INNOVATION AND THE POWER OF COMMUNITY
The word ‘Innovation’ has been reduced to a pop culture catchphrase that is sometimes sounds a cliché and I wished not to whisper a word about the subject. No doubt innovation is a key driver of positive social-economic transformation. This has been evidenced in many prominent economy transformations such the story of Singapore and India. A similar trend is seen playing out in Nigeria which is exporting numerous technology professionals, products and services.
Universities as higher-institutions of learning have a social contract with society to preserve and discover knowledge, society banks on these institutions to solve the hardest real-world problems. The advent of the Covid-19 pandemic revealed many gaps and opportunities for higher-institutions of learning to reconsider the social contracts they hold. Many institutions did the best within their powers and responsibility to provide solutions to the raging pandemic. Individuals such as Prof. Patrick Ogwang won our hero medal for the ingenuity expressed in coming up with a Covid-19 treatment drug. University products like Covidex are rare in an African academic setting. To many people, Prof. Dr. Patrick Ogwang stands out as an accomplished hero, ordained with extraordinary abilities to look at medicinal plants and synthesis a drug in the shortest time possible. It could be a public prayer to have hundreds of ‘Ogwangs’ coming out of their ‘caves’ and offer society a medical gift.
The modern Uganda has experienced isolated and rare flashes of Ogwangs such as Brian Gitta (malaria testing which draws no blood), Dr. Paul Musazi (brain-child behind Kiira Ev and Makpads, RIP), etcetera. These individuals are not the exceptions of what can get rolled out of our university laboratories, they are the rule, which we ought to understand. They succeeded not because of the environment, rather despite of the environment, that is unsupportive and harsh (to an extent) to enable innovation and research. Innovation is enabled by a system of factors that could be neglected or ignorantly not given attention to. Innovation is neither inevitable nor automatic.
Innovation, though used (sometimes since the recent past) as a rhetoric or marketing tool, is what universities use to fulfill their social contract. Innovation aims to further simply life through application of knowledge in novel but impactful ways to solve real world problems. It can be as simple and ‘pointless’ as the S-bend in the pipe beneath your comfy toilet which traps clean water so as bad smell doesn’t escape to the outer environment of the septic. Such an innovation has enabled majority of us to afford the luxury to ‘stay’ with toilets under the same roof. It can also be sophisticated as deep learning algorithms that can imagine and output a billion insanely great but different Airbus aircraft designs.
Innovation, unlike cloud formation, doesn’t happen in space, it happens in communities where there is free sharing of information among people in a given field of specialty. Innovation is a team sport, it is not an individual game and survives and thrives on communication, collaboration and co-creation. Innovation, unlike ideas that exist within heads, it exists between heads. It happens when ideas meet, mate and multiply. Giving it a closure look, all the innovations the nation prides in are/were a result of ‘heroes’ investing the best of themselves.
Here is the mathematics of community collaboration. Let the output of an Ogwang be i. Assume there are more ‘Ogwangs’ of equal or greater abilities. Assume ‘we’ to be the number of Ogwangs. If ‘we’ Ogwangs collaborate, their net output would be i(exp)we which is far greater than we.
. Such a community setting is a petri-dish of innovative ideas that find purpose in our societies.
A perfect exemplar of an innovation community is the Silicon Valley, which is home to the world’s top performing technology companies. It is a breeding-ground of innovation and entrepreneurship not because of super-talented individuals working on their individual projects, it is because of the high flux of communication, collaboration and co-creation. Silicon Valley, just like any innovation community, is littered with numerous collaborative and meeting spaces with venture capitalists and founders interacting freely.
Institutions should grow organic communities within and among their faculties (academic, research and student communities). A culture of freely exchanging ideas is the secret ingredient in the innovation sauce. There is nothing greatly important to any academic institution such as a vibrant and positive culture of a community that seeks to apply and discover knowledge. Collaborative communities are the future of innovation.