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When setting goals, aim for Jupiter …

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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.”

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Low-cost wireless sport earphones get a kickstart

Wireless earphone brands are common, but not crowdfunded brands. BRYAN TURNER takes the K Sport Wireless for a run.

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As wireless technology becomes better, Bluetooth earphones have become popular in the consumer market. KuaiFit aspires to make them even more accessible to more people through a cheaper, quality product, by selling the K Sport Wireless Earphones directly from its Kickstarter page

KuaiFit has an app by the same name which offers voice-guided personal training services in almost every type of exercise, from cardio to weight-lifting. A vast range of connectivity to third-party sensors is available, like heart rate sensors and GPS devices, which work well with guided coaching. 

The app starts off with selecting a fitness level: beginner, intermediate and advanced. Thereafter, one has the ability to connect with real personal trainers via a subscription to its paid service. The subscription comes free for 6 months with the earphones, and R30 per month thereafter. 

The box includes a manual, a USB to two USB Type B connectors, different sized soft plastic eartips and the two earphone units. Each earphone is wireless and connects to the other independently of wires. This puts the K Sport Wireless in the realm of the Apple Earpods in terms of connection style. 

The earphones are just over 2cm wide and 2cm high. The set is black with a light blue KuaiFit logo on the earphone’s button. 

The button functions as an on/off switch when long-pressed and a play/pause button when quick-pressed. The dual-button set-up is convenient in everyday use, allowing for playback control depending on which hand is free. Two connectivity modes are available, single earphone mode or dual earphone mode. The dual earphone mode intelligently connects the second earphone and syncs stereo audio a few seconds after powering on. 

In terms of connectivity, the earphones are Bluetooth 4.1 with a massive 10-meter range, provided there are no obstacles between the device and the earphones. While it’s not Bluetooth 5, it still falls into the Bluetooth Low Energy connection category, meaning that the smartphone’s battery won’t be drastically affected by a consistent connection to the earphones. The batteries within the earphones aren’t specifically listed but last anywhere between 3 and 6 hours, depending on the mode. 

Audio quality is surprisingly good for earphones at this price point. The headset style is restricted to in-ear due to its small design and probable usage in movement-intensive activities. As a result, one has to be very careful how one puts these earphones, in because bass has the potential of getting reduced from an incorrect in-ear placement. In-ear earphones are usually notorious for ear discomfort and suction pain after extended usage. These earphones are one of the very few in this price range that are comfortable and don’t cause discomfort. The good quality of the soft plastic ear tip is definitely a factor in the high level of comfort of the in-ear earphone experience.

Overall, the K Sport Wireless earphones are great considering the sound quality and the low price: US$30 on Kickstarter.

Find them on Kickstarter here.

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Taxify enters Google Maps

A recent update to Taxify now uses Google Maps which allows users to identify their drivers, find public transport and search for billing options.

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People planning their travel routes using Google Maps will now see a Taxify icon in the app, in addition to the familiar car, public transport, walking and billing options.

Taxify started operating in South Africa in 2016 and as of October 2018 operates in seven South African cities – Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni, Tshwane, Cape Town, Durban, Port Elizabeth and Polokwane.

Once riders have searched for their destination and asked the app for directions, Google Maps shares the proximity of cars on the Taxify platform, as well as an estimated fare for the trip.

If users see that taking the Taxify option is their best bet, they can simply tap on the ‘Open app’ icon, to complete the process of booking the ride. Customers without the app on their device will be prompted to install Taxify first.

This integration makes it possible for users to evaluate which of the private, public or e-hailing modes of transport are most time-efficient and cost-effective.

“This integration with Google Maps makes it so much easier for users to choose the best way to move around their city,” says Gareth Taylor, Taxify’s country manager for South Africa. “They’ll have quick comparisons between estimated arrival times for the different modes of transport, as well as fares they can expect to pay, which will help save both time and money,” he added.

Taxify rides in Google Maps are rolling out globally today and will be available in more than 15 countries, with South Africa being one of the first countries to benefit from this convenient service.

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