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Anderson: Who's Leading in Energy and Electronics Innovation and Why?

An Indian man checks a new mobile phone at a shop in New Delhi on May 12, 2010.
Manan Vatsyayana | AFP | Getty Images
An Indian man checks a new mobile phone at a shop in New Delhi on May 12, 2010.

Imagine that you’re an African street musician.

You record your songs by singing into a used cell phone, you rent bandwidth so that you can upload your music to several websites, and you sell it online. Together with six billion other wired individuals, you are innovating and transforming society in ways that surpass anything companies or governments are doing.

Innovation on this scale is motivated by creating value in your own life and in global ecosystems as defined by the needs of society; not as defined by the vision of inventors, product goals of companies or stimulation by governments.

Need Proof? Consider the following:

  • 60% of the world’s poor have a mobile phone, which are often rented out to dozens of others in the community
  • Half the human species can be online every day in a mobile cloud that crosses all borders
  • Mobile broadband access now exceeds fixed-line access. Africa is only 4 years behind the US and has a faster growth rate
  • Americans have only 6% of the more than 5.5 billion global mobile devices. China, India, and Africa have 35% of the global mobile devices and are growing much faster than the US
  • Worldwide, on billions of mobile devices, people are building whole businesses based on app development
  • The global cloud and social media have been used to topple repressive regimes as part of the Arab Spring and helped the capitalist conversion of China
  • Sophisticated mobile banking is run via SMS text in India, Africa and Asia, which has opened up entire economies to the poor
  • Mobile remittances from guest workers to their home countries are almost triple total global government aid, and almost equal all corporate direct foreign investment

America lost its grip on the product innovationlead in the 1970s when cars, electronics and computing were transferred overseas or into foreign plants on US soil. Left behind is a corporate complexity that slows social innovation and wastes scarce capital - just ask anyone who’s had to “ask the legal department” or been forced to “read the regulations” before running with an idea.

Future of Innovation - See Complete Coverage
Future of Innovation - See Complete Coverage

In "The Collapse of Complex Societies" author and professor Dr. Joseph Tainter argues that empires do not “collapse” overnight. They get so complex that they are no longer valuable to “fringe” groups, like rural dwellers and children entering the workforce. So then what happens to these fringe groups? They become the innovators, using technology and travel to create more valuable and meaningful networks that serve their needs.

Many say developing nations are politically risky, but how much money has the world lost investing in our government-regulated financial system? A better investment might be in the African street musician and the scores of other third-world innovators. If you want to see who leads innovation and why, buy a ticket to Africa or India. Look for people using mobile phones and tablets to compute, engineer, heal and inform the new world for all of us. Look at what they are doing and you will see the future.

Martin Anderson has been on the Babson College faculty since 1996, teaching in the MBA Program and at the School for Executive Education. He is responsible for “extended enterprise management” programs at Babson.

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