Bitcoin – Cascading Effects

In their HBR Blog post Bitcoin’s Promise Goes Far Beyond Payments,  Tiffany Wan and Max Hoblitzell explore the technology aspect of Bitcoin. Now we all understand that it is being treated as a virtual currency and may become the first universal currency in the connected world led by the Internet. It would enable people to exchange monetary value without involving any external agencies and hence saving on the costs involved in these transactions. If it becomes mainstream – even for online transactions, the established authorities will feel the heat as they will start loosing revenues. However the authors of this blog point out that if we look at Bitcoins as more than just a currency, as a unique piece of technology, there are many more things that it can accomplish like be an identity document for people, that can potentially replace the need of multiple identity documents like passports etc. The digital identity can verify people at the borders. Similarly the contracts can be exceuted through Bitcoins, be it for property deals or for selling used cars. Now we know the digital information is easy to store and retrieve, which means this concept will bring about a lot of transparency and speed.

The question that it raises for me is the security – what if my identity is stolen or transactions are done on my behalf, what would be the way to decipher fake transactions and what would be my fate if my identity is stolen. What if the details of all my transactions ever are available to people I do not want to know all about me. This is my fear at an individual level, what if identities are stolen for a whole community – can you imagine the chaos it would lead to.

I know technology can potentially close these loop holes, but we must remember that the ease with which you get a solution is also the ease with which hackers can get into the system.

However and interesting thought process that definitely needs to be explored.



Solving Water crisis at ground level

Water – they say will the resource for which the next war will be fought. Water is the most basic necessity for human life. We need it for drinking, for cooking, for washing n cleaning and just about anything. Nature has provided us with water in abundance but the drinkable water is a small percentage of the overall water available on the planet.

In the McKinsey Video Blog’s Matt Damon and Gary White talk about micro-finance and its role in providing clean water to world’s poor. They actually take an example from India and talk about how the amount spent on accessing water can be the loan repayment amount that can lead to a permanent solution for the water problem. Now they do not mention the solution per se, but only talk about making the capital available to people who can then find their own local solutions to the problem.

For me the crux of the solution lies in small solutions. we need to spend billions of dollars in coming up with mega projects to solve the problem, but we need to come up with small localized solutions. If they work, just create some awareness about their success and others will replicate it themselves. Small solutions when they fail also leave a small imprint and a small wastage. If they succeed they can be replicated very easily and usually the total cost of ownership is far lower than the cost of a huge project. Smaller projects also invite local partnerships and ownership which means they are easily maintained.

Man has been using water since ages so it should not be too difficult to get clean water from local sources. If the local sources are polluted, leaving water un-usable for human consumption, that it gives another reason for locals to work on reviving their water resources or pay for the transportation from water from faraway sources.

Simple Ideas that need Cross-pollination

I was looking at some of the TEDex videos where people speak about their ideas that worked and almost all ideas are very inspiring. There are some ideas that were so simple that you wonder why are they not more popular and why are not more and more people benefitting from them. Let me give introduce you to few ideas that involved simple thinking and simple design:

Cynthiya Koenig talks about a very simple innovation – a rolling drum that helps women in rural Rajasthan save time and energy that spend in carrying water from long distances. They spend 25% of their time in collecting water and carrying it on their heads, by using this drum they do not have to lift water and the daily requirement can be met in one round instead of multiple rounds.

Suprio Das designed a simple device that cleans water by putting the right dosage of chlorine in the water that is drawn out of hand pumps. A simple mechanical device that needs nothing sophisticated and can be easily managed by anyone helps the users of the water avoid many water borne diseases that come with polluted water.

Arunachalam Murugantham talks about making a simple sanitary napkin that comes at the fraction of the cost of those available in the market and helps women deal with many women’s health issues that exist because of non-availability of clean sanitation. The small machines within a village school or a village community hall can create napkins for the whole village or may be set of villages even creating employment at local level.

