chesbrough, 78% of companies are practicing Open Innovation. However, open innovation is not easy to manage. As a result, there are a growing number of support groups in the form of Social Innovation Labs. They nurture the diverse practices and social innovators to best transform the world’s problems into a progressive society.

An Innovation Lab is designed to bring together a diverse set of skills and opinions to tackle specific and challenging problems in the world.  Each lab takes a systematic approach to create prototypes that have been proven in the real world and solve root problems, not just the symptoms.

UNICEF has harvested the best practices of social innovation labs and created an Social Innovation Lab Guide for anybody to nurture an  innovation culture and transform problems into solutions for those who need it the most.

5.  Social Entrepreneur:  Make Money to Make a Difference

The Social Innovator has changed the face of innovation and how we can change the world. The biggest challenge and reward in innovation is becoming an entrepreneur (risk-taker) that makes that bold first step. An entrepreneur has the drive, vision and passion needed to make innovation happen. They can drive incubation faster, better and cheaper than larger companies or bureaucratic organizations.

Yet there are serious misconceptions about these “doers” doing good for society.  Yet, business is business (whether for-profit or not-for-profit) and form follows funding.  Nobody can operate on a negative cash flow, but there are three misconceptions that have hindered the ability of social entrepreneurs to succeed for the public good:

Entrepreneurs are egotistic, greedy, selfish, myopic business tyrants.

Misconception 2:
Only the Non-Profit Sector can be trusted with funds serving the public good.

Misconception 3:
You can’t serve a purpose while serving shareholders.

The reality is that while there are ineffective and abusive practices in all sectors, this does not define a new class of change-makers that can do the most good with the least resources. With new Benefit-Corporation (B-Corp) legislation being passed in most states, shareholders can no longer undermine the social mission of the social entrepreneur. New models are transforming how we can leverage the entrepreneurial spirit to improve the world, not just the economy.

Form Follows Funding: Financing Your Mission

The world has changed as drastically as the way we raise funding to help make that change. Its that entrepreneurial spirit of the individual that has sparked the engagement of the many that can spark that change.  Crowdfunding raised over $5 billion in 2013. Will Schroter, in his Forbes Magazine article, lists the top ten business crowdfunding campaigns of all time.

In Dan Pallotta’s TED talk, “What We Think About Charity is Dead Wrong,” he explores how we can dramatically increase the funding support for important causes in the world and break the stagnant rate of charitable contributions.  Big ideas have small beginnings at Indiegogo, the not-for-profit crowdsource fundraising that is following the phenomenal success of Kickstarter.   

Think Big, Start Small, Act Now

The economy has not only provided more opportunity for the individual to make a difference, it is becoming dependent on individuals to seek that mission. The greatest contribution can be your expertise, time and drive, which can be more valuable than money. So ask how you can help make a difference.

To put words into action, visit social innovation sites such as indiegogo.com, purpose.com or Unicef Innovation Lab Guide. Join locally or globally. Or join me at the Virtual World Society where we are challenging the whole community of virtual world builders to create games, simulations and worlds of wonder to advance education, research and human performance by melting the boundaries between the real, virtual and imaginary worlds. Start by contributing your challenge to the community.

How am I putting “I” in innovation? I will be starting a social entrepreneur start-up called StoryTrove™ to bring Life Participation activities to help the millions of People With Aphasia (PWA) overcome the loss of language. Aphasia is a loss of language, not of intelligence. We are working with the Aphasia House, Aphasia Bank and Aphasia Access to help PWAs tell their stories and contribute their great knowledge, insights and experience to society.  This is in response to my dear friend and colleague, Marty Rich, that was struck down by a stroke and was confronted with Aphasia. With stimulating advancements in Aphasia therapy, I am hoping to be able to talk to my friend again. 

What is your next step, I would like to know…

About ChriStory

Christopher Stapleton is the Executive Director of the Virtual World Society, an organization bringing together pioneers and youth to “link hearts and minds to build a better world.” As a Social Entrepreneur, he founded Simiosys Real World Laboratories to explore how Virtual Worlds can advance human performance in education, training, entertainment, health and wellness applications. His role as an Experience Architect, has helped Entertainment companies such as Universal Studios, Disney, Nickelodeon and Wanda build mega-theme parks worldwide. His role as an Innovation Broker, has helped global companies such as Canon Inc, Siemens and IBM leverage research advancements in Digital Media and simulation technologies. He is currently working with Chinese and American Entrepreneurs developing educational projects with Virtual Reality. His pioneering research and development as a Creative Producer has lead efforts creating a pipeline of constant innovation within Real World Laboratories advancing Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality and Mixed Reality.
Putting the “I” in Innovation
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