Posts tagged ‘innovation’

January 6, 2011

Ideas, Ideas, Ideas

by jchong10

emergent by design has compiled an awesome list of “idea hubs” – online platforms for people to share ideas. Definitely worth a look if you’re willing to be distracted for a few hours:

36 Awesome Idea Hubs to Spark Creative Thinking, Innovation, & Inspiration


November 24, 2010

The Execution of Innovation

by jchong10

Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. – Thomas Edison

Last Friday, I went up to Dartmouth College to attend a lecture by Tuck professor Chris Trimble about the execution challenge of innovation. Naturally, as a business school professor, he focused on how companies implement innovative ideas: specifically, how to manage the inevitable conflict between keeping the performance engine running and dedicating resources to new ideas that have unpredictable outcomes. According to Trimble, the ideal model is to have a dedicated team working alongside shared staff who ensure that the dedicated team can take advantage of the organization’s resources.

Professor Trimble’s talk was too specific to the company context to directly apply to our work at IIH, but it did remind me of another issue that often keeps me up at night. This problem also relates to the execution of innovation, but in two senses of the word “execution”: how ideas are implemented, and how ideas die.

In my undergraduate days, I was often dismayed to see my friends’ amazing engineering projects get left in the lab at the end of the term. Despite enthusiastic feedback from professors and peers, projects that one could easily imagine making it on the field or in the market were left to languish. Take a look at the MIT D-Lab project site. So many great ideas, but I can count on one hand how many of these projects are still alive, if not sputtering along.

The problem of abandoned ideas is easy to understand. Students have classes, activities and the job search to worry about, so they don’t have the time or energy to keep working on a project when the next term starts. And after graduation, many students just do not have the risk tolerance or the freedom to fully commit. Some schools have tried to mitigate the risk and opportunity cost of these ventures by providing grants and linking students up with entrepreneurial networks. But these only work if this student wants to keep working on the project.

If students don’t have the motivation to keep their projects alive, we run into the problem of “trapped inspiration”: great ideas that get stuck because they are not in the hands of people who want to implement them. In an ideal world, these ideas would be passed on to people who are the desire, resources and energy to commit to realizing them. But herein lies another problem: transferring information about the idea. Sure, you can send over your CAD files and your PowerPoint pitches and reports, but you’ll probably have to be on call if the implementor runs into any problems. And if your communication is via phone or e-mail, you’d better hope that you both speak the same language when you’re talking about the prototype.

This brings me to my next point: having a common language of design is crucial to efficient technology transfer. If people can easily identify different elements of prototypes (e.g. “the parallelogram” in a tangram set or ” a 4×2 Lego piece”), they can talk about them. With a built-in base level of mutual understanding, things just get done faster.

We’re trying to establish a common language of design with our MEDIKits, which are DIY kits that allow doctors and nurses to prototype their own medical equipment. The diagnostics kit, for example uses color-coded puzzle pieces. Health workers can build their own diagnostic tests and share them with others by simply MMS-ing a picture or sending a text with descriptions of the pieces they used. Thus, two nurses with identical kits can efficiently share prototypes even if they live in different countries.

But color-coded pieces are just a start – maybe we could use different patterns as well. We’d love to hear more thoughts on how we might create a common language of design – please comment if you have ideas!


November 5, 2010

Does intellectual property protection help or hinder innovation?

by jchong10

As inventors and researchers, we at Innovations in International Health often have to think about how to manage our intellectual property (IP). IP is a particularly controversial issue in the realm of international health, as governments struggle to balance the goals of encouraging innovation and ensuring that people have access to the care they need.

This issue has garnered much attention since 1994, when the WTO’s Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement introduced IP law to international trade. Two notable fracases include big pharma vs. South Africa circa 1997, when SA passed the Medicines Act to make antiretrovirals more widely available (pharma eventually backed down in the face of international protest); and the anthrax scare in 2001, when the frightened US and Canadian governments tried to get around Bayer’s patent to ensure the affordability of Bayer’s Cipro drug to their citizens.

The second case (a classic demonstration of rich world hypocrisy) shows that even in the IPR havens of North America, when push comes to shove, the balance tips in favor or human lives.

So here’s the question of the day: do developing countries need better protection of IP to fuel home-grown innovation and spur economic growth?

Dr Ndubuisi Ekekwe certainly believes so, and he can cite his own personal experiences as evidence that a lack of IP protection can really hurt the business climate and deter innovation. Ekekwe’s view reflects the traditional economic argument for protecting intellectual property: people will innovate if there is a promise of returns.

But there are other perspectives that suggest the opposite effect. (Thanks to Adam Martin at AidWatchers for posting these links!)

This Der Spiegel article describes an argument by historian Eckard Höffner that Germany’s industrialization in the 1800s owes much to the absence of copyright law (implemented in 1837), as it allowed for the dissemination of ideas and knowledge. With so many plagiarizers around, publishers protected their profits by selling expensive fancy books to the rich and cheaper paperbacks to the masses. As a result, the book market was filled with affordable publications that were highly accessible to the public. The lack of copyright protection hardly deterred German researchers from publishing their work. On the contrary, the prospect of reaching a wide audience provided good motivation to publish their research. Authors could make a pretty penny, if not from margins, from the sheer volume of works sold.

Compare this situation to England, where copyright law has been in force since 1710. Books would typically be published as limited editions (750 copies max) and would cost more than a week’s salary of a skilled worker. Supply responded to the limited demand for books, and Germany was publishing three times as many books as England per capita at the time. Höffner argues that Germany’s open attitude toward publishing cultivated a “lively scholarly discourse” that fuelled Germany’s Gründerzeit, or foundation period, in which it became an economic powerhouse.

And here, Michael Heller and Rebecca Eisenberg introduce the concept of the “tragedy of the anticommons”, which describes how too much protection of intellectual property can deter innovation. When too many owners of property have a right to block others from using their property, no one has effective privilege of use.

Should low-tech and high-tech innovations be treated differently by IP law? How about innovations that enable people to enjoy their rights as human beings (e.g. health)? …And finally, does anybody know of a good synonym for “innovation”?


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