Network Society course (XI). Ethan Zuckerman: Innovation in the Network Society (II)

Notes from the course Network Society: Social Changes, Organizations and Citizens, Barcelona, 15-17 October, 2008.

How do social change organizations innovate?
Ethan Zuckerman, Harvard Berkman Center

Social organizations do not innovate, do it badly, or just do it slowly. Quite usually, the assumption is to be unrealistic about the power of technology to enable social change.

Facing a blank canvas gives you the idea that everything is possible. But good art is about constraint. And if you don’t know your constraints, figure them out.

  • Innovation comes from constraint

If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail saying does not apply to innovation: innovation is about hacking the hammer and making it better.

Von Hippel (see “more info” below): Lead user theory: users innovate all over the time.

Learning from extreme uses, hostile environments. Africa is a good place to test technology, as the environment is roughest. What works in Africa, works everywhere (AfriGadget, about African innovation).

Some examples of innovation from constraints: the Zeer Pot, the Solar Stove. The problem sometimes is not innovation in processes, but innovation in culture. Then innovation has to be reinvented, hence the solar stove becomes the Jiko:

  • Don’t fight culture
  • Embrace market mechanisms
  • Innovate on existing platforms

Innovation is using the ordinary in extraordinary ways: the Malawi Windmill. Innovation is about hacking existing technology. And the technology that now is spread on Africa is mobile phones: technological innovation in Africa will necessarily be related with hacking mobile phones. Mobile phones have already changed the way sub-Saharan Africans see and do things: TradeNet, to get agricultural information; M-Pesa, to transfer money and make payments; Ushahidi, crowdsourcing crisis information; reporting the 2008 Zimbabwe presidential election to report electoral rigging.

Incremental infrastructure: e.g. a mobile phone antenna that also is a vertical axis power windmill.

  • Problems are not always obvious from afar
  • What you have matters more that what you lack
  • Infrastructure can beget infrastructure
Ethan Zuckerman’s ICT4D Innovation test
  1. Does the innovation comes from constraint?
  2. Does it fight culture?
  3. Does it embrace market mechanisms?
  4. Does it innovate on existing platforms?
  5. Does it come from close observation of the target environment?
  6. Does it focus more on what you have more that what you lack?
  7. Is it based on a “infrastructure begets infrastructure” basis?

Example 1: the OLPC project fails on 1, 3, 5, 6 and maybe 7, only passing on 2 and 4.

Example 2: Kiva passes on 1-4, fails on 5, and not sure whether it passes or fails on 6-7

Example 3: Gobal Voices passes on 1, 4 and 7; fails on 5-6; not sure about 2-3.

Social innovation never comes from a blank canvas. Comes from understanding the needs of all parties. Caveat: sometimes constraints leverage innovation, but are also a limitation for an innovation to go beyond itself.


Ricard Ruiz de Querol: How to adapt the innovation based on constraints scheme to e.g. the digital divide in Spain? A: We should be aware whether there is a real digital divide or just a geeky will (unselfish, indeed) for everyone to be a digital native, when those people maybe already got what they needed. So, pushing people towards forced uses might be dysfunctional.

Carlos Domingo: But do we always have to bend to culture and stick to the past? A: It depends whether you’re talking short run or long run. In the long run, you want to figure out how to make culture smoothly evolve; in the short run, fighting culture just will enact an opposition reaction.

Personal reflections

Innovation as a darwinist evolution: no mutations, but adaptive non-disruptive changes based on what best performs on a specific environment.

More info

Von Hippel, E. (2005). Democratizing Innovation. Cambridge: MIT Press


Network Society: Social Changes, Organizations and Citizens (2008)

If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2008) “Network Society course (XI). Ethan Zuckerman: Innovation in the Network Society (II)” In ICTlogy, #61, October 2008. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
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7 Comments to “Network Society course (XI). Ethan Zuckerman: Innovation in the Network Society (II)” »

  1. Pingback: Marcos mentales: Innovación « ruizdequerol

  2. Pingback: …My heart’s in Accra » Innovating from constraint

  3. Gran Trabajo, felicidades Ismael. Me gustaría introducir una pequeña corrección. En un momento hablas de Ushahidi, crowdsourcing crisis information; reporting on Zimbawean Presidential elections. Sin embargo, el proyecto surgió de Kenia durante la crisi posterior a las elecciones del pasado diciembre del 2007 en Kenia.

    gracias por tu liveblogging

  4. Andreu, gracias por los cumplidos :)))

    Sobre Ushahidi:

    Tienes razón, y así lo puse, aunque por la tipografía igual no se ve muy bien: fíjate que la lista de proyectos va separada por punto y coma, y las comas separan el proyecto de su explicación. Lo de las elecciones de Zimbabwe va aparte de Ushahidi, pero al faltarle el nombre de un proyecto (que no era tal), es cierto que se presta a confusión.

    (no sé si ha quedado claro… parece aquello de la parte contratante de la parte contratante de…)

  5. Después de la explicación queda muy claro.

    Gracias de nuevo.

  6. Pingback: 없으면 없는 대로 뽑아내기 – Innovating From Constraint in the Developing World « Open Sauce

  7. Pingback: ICTlogy » ICT4D Blog » Open Social Innovation

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