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Last year, during the 2018 Young ICT leaders’ Forum in Busan, Republic of Korea, we asked some young global talent to let us know what their ecosystems felt like for innovators. One group in particular demonstrated this well, in a sketch dubbed: “Joel’s journey in the valley of death” reflecting on how it is like to be an innovator in an immature sub-Saharan ecosystem. At the 2018 Regional Innovation Forum in Oslo in Norway, when we ran this exercise for a more developed ecosystem in a high-income country, the problems were different, but the innovators also struggled with the same systemic issues.

With an estimate of over 300 million start-ups located in various clusters around the world, only very few ecosystems have the right innovation fabric to help their startups develop into the next unicorn (billion dollar valuation companies).

There is a white elephant in the room, and very few want to acknowledge it

A white elephant is rare and illustrates a big dream that may never materialize. Having one in the room gives new meaning to people avoiding difficult conversations about problems that they face. Digital development is at a crossroads, and your investments in the traditional inputs of innovation such as R&D may not make a big difference.

Creating the next Silicon Valley has been elusive and difficult, especially in the developing country context where less than 1% of GDP may be going to R&D. Following traditional Science Technology and Innovation (STI) experts’ recommendations of investment in inputs such as R&D, infrastructure, and education does not guarantee the right results even for developed countries. In 2018, Switzerland ranked second in the Global Entrepreneurship Index, first in the Global Innovation Index, yet in the Global Startup Ecosystem Report, the only city that ranked well was Zug for blockchain and Fintech sub-ecosystems.

The "father" of 3M post-it notes, Dr. Geoffrey Nicholson, famously said: “Research is the transformation of money into knowledge, and innovation is the transformation of knowledge into money”. Today, there is an abundance of knowledge in the world. However, given our increasingly more global and open economies, digital knowledge can be developed in the ecosystem of one country, but its value captured in a completely different country. This is an interesting paradox with significant inclusiveness impacts.

Countries need to understand how the money they are spending in innovation input is going to create jobs, growth, and income. If you are investing $1 and getting $0.5 back, why would you want to spend more money on a leaky system?

Having an exciting ecosystem is not enough, it has to be competitive with all the right ingredients

The minute a tech startup is born, it competes globally. In your community, you could be investing in talent and in getting them started through various programs or policies, only to see them migrate to a better performing ecosystem.

In recent interviews of stakeholders in Thailand that I conducted, I asked whether they have a “real teach unicorn” in Thailand. The answer was astoundingly “No! We only have companies with up to $400 million valuation”. When I inquired as to why, the answer was insightful about the ecosystem: “The minute they reach a certain valuation, they go and register their company in Singapore or New York, or another better performing ecosystem”.  The search for a unicorn in Thailand is ongoing.

Kenya is known for being the Silicon Savannah, with an aspiring ecosystem, but to date, no tech unicorn sighting has occurred.  During a country review of the ICT-centric innovation ecosystem in Kenya, I saw clear excitement in the young talent pool, but in the words of one stakeholder, "Young people have some talents, they have energy. But it burns out soon if that energy is not guided or supported to help build good companies".

Kenya and Thailand are no exception.  From Africa to Europe, and Americas to Asia, we can see the same struggles. Whether the ecosystem is considered mature like Thailand or nascent as in some sub-Saharan countries, there are many reasons for the lack of unicorns.

There may be a new brain drain in progress, and it is taking talents, resources and opportunities with it

Often coummities are proud of their startups finding a home in the more developed ecosystems. I am puzzled as there is a real leakage of resources and opportunities, and it has consequences for economic growth and inclusion in the local community. This is a brand new paradigm.

Harvard economist Clay Christiansen, while studying the theory of disruptive innovation by companies, realized that the traditional ways companies deliver products and services to serve the market can be ineffective in creating competitive solutions and lasting companies. “Thirty thousand new consumer products are launched each year. But over 90% of them fail—and that’s after marketing professionals have spent massive amounts of money trying to understand what their customers want”.  He theorized that customers hire a product or service to get a job done. But if we do not understand what this job is, and how the customer will use the product or service to get the job done, then we cannot come up with a competitive solution.

To aid in understanding this paradigm of ICT-centric innovation, ITU in its toolkit, “Bridging the Digital Innovation Divide”, introduces the stakeholder interface canvas tool (also known as the innovation journey map). This tool helps innovators quickly analyse the performance of their ecosystem in covering the key activities needed to take innovations from pre-ideation to high growth. It describes the role each stakeholder group can take on to support entrepreneurs and innovators at each stage of their lifecycle.

