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Expand Your Mind: Innovation Beyond he Norm

by Miki Saxon

What is innovation? Is it really embodied in a good deal playing Farmville on Facebook for hours? I found an excellent definition of innovation in a fascinating article about Bell Labs and Mervin Kelly, who, over the course of 34 years, worked his way up from researcher to chairman of the board (something few people today would consider doing—assuming they could even find a company in which to do it).

By one definition, innovation is an important new product or process, deployed on a large scale and having a significant impact on society and the economy, that can do a job (as Mr. Kelly once put it) “better, or cheaper, or both.”

Sometimes that ‘large scale’ is within a small world; such is the case of the handball zealots of NYC.

“On a winter day the ball is cold, which makes the rubber harder, the air in the ball denser, so the ball doesn’t really expand and contract off the bounce,” said Ruben Acosta, 32, a hotel concierge who is known on the court as Superstar. “Boiling the balls gives them back their zing.”

While not all innovation makes money they do make waves. When large-scale corruption is uncovered it receives plenty media coverage, but how to address the endemic petty corruption that millions of people face around the world is a tougher question. In 2010 Swati and Ramesh Ramanathan and Sridar Iyengar started ipaidabribe.com, a site that collects anonymous reports of bribes paid, bribes requested but not paid and requests that were expected but not forthcoming.

Now, similar sites are spreading like kudzu around the globe, vexing petty bureaucrats the world over. Ms. Ramanathan said nongovernmental organizations and government agencies from at least 17 countries had contacted Janaagraha, the nonprofit organization in Bangalore that operates I Paid a Bribe, to ask about obtaining the source code and setting up a site of their own.

On a totally different scale is Tony Hsieh, whose dream is to fix the world by fixing cities, starting with Las Vegas, not as dictator, but as facilitator. According to his friend Sarah Nisperos, “But he wanted all these things based on happiness and merit and how nice you are. I said you shouldn’t build a strip mall, you should be downtown.”

Hsieh’s working through Downtown Project, a company he created with $350 million to spend, to seed technology startups, invest in education and attempt to build a walkable, vibrant downtown.

“You can’t dictate what the neighborhood is going to look like. But you can definitely help support and accelerate people’s dreams and visions,” Hsieh says. “That is really our belief as to what drives our culture. It needs to be organic.”

IBM is also focused on fixing cities, albeit with an eye to creating a multibillion-dollar business, starting with Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro.

But never before has it built a citywide system integrating data from some 30 agencies, all under a single roof. It is the handiwork of an I.B.M. unit called Smarter Cities…

Innovation often borrows from the existent to create something new; that process is especially thrilling when something relatively frivolous is used to make something with the potential to truly change the world. Such is what is happening as MMOG expands to MMOC. This is one link to share with everyone you know.

Welcome to the brave new world of Massive Open Online Courses — known as MOOCs — a tool for democratizing higher education.

Flickr image credit: pedroelcarvalho

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