I’ve always admired those that can drive backwards with ease. Using only mirrors, and even with the added complications of a trailer, they chart their course with confidence. I’m reminded of this as I retrain my own instincts to fully comprehend what’s been coined reverse innovation. Rather than from the Nobel laureate’s lab, this is the kind of ingenuity that seems to come from the most meager of surroundings, then finds global acceptance and demand. Perhaps a surprise to some, and certainly counter-intuitive to most, the developing world is having an increasing influence on better, cheaper, and more appropriate uses of the world’s latest technologies.
Reverse innovation can’t help but be noticed when traveling the world today and witnessing unexpected combinations of modern technology and remote cultures. Writing last fall in the Harvard Business Review, Jeff Immelt, Vijay Govindarajan, and Chris Trimble described these emerging trends and how this wisdom is being captured by GE. Technologies are being adapted and improved by users who don’t know better. I appreciate their work because it creates a thoughtful framework and vocabulary for innovation, and the new relationships emerging globally along a new continuum. Here are at least four key phases.
Taken from Vijay Govindarajan's blog: http://www.vijaygovindarajan.com/2009/10/what_is_reverse_innovation.htm
Globalization is described as the creation and sale of goods in the developed world, followed by stripping the bells and whistles for a new version suitable in the developing world at cheaper prices. Cars, phones, computers, tools…I can think of a host of consumer products I’ve seen that followed this path.
Glocalization anticipates the needs of developing world markets from the onset. Manufactured in both the developed and developing world simultaneously, two versions are created. Increasingly the model for consumer goods, it recognizes, and builds in key differences for divergent markets. Ford now has their ‘world car’. The Fiesta was/is created based on global input and manufacturing from a single base vehicle.
Products made in and for the developing world have been a growing trend. This the age old process of mixing and matching ideas and technologies as adapted to local needs. I’ve observed creative hybrids. The treadle pump used in sub-Saharan Africa is not for weight loss, or exercise after work. It is a locally appropriate means of capturing human energy for pumping irrigation water at key times of the year.
And phase four, true reverse innovation, is described as a local innovation applicable not only in the developing world, but globally. I can’t help but wonder if netbooks fit this description. Certainly, a host of medical technologies are following this path. How is it that most US health diagnostics and therapies only increase in cost and complexity? A story in today’s New York Times highlights similar trends among cell phone and computer technologies.
Chris Elias from PATH having blood hemoglobin checked by TouchHb from India 2010 UW Global Social Entrepreneurship Competition
Universities, non-profits, and for-profits that conduct research world-wide are in a great position to champion and accelerate the concepts of reverse innovation. The very process of international study puts one in the field, the point-of-care, the interface between problem and solution. Taking time to observe the ingenuity spawned by the practitioner has always intrigued me.
Watch for opportunities to observe, champion, and drive innovation in reverse. There seems a link with locales that suffer from disparity gaps in income, environmental quality, or access to technology. These need not be in the developing world – I’ve witnessed reverse innovation across the US as well. Perhaps necessity is the mother of invention, or at least a close relative.