Are you ready to take on the paradox?

 

The canvas is based on the 'valley of death curve', which shows the lifecycle of innovation and entrepreneurship. The lifecycle reflects growing companies, and notably identifies the 'valley of death', a period after ideation when innovators require significant investment and support, and where there is a high risk of failure as a business. If any part of the entrepreneurial lifecycle becomes a common failure point, it will vastly reduce the chances of success for all entrepreneurship in the ecosystem.

Systems issues require systems solutions

In the model above, the framework looks at 30 micro-jobs to be done from six groups. Every one of these micro jobs could be done by numerous programs or policies from several organizations.  Three engines of growth must come together to create an ICT-centric innovation ecosystem: an innovation ecosystem, an entrepreneurial ecosystem, and a sound technology ecosystem. As in any engine analogy, the worst-functioning part must be replaced or the system is completely ineffective.

Failure to do so is one of key reasons why you may not have a unicorn in your community. In an interconnected ecosystem, policies and programs have to constantly change to be best in class. If they do not change, your ecosystem will be leaking resources and talent to a better performing ecosystem.  If a neighboring country has a nicer policy to attract talent and your country doesn’t, then once innovators reach a certain roadblock for growth, they will migrate to your neighbors or even a far-distant ecosystem where they can grow.

Often investments are too focused on individual components. Very few think about the system’s problems. A few organizations exist to care about such challenges, but they are few and far between, and often their scope is limited. Your traditional innovation agency may claim a stake in solving this problem, but the reality is different. The three engines of growth may not be coming together to enable the next unicorns in your community. This is the root cause of the paradox.

Are you ready to prepare the ground for the next unicorn in your community?

We have embarked on helping countries solve this paradigm through various products and services. One of the initiatives we have is helping countries develop a novel digital transformation center which will enable them to navigate highly-disruptive technological environments. Take your first step to transforming your community. 

If you want to take action against the new brain drain that is taking talent, resources and opportunities, and if you want to have the next unicorn in your community, take action. Rethink your three engines of growth. Unicorns are elusive but not impossible.

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About the Author

Moe Ba leads the Innovation Programme for the Development Sector at the International Telecommunication Union, the UN specialized agency for ICT/Telecommunication.

His role is to help strengthen ITU Membership capacity to accelerate digital transformation. His passion is to help communities unlock their potentials through stakeholder empowerment and connecting opportunities to resources.

Prior to joining ITU, Mr. Ba spent several years in the private sector including working in Silicon Valley and internationally. He is an expert on innovation policy and the development of platforms focused on innovation, ICT and telecommunication.

This article is written in a personal capacity and doesn't engage the organization that I am currently working for.

Six years ago, Wired Magazine described the word innovation as “not important” in an article titled “Innovation: The Most Important and Overused Word in America”. They were on to something. Innovation has become the most abused word in many circles including, policy makers and career bureaucrats. That is something to have a deep breath about. Innovation by all accounts seem antithetical to bureaucracy, but it actually is not.

Innovation is about change and change is inevitable

If you are willing to reframe your thoughts, you will actually see that innovation is simply about change, and today change is inevitable. I am being dramatic using the term “bureaucrats”, but in reality they are managers who work for organizations that need to be efficient to survive. You might be one of these managers, at the city level, in a government, or private sector. For you to become a bureaucrat, you were probably caught in many unproductive habits in your organization. As a result, you or people you know might feel paralyzed because new ideas are not finding a conducive culture to flourish.

In the Oslo manual, OECD defines “Innovation as the implementation of a new or significantly improved product (good or service), or process, a new marketing method, or a new organizational method in business practices, workplace organization or external relations”. ICT affects business model, mindsets, organizational structures, R&D, markets, network; therefore, ICT centric innovation can contribute to significant growth and inclusion in economies that are increasingly digital, global and interconnected. This change impacts our communities, and we need to know how to leverage innovation to optimize opportunities.

Often, I am bombarded by comments from people who thinks that innovation should be led by one person, particulary the creative type. This is a misunderstanding. Innovation is a team sport, except there are specific type of people that you want in the core team. However, everybody has a role to play in innovation, and the sooner you understand this, the better off your community will positively navigate change.