All the three are simple innovations that address the basic issues of health at the basic grassroots level. Each of these ideas have seen some success in some way, at least demonstrated that the ideas work. What needs to be done is make them a mass movement so that more and more people can adopt them and benefit from the. The question comes, if the ideas are so good, what has been stopping them from mass adoption, after all if accepted most people can do it themselves with little help that innovators like these would be more than willing to help. The answer may lie in the fact that these ideas are being experimented in silos and it would take another initiative to make them a mass initiatives. Innovators who are technocrats may not have the skills to market their products or ideas. With limited communication channels that connect rural areas to one another, remember most media channels also flow from urban to rural areas, there is no channel that lets these rural innovators connect with each other and share their knowledge. Forums like TED highlight these solutions and may inspire many more people to experiment with more ideas but their reach in rural areas is extremely limited at the moment. Let us face it that most of us living in urban clusters understand these issues at an intellect level through the data that we receive, but we can never understand the complete implications of the problem at hand.

What needs to be done is – Develop a peer to peer network at village level may be, that allows people who have similar problems to address, to interact with each other and look at the solutions that have worked for others and adopt or adapt them to their needs. There are many issues in doing this like most rural areas do not speak the same language or some of the problems may be rooted in the local cultures or climatic conditions. If we can use technology to overcome the language issues and let the people with similar challenges interact with each other either directly or through a nodal agency, a lot of them will be able to solve their problems within their own circles. There can also be simple information sharing on what worked for a community and the other communities once see a working example will pick up the solution on their own.

This will also lead to small clusters of innovation across the country that would not remain within the community but would also benefit a larger population.

Simple and small solutions are an answer to many problems, when we try to solve them in a big way we introduce so many complexities that the core idea is sometimes lost in the process.

Franklin Templeton Investments partnered the TEDxGateway Mumbai in December 2012. I am happy I saw these videos.

Empathy Walk

Dr Vinay Dabholkar in his blogpost Can Empathy be taught? talks about the concept of empathy walk. He shares the story of movie Rainman as an example to state how walking a few steps with someone can create empathy for them, and this empathy can tell you much more about the psychic makeup of the person and his needs and wants. He also mentions the empathy walk experience of an MIT student. If businesses could use this technique to understand their customers, they would be producing far more relevant products and services.

When I read this piece on Vinay’s blog, like always it set me thinking. Is it not a natural human process to be empathetic? Did we always need empathy walk like solution or is this a new requirement that has cropped up in the current day individualistic society, where we are forgetting to live with people and hence no empathy is exchanged. We are in as much need of being understood as we need to understand those around us. Is this a result of not having complete communication with those around us, and trying to understand people and their needs more based on data and statistics rather than on the basis of what their body language tells us, what their tone of answer tells us, what their interests and inclinations tell us. Take a simple example, I may be using a certain brand of toothpaste and hence adding to the statistic of its user base, revenue, profit etc and somewhere it is assumed that I like it and that is why I buy it, while the truth may be that it is the only brand available at the store I shop, or it is the brand that shopkeeper decides to push to me, or because there is a common toothpaste that we buy as a family and it is not my choice but of someone else in the family, it can be a result of my disinterest in the choice as all of them sound the same and many such reasons. Should a new flavor designer or teeth cleaning solution designer take into account what I would really like or should they just go ahead and analyze data. I know this is a very simplistic example, the real problem areas can be quite complex.

Given the direction in which our super connected yet lonely society is moving, I think we do need to include experiments like empathy walk in our curriculums so that students learn to gaze into worlds other than their own.

From an Innovation perspective this would lead to my favorite Intersectional Innovation, where the ideas from diverse worlds meet to create new solutions.

Bright Spots in your system

Vinay Dabholkar in his article on Following the Bright Spots…makes an interesting observation about Ideas that exist within the system but somehow do not get the kind of attention that they deserve.

He sites examples of Steve Jobs telling Intel’s Andrew Grove about importance of microprocessors that was ignored and we know what happened next. His case study on Indian Railways and figuring out the bright spots in its freight business is very interesting.

Bright spots can exist in the system as a small subsystem or as an idea inside an employee’s head or somewhere in between. Vinay gives an approach to spot the bright spots, as applied to Indian Railways case study.

