Ideas Help No One on a Shelf. Take Them to the World

Tina Rosenberg at The New York Times: “Have you thought of a clever product to mitigate climate change? Did you invent an ingenious gadget to light African villages at night? Have you come up with a new kind of school, or new ideas for lowering the rate of urban shootings?

Thanks, but we have lots of those.

Whatever problem possesses you, we already have plenty of ways to solve it. Many have been rigorously tested and have a lot of evidence behind them — and yet they’re sitting on a shelf.

So don’t invent something new. If you want to make a contribution, choose one of those ideas — and spread it.

Spreading an idea can mean two different things. One is to take something that’s working in one place and introduce it somewhere else. If you want to reduce infant mortality in Cleveland, why not try what’s working in Baltimore?

Well, you might not know about what’s working because there’s no quick system for finding it.

Even when a few people do search out the answer, innovative ideas don’t spread by themselves. To become well known, they require effort from their originators. For example, a Bogotá, Colombia, maternity hospital invented Kangaroo Care — a method of keeping premature babies warm by strapping them 24/7 to Mom’s chest. It saved a lot of lives in Bogotá. But what allowed it to save lives around the world was a campaign to spread it to other countries.

The Colombians established Fundación Canguro and got grants from wealthy countries to bring groups of doctors and nurses from all over to visit Bogotá for two or three weeks.  Once the visitors had gone back and set up a program in their hospital, the foundation loaned them a doctor and nurse to help get them started. Save the Children now leads a global partnership to spread Kangaroo Care, with the goal of reaching half the world.

In short, this work requires dedicated organizations, a smart program and lots of money.

The other meaning of spreading an idea is creating ways to get new inventions out to people who need them.

“When I talk to college students or anyone who’s thinking about entrepreneurship or targeting global poverty, the gadget is where 99 percent of people start thinking,” said Nicholas Fusso, the director of D-Prize (its slogan: “Distribution is development”).  “That’s important — but the biggest problems in the poverty world aren’t a lack of gadgets or new products. It’s figuring out how people can have access to them.” So D-Prize gives seed money, in chunks of $10,000 to $20,000, to tiny new organizations that have good ideas for how to distribute useful things.

This analysis may be familiar to regular readers of Fixes. Indeed, the first Fixes column, more than five years ago, focused on distribution: getting health care to people in rural Africa by putting health care workers on motorcycles and keeping the bikes running….

Philanthropists and government aid agencies are only starting to get interested in the challenges of distribution — one new philanthropy that does have this focus is Good Ventures. As for academia, it still rewards invention almost exclusively. “There’s a lot of attention and award-giving and prize-giving and credit to people who come up with fancy new ideas instead of reaching people and having impact,” said Brodbar. “The incentives aren’t aligned. The culture of social entrepreneurship needs to change.”

Recognizing the true value of spreading an idea would also allow people who aren’t inventors (which is most of us) to get involved in social change. “The notion that if you want to engage in [social entrepreneurship] you have to have the big idea does a disservice to this space and people who want to play a role in it,” said Brodbar. “It’s a much wider front door.”…(More)