Blog | March 24, 2016 | Indra de Lanerolle

Elon Musk, the creator of Space X, Tesla Motors and SolarCity, is one of the world’s most famous innovators. Born in South Africa, his story offers inspiration across the continent.

But Musk did not start out, by choice at least, as an inventor. In 2001 he had already decided that he wanted to create the world’s first privately-owned space travel business. His first step was not to design and build a new rocket. Instead, he flew to Russia with a suitcase full of cash to try and buy one. It was only when his venture ended unsuccessfully that he put together a team of engineers to create his own means of getting payloads into space.

But inventing a new rocket did not go as well as he had hoped. It took years longer than he planned and cost much more money than expected. And last year, one of his latest rockets blew up less than three minutes after take-off.

In short - inventing new things is usually more complicated than you think.

At the Engine Room, we recently completed a study of transparency and accountability initiatives in Kenya and South Africa that used digital technologies. We wanted to find how they chose the technologies they used – and what lessons can be drawn from how they are innovating and inventing.

One thing that surprised us was how often organisations built or commissioned their own digital tools from scratch.

Out of 38 cases we studied, 21 built their own tool – often without researching whether an existing tool would do the job. In other words, they invented something new.

We found that those who took this approach ran up against many challenges – extra costs; extensive delays; challenges in managing technical suppliers or partners; and disappointment when tools failed to meet expectations or were not widely used.

Why are organisations turning to technology?

Because they can - organisations are now able to innovate more easily and cheaply. Digital tools are becoming cheaper and more accessible. Technical help, though limited, is easier to find than it used to be. More people have access to the devices and networks that make the tools more accessible.

Because they have to - organisations are also under pressure to innovate – and not only because donors or other influential actors encourage them to. They are looking for efficiencies or to reach more people and they are also keen to keep up with changing practices in the environment around them, including in the practices of their peers - not just in their own countries, but globally.

Should organisations be rushing to invent new tools rather than adopting/adapting existing ones?

Our research suggests that most organisations in the field of transparency and accountability are not well suited to a role as inventors.

Inventors (think Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla who between them invented many of the tools of the electrical era) expect to fail most of the time.

As Edison said: 'I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work’. Their backers (think the venture capital firms of Silicon Valley) also expect them to fail most of the time. The risks of invention are worth taking for them because what they are trying to create is, they hope, so transformative as to justify their efforts.

Innovators, on the other hand, take viable existing technologies and apply them in new areas with more focused commitment to making them much more useful to many more people than their competitors (think Henry Ford and Andre Citroën, the founders of the modern car industry who did not invent anything but who transformed transportation in the US and Europe by improving production methods, reducing costs, and ruthlessly focusing on what users needed and wanted).

Within the organisations we studied, and in broader discussions on technical and social innovation, it seems that this distinction between invention and innovation is not being drawn clearly enough, and the different conditions for success in each is not understood well enough.

Most organisations we studied were far better placed to be innovators than inventors. This was not only (or even mainly) about skills and capacities. More importantly, they didn't have the resources, or the culture to find ten thousand ways that don’t work and persist through those failures to success. And even if they did transform themselves into effective inventors, would their backers (international donors) share a tolerance of failure and a commitment to sticking it out long enough to give them the possibility of success?

But this doesn't mean innovation in transparency and accountability is easy either. At the end of our research we came to the conclusion that it requires a combination of three things:

  • understanding the transparency and accountability problem you are aiming to address;
  • knowing the people you expect to use the technology; and
  • understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the technology itself.

Our research suggests many organisations need to do more research and work across all three. Even so, their core abilities and culture are better aligned to meeting these challenges than to becoming successful inventors.

Are we forgetting the core business of innovation?

Jay Bhalla of the Open Institute began Buntwani, a recent international gathering, with a challenge: “After 10 years of using technologies in transparency and accountability, why isn't what we are doing making a large-scale impact?”

One answer could be that we are trying too hard to (re)invent instead of focusing on the core business of innovation: adapting and re-purposing available technologies in ways that meet the real needs and desires of users to address well-defined and -understood problems.

SolarCity, One of Elon Musk’s businesses, focusses on home solar power. Rather than inventing a new technology, he innovated by re-purposing and adapting an existing one to meet a new need: lithium-ion batteries - which Tesla produces to power their electric cars.

Organisations using digital technologies in transparency and accountability could learn an important lesson from him: less invention, and more innovation.


The report summary is available here.



About the author

Indra de Lanerolle leads the Network Society Lab, researching the Internet and Society at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

About this blog

The research reported here was led by the engine room and supported by Making All Voices Count.