South Africa and its fellow countries on the continent need to boost innovation if they hope to thrive. How? By aiming for Jupiter…
If we were to speculate what motivated Siya Xuza, wunderkind, inventor of a new rocket fuel, Harvard alum and one of South Africa’s innovation leaders, what would the conclusions be? Did he yearn after a career in science? Was he aiming to lift his family out of poverty? Might he fancy himself as the next Isaac Newton?
No, he wanted to go to Jupiter.
After seeing an aeroplane for the first time at age five, as it dropped election pamphlets preempting South Africa’s first democratic elections, Xuza was overcome with curiosity. His quest to find out what an aeroplane was and how it worked led him to discover something far bigger: the king of the gods itself, the largest planet in our solar system.
“As I start learning about aeroplanes, I learn about rockets. Rockets go to a part of the universe known as space and in space there are planets. As I learn about planets, I learn the biggest in the solar system is a planet known as Jupiter. And so, at the age of five, I decided to go to Jupiter.”
Absurd? Fanciful? Yes. Everyone looked at him as if he was crazy. Yet this moonshot would guide his life, teach him about failure and helping him understand that success is not just about pursuing the possible. It’s about reaching toward the impossible and discovering so much along the way.
No Half Measures in Innovation
This all-or-nothing view may seem absurd and lacking in true grounding, yet Xuza’s own success challenges that assumption. But don’t just take the word of a maverick rocket scientist. Ask the CTO of one of the modern world’s most maverick technology firms – JB Straubel of Tesla:
“We took information [gathered from previous products] and used it to bootstrap ourselves into the next product. Something that Tesla has done repeatedly and continues to do today, is we’d bet the entire company on the next product. Instead of cautiously getting one product under our belt and nursing that to success and make some profit from it, we never felt that would let us grow fast enough. It’s a phenomenal approach to grow very quickly, but it is very risky and very stressful.”
What is the common thread here? Jumping into the deep end. Taking a chance. Doing what others say can’t be done. Indeed, Valerie Fox, Chief Innovation Consultant at The Pivotal Point and a stalwart evangelist of incubator culture, does not even embrace modern notions such as ‘fail fast’ or ‘fail forward’:
“I don’t believe in the word ‘failure,’ because failure is when you stop. What I found in the entrepreneurial world is that they don’t stop. Entrepreneurs don’t stop. It might not work. That doesn’t mean they failed, just that it didn’t work. It’s always about how you pick yourself up and apply it to the next thing.”
Spreading Innovation’s Message
All three were speaking at the recent Accenture Innovation Conference, which pursued the theme of innovation and how to ignite it among people, companies and countries. This is not a ‘nice to have’: innovation is fast becoming a necessary catalyst in forging competitive businesses. Dovetailing with this is the rise of digitisation, which empowers companies to really start flexing their innovation muscles.
“Embracing innovation from the top of the company is what drives innovation in a company,” said William Mzimba, Chief Executive of Accenture South Africa and Chairman of Accenture Sub-Saharan Africa. “We are seeing businesses leveraging digital as an enabler for innovation, and they are leveraging digital technologies to change their business models and make sure that they can set up platforms for innovation.”
Yet while this message resonates in broad strokes, at more nuanced levels South African companies are still slow to adopt innovation thinking. Accenture’s third annual Innovation Index reveals that small gains have been made, but not enough. Out of the businesses surveyed, only 8 percent qualified at the top tier of Innovation Value Champions. In terms of which digital platforms are being used to drive innovation, the laggards perform best with mobile (54% as opposed 70% among top innovators), but fail to capitalise on analytics (36% vs 80%), cloud technologies (45% vs 65%) and social media (42% vs 80%). Even though digital presents opportunities, the challenge appears to be the entrenched cultures at companies.
Linda Trim, Director of Giant Leap Workspace Specialists – a past winner of the Accenture Innovation Index – laid out what makes her company innovative: “Every time we see a gap, we’re a small team and we make quick decisions. Because we’re self-funded, we’ve always chosen to collaborate with others people to get to the market quickly and do what we want.”
Other attendees at the event reflected this as well: the ability to move on an idea, to experiment instead of stifling inspiration and to take risks are key to innovative thinking. Mzimba also noted that, from a practical perspective, companies should shift away from pipeline thinking where products are conceived and delivered in the ‘build it and they will come’ mantra. Instead companies should reorientate themselves as platforms, sandboxes even, where ideas can take root and have a chance at reaching for the sun or, perhaps, Jupiter.
Cultivating Business Innovation
This way of thinking is evident in many trailblazing companies, be they old guard turned new such as GE, the anything-goes world of Amazon or challengers of the status quo such as Tesla.
“Innovation has to be culturally embedded in your organisation,” said Straubel. “It can’t be something that is just a side project or whole separate little team. I have seen that at a lot of the big corporates. Inevitably we find those innovation teams are not connected to the main company. They have the right culture in of themselves, but you need to find a way to spread that culture into the whole company or else it really can’t have the effect that you want it to have.”
To adherents of innovation advice, Straubel’s comment may seem contradictory. Often companies are encouraged to have separate teams that drive innovation goals without the interference of the larger organisation. Salim Ismail, renowned technology investor and co-founder of the Singularity University, defined the issue as a company’s immune system will often try to kill innovation. Yet this is not at odds with Straubel’s view – as the Tesla CTO noted: the trick is how you spread that culture through the rest of the enterprise.
