Thursday, April 01, 2010

Innovation: top-down and bottom-up smackdowns

I know I can sometimes come off as ideologically wedded to the bottom-up approach. It's true, I like the idea of bottom-up--it sits well with my own attitude that authority needs to earn respect. There's also some sociological evidence that outsiders are more inclined to come up with breakthrough innovations because they are not caught up in "the way things are done." But for the record, I really like to see these approaches go head to head and the proposition get tested empirically. And in truth, I suspect that one approach may be better for some types of problems, and that while there might be a tilt to one approach or the other from time to time, there will be plenty of counterexamples to "disprove" most rules of thumb. But I had cause to come across 3

One, students from Laval University created a 2487 MPG eco-car. That far exceeds the performance of any eco-car created by professional car manufacturers.

Two, I love to cook, and am a complete devotee of Cook's Illustrated. I also love to read the commentary and inputs and ideas featured on Food 52. When these two beloved institutions decided to run a cook-off, I was in heaven. For non-foodies out there, Cook's Illustrated, run by Christopher Kimball is the gold standard for expert testing. They publish authoritative bibles like The Best Recipe. No hedging, and it's pretty much all invented in Vermont. MIT Poverty Action Lab meets GiveWell. Food 52, founded by Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is lightly curated site populated by regularly held contests for the best recipes. So much more like GlobalGiving, or DonorsChoose. I can't wait to find out what happens.

Three, our own GlobalGiving-Innocentive GlobalGiveback challenge sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation. We're still in the middle of it, but I just heard from the Innocentive folks today that in 3 out of the 5 challenges (they happen to have had earlier deadlines for solutions), solver interest in providing a solution has been 2x what Innocentive sees usually in comparable solutions being sought by for-profit entities. That there's so much pent-up interest in the Innocentive community to contribute to solving social problems confirms my bias that international development has an untapped resource in the broader public. We just haven't made it all that easy for people to contribute.