I assume you would need two different approaches for the bright spots in the system i.e the things that are working better than the others and to spot the ideas that may be in the heads of your employees, but both may require you to establish processes that scan the two periodically to tap into the ideas.

Tame your memory to innovate

Art Markman in his HBR Article says you do not have to think differently, but you have to think different things to be innovative, to be able to come up with innovative solutions for the known problems. He argues this on the basis of how our memory works. He says when you are in the kitchen, your memory of every associated with how the cooking happens comes in the front just like all the rules and records of a game come to forefront when you want a game. So when you think about a problem from different perspectives you invoke different parts of your memory and get different solutions with the help of these various slices and dices of your memory.
Interesting take, I think.

Grocery shopping at virtual stores in public places.

Retail giant TESCO came up with this technology enabled sales channel to reach out to its customers who can now use their everyday wait time to finish grocery shopping, and receive the items at home. Definitely innovative. Let us see how this channel picks up for retailers around the world.

Some thoughts:

  1. For most people grocery shopping is the only outing they get from daily routine of home and office? Would they choose this as a primary channel of grocery shopping.
  2. This may be a good green initiative, saving a lot of fuel as many trips to grocery stores will be saved. Grocery store delivery can use logistics algorithms to optimize delivery routes if volumes pick up.
  3. Channel may have to deal with issues that will crop with peak hour rush, which is the time when most shoppers will shop. Can the shoppers get the whole menu on their smart phones or tablets to use it during travel time?
I would like to track this channel and see how it evolves. Any customers out there, who would like to share their first hand experience of using this.

Travel and Innovation

Paul Sloane in his recent newsletter says “Recently I visited the beautiful city of Antwerp and while there I filled my car at a fully automated petrol station.  There was no attendant and no shop.  You just put your credit card into the machine and then fill up.  It reminded me of two innovation lessons.  You can always get innovative ideas by traveling because people in other countries solve problems in different ways.  Secondly a good way to innovate is by eliminating things – in this case the attendant and the shop.”

Now what this small note tells me is that traveling to a new place can fuel your innovation quotient. You can pick up ideas from the way people in this country live and deal with the inherent problems that they have in their system. For example visitors to India can pick up a tip or two on Jugaad. The moment you are in an environment other than you live in, you start seeing the things that are obviously different from your own. It reminds me that a few years back I was traveling in Bhutan and I realized there not many shops selling clothes or garments. In fact the small number of shops that did have clothes were not the clothes common people were wearing there and were obviously meant for the high end visitors. Upon enquiry I figured out that most people there weave their own clothes, which may seem very primitive to most of us, but it is the way of life there. Now you never know when this brainwave strikes someone and they make this idea of weaving your own cloth popular and it may become a fashion statement to wear self woven clothes. 

Secondly, the difference between how you operate and how they operate can give you the models or small tricks to use while doing a formal idea generation, like the author picked up the idea of elimination which can be and is used popularly in product designs. 

On a lighter note, this tells is that a true professional will always find his subject’s angle no matter he or she is, working or on vacation.

Rewarding Failed Efforts

I was reading the book Tata – The evolution of a corporate brand by Morgen Witzel and read about this concept that the group follows called ‘Dare to Try’. This is an award that is given to innovations done by the teams anywhere in the group, which are pathbreaking but did not take off in the marketplace. Couple of  examples mentioned in the book are:
  1. Plastic doors for cars
  2. Flavor capsule for tea, that you can carry with you. Imagine having a Ginger capsule that you can carry in your pocket, and use as and when you want. I know there used to be drops that I bought from Kerala sometime back, but then being liquid it was difficult to carry them.
Interestingly, an article by Sam Swaminathan in Mckinsey’s MIX ( Management Innovation Exchange), also mentions creating a space for employees to share their mistakes and rewarding few of them based on some criteria.
Now what happens is, essentially employees get a message that failing in an attempt is fine and will not work against them in the organization. I am not sure if people would really want to be rewarded for mistakes, but it does give confidence to everyone to try and explore the ideas in their heads. It can create an environment of openness as ideas can get evaluated from various angles by various people and in a modified form, idea may still see the light of the day or cross-pollinate other ideas.
Do you know any other examples of the organizations doing this formally?