[Disruptive] Innovation

The thing about poverty is that people get trapped for generation after generation by expectations of same old same old.  “We are poor, we have always been poor and it is our destiny to be poor.  It is our caste.  It is our class.  It is our future.”

John Kenneth Galbraith wrote about this in “The Nature of Mass Poverty” first published in 1979.  He wondered why some groups had stayed poor for centuries. He found that many poor societies simply accommodate their poverty.  He found that many of the poor found it easier to accept the status quo than to contemplate an alternate better future. 

He used these observations of expectations also to explain why post World War II injections of Marshall Plan cash were so successful but why subsequent injections of foreign aid cash in developing countries have not always been successful.

In Galbraith’s experience, only a minority of the poor were able to imagine a better future and make the positive moves to get there.

Times have changed, to a degree, since the 1970’s.  More of the poor have received an education.  More than that, the widespread availability of television, cell phones and the internet, have allowed millions of even poor people develop new expectations, new visions and new hopes.

Innovation, if the right kind, can propel these hopes to reality.  We are speaking, in fact, of disrupting generations of hopelessness and misery, and creating the opportunities for changing the rules, changing the expectations, changing the measures, changing the outcomes, changing the future.  These technologies are rightfully named “disruptive technologies”.  They properly disrupt the expectation traps of the past and replace them with well-founded expectations of improved incomes and livelihoods along with accelerated hope and visions for the future.

Creating such “disruptive innovations” is both a privilege and our duty, especially if we believe that the poverty traps faced by too many millions is both reprehensible and unnecessary.  In some contexts, “revolution” is a negative experience.  At other times, it is entirely positive.  (It might depend on how many people get hurt!).  Likewise, some disruptions are also negative, but at other times, many disruptive innovations are nothing but positive, and we should embrace them.

I’m thinking of a smallholder farmer we just visited in Ziway.  His family had been poor for a long time.  Along came a disruptive innovation, a rope pump.  Not exactly intended for irrigation, it worked just fine anyway.  What came out of the pump wasn’t just water, however.  New hopes came pouring out.  Within months this farmer had increased his land under production/irrigation, and had acquired a diesel pump.  The rope pump had disrupted generations of despair, and had rewritten the future.  It made me proud to be with IDE.  It made me believe in the power of disruptive innovation.  Without apology.


About Al Doerksen

I'm sort of a vocational tramp; my working career divides about evenly between non-profit and the business worlds. I have lived in Mexico, India, Germany and Canada, and now USA. I've had the good fortune to travel to 90 countries of which at least half are developing countries. The last 25 years of my "career" have involved significant (and enjoyable) international management challenges: travel industry, furniture manufacturing, food (aid) programming and ultraviolet water treatment among others. I'm now leading a development enterprise called IDE.
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One Response to [Disruptive] Innovation

  1. doradueck says:

    Interesting. I like the words, the notion of, “disruptive innovation,” which has application in other settings as well.

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