Innovation is a system issue

In my first ecosystem review of a country four years ago, we noted that "In the early days of academic research on innovation, stimulating innovation was thought to be a linear process. In this model, science produces technology and technology delivers products and services in response to market need. Unfortunately, this perspective does not reflect the dynamism of the innovation process, which includes a variety of factors interacting together such as R&D investment, but also talent pools, culture, economic conditions, markets, and investment, among many others". Innovation is therefore a complex issue.

Thus innovation can be seen as a system issue where different building blocks need to have coordinated actions to drive result. These coordinated actions allow an innovator to develop new products and services that achieve economic value.  For ICT centric innovation, ITU has developed a comparable Innovation Framework with 30 interlinked building blocks to help assess a country ability to navigate technological changes and innovate. Imagine the complexity of such interlinkages in a dynamic and open system, as opposed to closed system. Failure in any component will impact your ability to produce ICT innovation, and the changing environment impact it too.

The building blocks of this system provide essential ingredients such as the vision and strategy setting a direction, infrastructure where the innovation can take place, talent and champions to drive the change, resources and programmes that deliver result, market and network where innovation find a footing, culture and communities fuelling innovation, and policies that underpin everything. These ingredients are applicable whether you are a country, a community or an organization.

Innovation needs a purpose and intrinsic motivation. One principle for any system is its goal. Innovation needs to focus on solving a problem. A civil servant could be delivering better services to citizens. An entrepreneur could be developing an application software to address an opportunity. An organization could be reinventing its products and services to remain competitive. Everyone has a job-to-be-done that they would like done better. That’s where innovation comes in.

Innovation without a purpose is a bad habit

These bad habits, or culture, spread like a virus. Breaking them up is very difficult. No one remembers when they started. I am sure you have seen this infestation before. One day you woke up and realized that the whole place was infested, including yourself.

Your organization is now officially a bureaucracy, you started not liking your job, your community leaders are divided, and everyone want a claim to the throne. If it sounds like the real life movie “Game of Thrones, that is because it might be. Bureaucracy is an innovation killer. If you have a good intrinsic motivation and a purpose to change the world, you might be able to adapt - but your environment will slow you down.

“An ineffective virus kill its host, while an effective virus doesn’t”. Someone has to clean the bad virus, otherwise it might kill every living thing in your environment. Trust is hard to build, but easy to loose. At some point trust need to be rebuild, and innovation has to happen before the organization dies. How do we proactively manage this tragedy waiting to happen in your community? 

Innovation is about risk management

Innovation is a data issue. You are hoping to get enough data to make the right decision. And if you don’t have enough data, then you want to quickly test the market. The biggest risk in any new proposal is the “unknown unknown”. To know what you don’t know, you need to experiment quickly and get a big enough sample to have some pointers. The old marketing segmentation strategy or an ideological driven strategy can no longer cut it in our hyper connected world.  This goes without saying that the person with the biggest dataset will have a better chance at innovating. This is why data is the new oil and creativity methodologies are cool.

Managers are risk adverse by definition. So you need leadership who believes and empower innovators to take risk. If not, your chances of success are limited. The more knowledgeable resources you have on your side, the higher your change of knowing the unknown. You will also need a portfolio of experiments to increase your chances of success, but be aware of resource hogs and organizational silos.

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”, says Albert Einstein. Organizational units are established to keep resources on an entitlement basis and focus on the unit output. The older a unit, the more established in their ways, and the more resources they have accumulated over the year working on the same thing.  There is a need for disruption in older organizational units to spread resources and weaken bureaucracy so innovation flourish.

There are few ways to create disruption of organizational units, some more effective than others. I have been through many re-organization with Silicon Valley companies. Every time it was triggered by some external factors (aka market or competitor). We jokingly called the changes as “people changing shirts”, but the culture stayed the same. The organization leaders were hoping for the best, but they were almost always wrong. This is a mistake as growth need a mindset change from people.

Innovation is about people

How do we stop our bad habits, these viruses that are making your organization or community less fit and agile? Stopping bad habits means that you need to change the cue, the routine, or the reward. If you find yourself in a hostile environment, there is a simple test to determine how conducive to innovation your environment is.

There are four essential pillars to this test for your community: how people communicate, how they manage hierarchies, how they resolve tensions, and how they navigate networks and access resources. If you can diagnose how people behave in your community, then you can start addressing the underlying culture that is spreading bad habits. You can find new routines for communicating, resolving tension, leveraging networks and  resources, and dealing with the hierarchical command and control world. Innovation needs emergent behaviours and cannot fourish in a command and control world.

