Ashlee Tuttleman

Ashlee graduated in 2012 from the Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy, a partner of the Ashoka U Changemaker Campus Initiative.

Innovation as Spectacle

Innovation is breaking free of the status quo. It’s a new approach to a problem or opportunity, re-envisioning a process or identifying a new target market. The crux of innovation is creativity. But how is it practiced, or inspired?

This was my scholars’ summer challenge in ThinkImpact’s Innovation Institute. The Innovation Institute brings university students from the United States to rural African communities to develop market-based solutions to social problems in partnership with community members. I advised 5 scholars in Nkomangwa, Rwanda this summer to innovatively tackle problems related to electricity, compositing and chicken productivity.

After immersing themselves, getting inspired and inviting community members to join them in innovation Design Teams (DT), the scholars began to experiment with methods that had the potential to elicit innovation in their problem areas. The scholars quickly found that their community partners were very willing to participate, which further reinforced their entrepreneurial spirit.

Entrepreneurial spirit and willingness, however, doesn’t always translate into innovation. Entrepreneurs are willing to take risks and start businesses, but innovation is not a requirement for success. From emerging markets- the epicenter of entrepreneurship- to American suburbs, most entrepreneurs do what they know. Think: basic commodities & foodstuffs in the former and cafes & cupcakes in the latter. Entrepreneurship should not be confused with innovation, as many examples of entrepreneurship often involve replicating an existing idea.

So how do we inspire innovation? To put it simply: by focusing on assets and identifying a manageable problem to tackle.

In their design team, it was imperative for the scholars to recognize the importance of being asset-minded. If the team could not conceive of their manifold assets, they would have become paralyzed by their problems. For example, one of the scholars, Manvir, demonstrated asset-mindedness by prompting his DT members to brainstorm alternative uses for a 1.5L water bottle. From planters to a tool for water catchment, they identified 18 uses.

Once the DTs internalized their asset wealth, they were able to determine the social problem they wanted to tackle. After another one of my scholars, Jason, helped his team narrow their scope, they conducted market research on how local households were taking care of their chickens, deepening their insights and perspective on the “chicken productivity” problem.

Asset-mindedness and problem identification frame the pursuit for innovative solutions. But “knowing thy customer” helped the Design Teams channel their innovative energies into the production of desirable products and services.

Innovation became a spectacle of prototyping, reiterating and refining approaches to problem-solving. It was planned and spontaneous, collaborative and disjointed, remarkable and mundane. Innovation is not magic or chance; it is a conscious process of identifying a problem, seeing the problem as an opportunity, and using the resources available to address the issue in a market-sensitive manner.