Celebrate the S-Bend: Attitudes to Innovation

One discovery I hadn’t expected to make as I explored the world’s startup ecosystems, was a wide variation in how people viewed innovation. After nearly three years in the Silicon Valley bubble, it was easy to imagine that innovation and startups are inextricably intertwined concepts, however as I travelled I found different attitudes to innovation, from the romantic to the pragmatic.

First, let me define what I mean by innovation in this context; which is the creation of something new and unexpected. This can be contrasted with the far more common practice of ‘copy-cat’ innovation, where an already proven business model is replicated for a new market (or has some other slight variation). As an example, people think of Uber as innovative, because it was one of the first ride-sharing apps of its kind; while Grab Taxi in Malaysia, and Go-Jek in Indonesia are seen as less innovative for copying Uber’s model in their local markets.

Myself and many others would contend that the introduction of a business model to a new market is a form of innovation, but what we see in communities like Silicon Valley (and most other Western regions I visited), is a clear stratification of innovation, with brand-sparkling-new sitting above all others. ‘Copy-cat’ innovation is typically looked upon with a certain amount of disdain, as you can tell from the notoriety of Rocket Internet – a German startup factory with the tagline ‘We build companies’. Rocket Internet are very open about their approach of creating or investing in companies using proven business models, and as I travelled, I found that talking to people about them made for an effective litmus test of people’s attitudes towards innovation.

Across Europe, the mention of Rocket Internet leads to a souring of the face, furrowing of the brow, and the distinct impression that the person you’re talking to is now picturing a circles of vultures flying. Not so in Asia, where Rocket Internet are instead seen as a sensible company, investing smartly and helping to spread ideas to wider audiences.

Earlier this year I was sitting on the sofa of a contact in Singapore, having a fascinating discussion that ranged across politics, innovation and business. Jack Sim is a serial entrepreneur who has dedicated the past twenty years to more philanthropic causes, most notably in trying to improve sanitation by tackling taboos around toilets and human waste (when I saw him he was in the middle of organising a ‘Symphony in Pee Minor’ to play in a famous concert hall). My time in Singapore, and especially my conversation with Jack, began to make me see that some of the things we take for granted as universal are actually just a part of our own culture.

On the political side, I saw how most people were perfectly content with the strict government in Singapore. What would be considered a non-democratic ‘nanny-state’ in the West was in fact a very effective method of governance that had turned Singapore into an economic superstar, not to mention a safe and clean place to live. On the business side, I saw a completely different attitude to the deification of innovation and newness seen in the West. Rather than putting the ‘new’ on a pedestal, there was a pragmatic respect for anything that got the job done. Part of this pragmatism was an understanding that there are old issues that need to be fixed across the world, and some of them don’t need new solutions, they just need to effective roll-out of existing ones. Jack Sim isn’t trying to invent a new toilet; he’s just trying to make sure we break down the barriers keeping existing inventions out of people’s homes.

From my time in Silicon Valley, and working in corporate innovation, I see an increasing trend for exalting ‘radical innovation’ and dismissing ‘incremental innovation’; a fashion for taking crazy leaps as a preference over practical solutions to fix obvious problems. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of the new, of the crazy and unexpected, but that doesn’t mean that ‘new’ ideas are necessarily better than the proven ideas. Look at the humble toilet, whose pivotal S-Bend technology was invented in 1775 and hasn’t changed much since (as BBC News recently showcased). So I say, bring on the new, but also value the old – it was new once, don’t forget!