Posts Tagged ‘invention’

Innovation, Ingenuity and Opportunity under Conditions of Scarcity (Download PDF)

coverIn July 2009, I was inspired by working in the Research wing of the Aalto University’s Design Factory in Espoo, Finland, to launch a group blog called REculture: Exploring the post-consumption economy of repair, reuse, repurpose and recycle by informal businesses at the Base of the Pyramid*.

Within a year, this research interest evolved into a multidisciplinary look at the culture of innovation and invention under conditions of scarcity and it’s lessons for sustainable manufacturing and industry for us in the context of more industrialized nations.

reculture research bed

Emerging Futures Lab, July 2010 (Aalto Design Factory)

As a preliminary exploration, my research associate Mikko Koskinen and I timed our visit to Kenya to coincide with the Maker Faire Africa to be held on the grounds of the University of Nairobi in August 2010.

This photographic record of our discoveries (PDF 6MB) among the jua kali artisans and workshops of Nairobi, Nakuru, Thika, and Kithengela, guided by biogas inventor and innovator Dominic Wanjihia captures the essence of the creativity and ingenuity it takes to create without ample resources and adequate infrastructure.

A synopsis of our analysis is available here.

 

* The publishing platform, Posterous, died a short while later and we lost years of work. I’m looking into reincarnating REculture on Tumblr soon.

 

Labour saving African kitchen appliances: Market opportunity for product design and social innovation

Mama making ugali (nsima) over a 3 stone fire in Kisii, Kenya (Photo Credit: Niti Bhan)

After watching their Mamas spending hours over an open fire, sweating over the daily dish of ugali or nsima or fufu – the African kitchen’s favourite carbohydrate – inventors and innovators across the continent are taking the initiative to ease her burden with nifty, new kitchen appliances.

While culinary details differ from region to region – West Africa’s fufu is cassava based, while East Africa’s ugali is made of maize – the essential element in common is the time and effort involved in cooking the stiff, sticky, starchy staple.

The latest is from a young man in Malawi, who, after 3 years of tinkering that’s reminiscent of Dyson’s obsessive iteration, has successfully prototyped an nsima (or ugali) cooker. It makes the perfect maize porridge of the type you see Mama stirring in the photograph in just 36 unsupervised minutes.

Opening-the-nsima-cooker-600x450And that’s where he’s at with the product, which can also be started remotely by the ubiquitous mobile phone.

On the other end of the continent, however, Togolese electronics engineer Logou Minsob has gone much further with his award winning invention, the FouFouMix. It converts pre-cooked cassava into fufu in less than 10 minutes.

Fufu or foufou is made from pounded yam also known as cassava. The tuber is cooked and then pounded into a particular sticky consistency. This article from Ghana, whose myths claim it as a food for the gods, describes the entire back-breaking process taking many hours and many hands to get just right.

youmomentumslideThis visualization of the process is his older model – there’s already a new model in production and the factory is in full swing. Why I find it interesting however is due to its similarity with this visual of yet another indigenous invention, the idli maker – the idli is a South Indian steamed rice cake.

2As you can see, those wheels are made of granite – considered the only way to grind the soaked and fermented rice into the right consistency to be steamed in specially designed pans.

There’s a pattern of arduous consistency being translated into convenient time saving mechanisms.  Backbreaking labour is inspiring invention.

vintage-ad-kenmore-washing-machine This is exactly how the giants of home appliances began their global brands, through the invention of washing machines and dishwashers and vacuum cleaners – all the things that made life easier for the industrial era’s housewives. Domestic appliances revolutionized daily life, minimized the need for servants and opened up a world of learning and leisure for women in the industrialized world.

Yet, neither of these appliances are commonly found in superstores anywhere in the world, nor are they products that any of the big name brands would think to develop. While the Indian product is certainly meant for a regional niche, unlike a pressure cooker, say, the African devices newly being invented are not. Each have potential across their entire regions.

Indigenous product innovation and opportunity

And this potential new market opportunity goes beyond product innovation or category creation. Just like the labour saving devices of the previous century, these have the potential to truly liberate women from the hours spent on the most basic household chore – cooking the daily meal.

Unlike the social enterprise attempts to focus on health benefits of smokeless stoves or solar lamps, these have emerged organically from local inventors spotting an opportunity for genuine innovation. The demand certainly exists, and its one that is independent of the household’s income range.

There’s a whole new market opportunity to be tapped, by these and other such similar inventions, if only consumer brands would take a moment to notice.

Invention vs Innovation from the customer’s perspective

 

 

An invention is not an innovation until it is adopted by the users ~ John Heskett

 

We think that technology has all the answers or can provide that magic silver bullet.  If we can simply build that shiny, new widget or make an app for the service, customers are bound to flock to the latest, greatest thing.  But as many have found, it doesn’t quite work that way.

John Heskett, who recently retired as the Chair Professor of Design at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, taught a course I took at the Institute of Design, IIT Chicago called ‘Design planning and market forces’.  The  sentence I’ve quoted above is my best paraphrase of his explanation of the difference between an invention (or technological advancement) and an innovation, from the end user or customer’s point of view.

The Segway, he said,  is a great example of advanced technology. The iPod has often said to be nothing more than pulling together numerous existing technologies into a beautiful package.  Which of these has been enthusiastically adopted by people (users) around the world?

One of these managed to change the way people listen to music, how they purchase it, store it and share it. The other could have changed the way people moved. One was considered a major innovation. The other remained an invention, albeit a major one.

Innovation does not simply have to be just a cool new product alone.  iTunes was the accompanying service (and business model with an attractive payment plan) without which the iPod may have remained a very beautiful flash drive with speakers.

This is why we emphasize the need to understand the people before focusing on the technology and take a customer centric approach to innovation.