The more lasting solutions are built in the DNA of your community. Constantly rotating people or having spaces for disruption provides some options in bureaucratic organizations. These proactive approaches have benefits as well as challenges. It has to be done with a purpose and aligned to the organization core businesses.  Injecting "new blood" with the right mindset can also accelerate the cultural transformation. So, don't be afraid to let foreign talent with the right skillsets in your ecosystem, or younger talent with the right attitude in your organization. Change is inevitable, be prepared.

Are you ready to be an innovation champion?

It is often said that, the biggest fear is the “fear leading to fear”. Don’t be afraid of change, as long as you are prepared. Think about climbing Mount Everest for example, you wouldn’t go on that expedition without the right team, skillsets, tools, a strategy and plan. Would you?  

If you are passionate about ICT centric Innovation, you should bring the odds in your favour.  Be an innovation champion, join this community. Share your comments with us.

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About the Author

Moe BaMoe Ba leads the Innovation Programme for the Development Sector at the International Telecommunication Union, the UN specialized agency for ICT/Telecommunication.

His role is to help strengthen ITU Membership capacity to accelerate digital transformation. His passion is to help communities unlock their potentials through stakeholder empowerment and connecting opportunities to resources.

Prior to joining ITU, Mr. Ba spent several years in the private sector including working in Silicon Valley and internationally. He is an expert on innovation policy and the development of platforms focused on innovation, ICT and telecommunication.

This article is written in a personal capacity and doesn't engage the organization that I am currently working for.

moe ba 2

The Young ICT Leaders’ Forum (YILF), an annual event co-organized by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and Busan Metropolitan city, has proven to be a “cool event”, attracting a diverse young talent pool with every new edition. The 6th edition of the Young ICT Leader’s forum will take place, once again this year, in Busan in the Republic of Korea. I am excited to share with you the journey that led to this edition and what we anticipate in this coming edition.

 “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” -- Lao Tzu

The YILF is not a regular competition for young innovators. It offers a space where youth change-makers in ICTs can network, connect and enhance their innovative ideas to transform their communities into smart communities. Previous winners went on to improve their solutions or use the recognition to gain access to more resources. Without access to new resources, many of these great ideas would have died in the ‘valley of death,’ cutting their entrepreneurial journey short.

It all started a few years ago with a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the city of Busan and ITU. In previous editions of this event, we launched open calls for proposals to explore solutions to build Smart Cities. ITU defines a Smart City as “an innovative city that uses information and communication technologies and other means to improve quality of life, efficiency of urban operation and services, and competitiveness, while ensuring that it meets the needs of present and future generations with respect to economic, social and environmental aspects”.  

We received many applications from innovators around the world, all working towards making their cities smarter. From Innovators proposing education solutions using Augmented Reality (AR) technology, to those with tsunami early warning solutions using Internet of Things (IoT), all wanted to make their cities smarter. These open calls were always followed with a selection and gathering of the winners in a well-orchestrated event in Busan.

There are many competitions and youth events out there.  What is quite unique with YILF is the policy and enabling environment dimension that ITU, as the lead United Nations agency for ICTs, can offer through its network of public and private sector decision makers and experts. In addition, the commitment to empowering the global ICT community, demonstrated by the Metropolitan City of Busan as a global Smart City leader, makes it the perfect partner to host the Young ICT Leaders Forum.

Learning, unlearning, and relearning is the key to innovation

Over the years, we decided to transform this Forum to fulfil its potential. The Forum was originally intended to bring together young ICT leaders aged 18 to 35, to promote their participation in the digital economy. The forum aims to achieve three strategic objectives:

  • Promoting the engagement of youth in the field of ICTs,
  • Decreasing the digital divide,
  • Promoting research on emerging ICTs particularly Internet of Things (IoT), among others.

 I participated in some of the previous editions of the forum as a judge, a mentor and an ITU expert, and thoroughly enjoyed every moment. I always felt we could do more with this great gathering of young minds.