“Apple is the master of this technique,” said Ismail. “What Apple does is take a small team that is highly disruptive and take them to the edge of the organisation. They’ll keep them completely stealth and tell them to go disrupt other industries.”
Yet he added that it’s not easy. Walmart failed numerous times before it was able to adopt this approach. The company routinely created edge innovation teams, but these were felled by company interference, being too close to the main company (or mothership, as Ismail terms it) or were brought back into the space too soon. Eventually Walmart learned to create an autonomous entity and slowly adopt its way of thinking instead of amalgamating the entity in a hope of innovation culture through osmosis.
In fact, fear of the unknown often prompts companies to be over-cautious and not take such bold steps. Yet this is exactly what is required. Tesla’s Straubel said the biggest advantage was not knowing what they didn’t know. By not having a manual on how you should build a car, they made something new and superior to the entrenched norms of the industry they were besieging. It is a journey made easier with the help and support of consulting services such as Accenture, but it can’t be accomplished half-heartedly.
Xuza, the maverick rocket scientist and currently battery innovator, brought it all to a succinct point, a philosophical challenge:
“The purpose of my talk was to humbly ask you: what is your Jupiter? What is that impossible vision that you have that will transform your company, your country or your world? What is that Jupiter or how can you help others achieve those Jupiters through innovation? The way we will be able to transform the image of Africa from one that is dark to an Africa that is bright, that takes it rightful place, is through this spirit of innovation.”
Welcome to world of 2099
The world of 2099 will be unrecognisable from the world of today, but it can be predicted, says one visionary. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK met him in Singapore.
Futuristic structures tower over the landscape. Giant, alien-looking trees light up with dazzling colours amid the hundreds of plant species that grow up their trunks. Cosmetic stores sell their wares via public touch-screens, with products delivered instantly in drawers below the screens.
This is not a vision of the future. It is a sample of Singapore today. But it is also an inkling of the world we may all experience in the future.
Singapore was the venue, last week, of the World Cities Summit, where engineers, politicians, investors and visionaries rubbed shoulders as they talked about the strategies and policies that would enhance urban living in the future.
As part of the Summit, global payment technologies leader Mastercard hosted a small media briefing by one of Singapore’s leading thinkers about the future, Dr Damian Tan, managing director of Vickers Venture Partners. The company’s slogan “We invest in the extraordinary,” offers a small clue to Tan’s perspective.
“We look as far forward as 2099 because, as a venture capital firm, we invest in the long term,” he tells a group of journalists from Africa and the Middle East. “Companies explode in growth because there is value in the future. If there is no growth, they won’t explode.”
The big question that the Smart Cities Summit and Mastercard are trying to help answer is, what will cities look like in the year 2099? Tan can’t give an exact answer, but he offers a framework that helps one approach the question.
“If you want to look at 81 years into the future, and understand the change that will come, you need to double that amount and look into the past. That takes us to 1856. The difference between then and now is the difference you can expect between now and 2099.”
Click here or on the page link below to read on: Page 2: Soldiers and Health in 2099.
- Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube
Street art goes electric
Kaspersky Lab and British street artist D*Face have unveiled the first-ever “art helmet” design at the Formula E finale for electric cars in New York.
The ‘Save The World’ helmets will be raced by DS Virgin Racing’s drivers, Sam Bird and Alex Lynn, as they traverse the New York street circuit during the final races of the Formula E season.
The announcement signals the first art helmet by a Formula E team, continuing the heritage of art in motorsport and the cybersecurity brand’s commitment to contemporary art, creativity and innovation. D*Face took inspiration from Kaspersky Lab’s tagline, “A Company To Save The World”, and hopes that his colourful work will inspire people to take positive action.
D*Face will announce his first-ever art car design with a custom-made livery for the DS Virgin Racing Team. Its design will be released at the “Art Goes Green” event after Saturday’s race. The helmets and art car are the latest installations in the “Save the World” collection, following a major permanent public mural that was installed in Brooklyn, New York, in May.
D*Face, whose real name is Dean Stockton, said: “It is exciting to work with Kaspersky Lab on this project and create art with a real message of hope for a better future. After all, this is our world and we need to look after it. It will take every one of us to make a real lasting, impactful change. I love the mentality of the DS Virgin Racing Team and that of Formula E by showcasing sport in a way that doesn’t harm the environment, but is still just as exhilarating and fun.
“It is time for us all to stand together and make a change… be that stopping data steals, climate change, plastic waste or using damaging fuels. I want everyone to make a pledge to do one thing that will help make a change.”
As a sponsor of DS Virgin Racing Team, Kaspersky Lab is responsible for protecting the team’s devices against cyber threats. The company sees the technical environment in the global sport of Formula E as the next frontier in furthering its research and development of new technologies to keep vehicles secure in the digital world.
Sylvain Filippi, Managing Director at DS Virgin Racing, said: “The whole team fully supports this great initiative and our thanks got to Kaspersky and D*Face for their collaboration. It’s an honour to have such an innovative artist bring his talents to bear in our team ahead of the season-finale; the car, drivers’ crash helmets and mural all look amazing.”
Aldo Fucelli Pessot del Bo, Head of Global Partnerships and Sponsorships at Kaspersky Lab added: “There is a need for innovation on a global scale, both in contemporary art and in the fast-growing sport of Formula E. Now, for the first time ever, Kaspersky Lab is proudly bringing together the two sectors in an effort to Save the World and unleash creativity, encourage freedom of expression and further innovation.”