Every Wave Has A Silver Lining: Innovation, And The Art of Sailing In Shifty Winds
The capacity for steady innovation is the most important economic, political, and social asset in a rapidly changing world.
For a beginning sailor on the Charles River in Boston, sailing is a puzzle: a sailor needs to be at once patient and quick, independent but a good team player, disciplined with an open mind to the shifty wind, cautious and optimistic, with the ability to turn challenging winds, into an opportunity to go further. Innovation is a similar puzzle: its impact decreases in proportion to our ability to anticipate and understand it. Nonetheless, the capacity for steady innovation is the most important economic, political, and social asset in a rapidly changing world. It is also the single most important dividing feature between “developed” and “developing” countries, and a marker for a nation’s trajectory on the development spectrum, as we see in the case of China, South Korea, and Singapore.
So, what would it take to take the Middle East from turmoil and uncertainty to a viable development model, without letting “hope triumph over experience,” as the saying goes? I have no quick answer, but based on my personal experience growing up in the Middle East, my time at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and my involvement in a number of entrepreneurial ventures, I hope that whatever I have say could be useful. For the pessimist, the region is a troubled place: 28% of the population is between the ages of 15-29, and youth unemployment ranges from 5% to a jarring 40-50%, exacerbated by declining oil prices, desertification, war, and irreconcilable differences. For those who lived, and live there, it’s a space of generosity and warmth, where young men and women spend their time discussing how the region could be remade to reflect its poetic image.
Both views are understandable. But, there’s a silver lining, and data to support it: these same young people create startups, invent new technologies, provide labor for new industries, and markets for new products. The region also spends 5% of its GDP on education, enjoys high levels of wellbeing, and an organic cultural safety net. These young healthy people are already on the move, with a few successful startups to show for it.
Similarly, the environmental problems, while pressing, provide an opportunity for cooperation, and accelerated innovation in areas such as sustainable agriculture and energy, to name a few. Necessity, after all, is the mother of invention.
LAUNCHPADS, NOT ROAD BLOCKS
As far as organizations go, startups are unusual: they have to learn from the past, operate in the present, and cater to the future. They have to deal with uncertainty and the risk of failure, and when they succeed, they also create wealth out of limited resources. This mixture of risk, constraint, and ambiguity demands eccentric people who are willing to take the risk, and to think and do things differently. In order for this to happen, however, entrepreneurs need a firm ground- a stable society that accepts their eccentricity, and gives them room to try and fail, and try again. Fortunately, in parts of the Middle East, we find stability in the form of a healthy population, social cohesion, and organic safety nets. This could serve as a launchpad for new ideas to move forward. Of course, this has to be done pragmatically, but the Middle East, having endured millennia of change, has no shortage of pragmatism.
OUT OF MANY, ONE
At MIT and other ventures, I had the opportunity to work with talented people from many countries. Throughout, I learned about different cuisines, cultures, and languages, but I also learned that talent has no nationality: with a way to communicate, and a common destiny, talented people can work wonders. Difference, as the current global political climate shows us, has its perils. It always has, but as the careful student of history knows, these challenges can, and have been, managed. To this end, recognizing our common destiny, and diligently cultivating our civil and professional networks, can go a long way. Difference also has an upside that outweighs the management cost, and dwarves the risk of stagnation that accompanies its absence: “where all think alike, no one thinks very much”.
IF YOU WANT TO GO FAST AND FAR, GO WITH OTHERS A good venture needs investors with domain expertise, and other forms of nonfinancial support. This takes time to develop in an emerging hub, which leaves a gap that is often filled with ad-hoc structures, and well-dressed management consultants, that startups cannot afford. This does not have to be the case. An effort can go faster and further through teamwork, partnerships, and joint ventures, local and global. Innovation does not have to be a zero-sum game.
As a founding partner in two startups, I have seen how a partner and client relationship can leverage a pooling of resources towards a shared goal. I also see it from my experience as an advisor to emerging markets funds, where the supporting infrastructure in the US can be very helpful in serving emerging markets, through partnerships with local investors and entrepreneurs.
WHEN YOU HAVE TO, GET OUT OF THE WAY
Mark Twain said: “Don’t let your schooling interfere with your education.” My friends at NuVu Studio, in Cambridge, created a viable educational model in this spirit. Their students alternate between structured learning, application, and feedback, and in the process, make robots, films, 3D printed shoes, and everything in between.
The same is true for innovation. Entrepreneurs need the room to create, and institutions need to allow for this space. As an illustration, both Microsoft and Facebook started at Harvard University during “reading period,” a time between Christmas and the final exams, when students are supposed to be studying for the exams.
In Innovation - The Missing Dimension, my friend and mentor, Michael Piore, together with Richard Lester, provide a framework to understand this dynamic. They identify two fundamental processes: analysis, rational systematic problem solving, and interpretation an open embrace and use of ambiguity. The latter is critical for the vitality of an economy, and often ignored by policy makers. In conclusion, there is no shortage of challenges in the Middle East, and in our world today, and there is no fast recipe to deal with them. Fortunately, there is plenty to be optimistic about, and the journey does not have to be painful. Like all the sailors before us, we need to stay open and vigilant to the winds of change, and to leverage stability and difference, wherever they are, to steady the ship, and get to our destination.