Last year, it was requested that I lead from the ITU side the organization of the Fifth Edition of the YILF. I took advantage of this opportunity to do what I love most: hacking, flipping, and experimenting. To get more Smart Cities solutions in any community, there is a need for a better enabling environment that nurtures more inspiring success stories and encourages innovators. We thought a new experiment could start with a learning journey about achieving sustainable smart communities. With the blessing from our host partner, we changed the format and made an open call for ‘Smart Cities Ecosystem Builders,’ instead of the usual call for ‘Smart Cities Solutions.’ 

"We need to re-work, re-think, re-learn.” -- YILF 2018 participant

Building a culture of innovation can be considered as a numbers game. This means experimenting with new initiatives, many of which might fail, but, hopefully some of them will succeed.

Some forum participants were disappointed with our new experiment. They assumed that, as with the previous editions, they were going to pitch their new startup ideas with the community. I must admit it was a selfish experiment to try to turn these young innovators into ecosystem builders.

One of my jobs is about ecosystem building to create sustainable enabling environments. I refer to this as “putting sustainable back” in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to address the opportunities of digital transformation. It is a passionate personal appeal to those working with new SDG goals to think about sustainability carefully.

After a rough start, it did not take long before most participants of the 5th edition of the YILF understood why ecosystem building will be instrumental in making their cities sustainably smarter. During last year's event, it became obvious that ecosystem building was already happening in some regions of the world with previous YILF participants.

There are many more YILF graduates who transformed with their experiences with the progamme.

Nelson Milla, a 2016 YILF participant from Honduras, is the classic example. He saw the necessity of it and the opportunities it offered to navigate a challenging environment in his home community. Another alumni of YILF is Silvia Dusa, a young innovator who converted to being an ecosystem builder as well as an ‘intrapreneur’ for her current company. We first met in 2015 with her Random Startup Idea. In her spare time, Silvia now organizes ecosystem building to make her hometown of Alba Iula, Romania - now a Smart City.

Victoria Masso, a 2018 participant, was already active as a mentor and entrepreneur in her community in Birmingham, but now has also become a great ecosystem builder. After the first day of the event, I had dinner with Victoria and some participants. I was lamenting how difficult it was to tell stories (with my engineering background) and shared my quest for a story telling tool for the workshop. She sprang into action, and in less than 24 hours, she was leading a session on story telling during the second day. We have improved this story telling tool since and it has become one of the hottest tools within our toolbox that change-makers worldwide are falling in love with.

They came to Busan, they connected, networked and built their capabilities

Throughout YILF 2018, participants were actively engaged in collaboration, networking, capacity building, and co-creation in this four-day event. The first two days were dedicated to a boot camp workshop on ecosystem building, while the 3rd was dedicated to the Forum. The 3rd day of the event ended with a celebratory dinner party, a night that will be remembered for networking in the heart of Busan city. The last day was reserved to a study tour of the Busan smart ecosystem. All participants felt transformed with the experience. In the words of one of them: “I have been inspired by two considerable situations. The first is the method of learning, learning by doing. The second aspect is thinking outside the box, going further than what I have been taught.” Another participant said, “This collective experience will prepare us for the future.”

Through structured feedback during and after the event, we sought ideas on how to improve the experience of participants for the 6th edition. We learned a lot from this process.

One key lesson learned is that participants want to be part of a community prior to the event, but they also want to stay in touch as a community afterwards.

As a result, one immediate change we are making in this year YILF is to accommodate in our community three complementary profiles of innovators: the change markers with ideas, ecosystem builders, and entrepreneurs with solutions.  Another key change is the use of participatory tools (a social crowd ideation tool) to better engage this community before and after the event. We will also continue to come-up with new human centric tools as a core of our approaches to produce transformation with participants.

We will experiment with new tools at this year YILF to help innovators scale their solutions. We hope you will take the opportunity to lead and invite others to join us in this learning journey, in our reinvigorated community.

“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” -- Mahatma Gandhi

Please join us in making the 6th Edition of the Young ICT Leaders’ Forum a success. Take  ITU innovation challenges to be part of a great community. Help us spread the word.

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About the Author

Moe BaMoe Ba leads the Innovation Programme for the Development Sector at the International Telecommunication Union, the UN specialized agency for ICT/Telecommunication.

His role is to help strengthen ITU Membership capacity to accelerate digital transformation. His passion is to help communities unlock their potentials through stakeholder empowerment and connecting opportunities to resources.

Prior to joining ITU, Mr. Ba spent several years in the private sector including working in Silicon Valley and internationally. He is an expert on innovation policy and the development of platforms focused on innovation, ICT and telecommunication.

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