KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Your ideas – better before they were famous (deal with it)

with 2 comments

“Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.” – Eric Hoffer

If you are a die-hard fan of a band you are quite likely to say – yes, they are great, but their best work came before they were famous, before they “sold out”.

If you are an early adopter or promoter of a new idea –knowledge management, social media, cash transfers, mobile phones for development, innovation etc. etc. then you probably feel the same once everyone has jumped on the bandwagon.

The thing is, most new things of potential merit whether ideas, technologies, bands, fashions, political ideologies, you name it go through a similar cycle.

Generation of something new – Promotion by a small dedicated following who really “get it” and who like it because of its uniqueness, while everyone else is either critical, sceptical  or totally unaware of its existence, growing  buzz shared by a wider “early adopter group” (what Gladwell would call the “mavens”) – adoption and promotion of the idea to a more mainstream audience that uses its originality as a marketing tool but also smooths off the edges – co-option of the idea by the mainstream often including dumbing it down, and diluting it in order to make it more acceptable, and ensuring that a profit can be made from it – low quality clones are created – finally it either becomes so mainstream it is no longer noticed, or it jumps the shark and disappears from view.

So what happens when something moves from being an emerging idea to an everyday occurrence? One aspect is that the first movers and early adopters all complain about how dumbed down and commercialized their original idea has been, and how it isn’t any good any more, or how the late adopters don’t really understand it and are just following like sheep. Like a club that isn’t cool any more now that everyone goes there.

But here’s the thing. Unlike with a favourite hidden restaurant or eclectic band, if you do have a really great idea for technology, or development, or promotion of human rights or for participation – then your goal should be for word to be spread as widely as possible – not just to the cool kids. And if you want your idea to spread, then you also need to be prepared for it to be adapted and owned by others, for it to be “dumbed down” so it can be more ready accepted, and for it to be commercialized so that it can be financially sustainable. Your idea is no longer your idea – it is no longer pure – and it’s probably “less good” than it was – but the difference is it has now become accepted and widely used.

This recent article in Salon that has been doing the rounds about the culture of TED talks and the oversimplification and marketing of “creativity” is a fine example. While its true that the notion of creativity has been oversimplified, packaged and sold – it seems strange to me to be dismissive of the fact that the recognition and focus on the importance of creativity has never been stronger, even if the content has been watered down to make it accessible to a wider audience.

Another related critique is that ideas that are initially revolutionary become appropriated by the existing hierarchy and thus become tools of the status quo rather than tool for change (or as Billy Bragg famously put it “The revolution is only a t-shirt away”). This is no doubt true, but at the same time in taking on parts of a revolutionary idea, the status quo and balance of power also subtly changes – the change may be more evolutionary than revolutionary – but it is real nevertheless. And often simple ideas and technologies have quite revolutionary impacts, but not necessarily the ones that were expected, nor do these occur in a short or predictable timeframe.

So what can a change activist do when you see your great idea taken up and messed up by others?

Maybe you should let it go, and accept that in order for an idea to be successful it will need to be taken up and adapted by others for both better and for worse (and worse for you might be better for someone else), recognizing the adoption of others is in fact one of the best measures of the quality of the idea. Maybe you can help adapt the idea, and yes, even dumb it down or commercialize it yourself to help it spread (as well as possibly to make a living out of it). That way you can also help do your best to ensure that the most critical (to you) parts of your idea are preserved.

You can keep pushing forward to further refine and develop your idea in order to improve and evolve it so it keeps being ahead of the curve – so it remains revolutionary or leading edge while everyone else is moving to where you were 5 years ago. Just remember though that in 5 years time you want them still to be following behind you.

Or if you need to you can do something else. Create or promote another different idea and help develop it and make it more practical and popular.

In conclusion: Don’t be upset if everyone starts using and adapting your idea, and if they figure out how to make a buck out of it. But that doesn’t mean you have to give up striving for your ideas. It’s good to keep looking for the revolutionary idea that might change the world, but to change the world you might have to be prepared to give up ownership of your idea as well.


Written by Ian Thorpe

October 24, 2013 at 9:00 am

Posted in dumb ideas I had

2 Responses

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  1. Thanks for an insightful post, Ian, as usual.:-)

    I often discuss with my students (in classes about ICT and Development) this kind of issue, though implicitly (linked to something else) and not explicitly. Perhaps I will address it differently after reading your thoughts.

    I remembered a great and highly influential ‘dumbing down’ of a great idea. Legend says that Mahbub ul Hap, the creator of the Human Development Reports and the HD Index, had to convince his friend Amartya Sen that in order to apply his ground-breaking Human Development concepts, they’d need to be simplified. That’s how the HDI came into being: three simple sub-indices, on health, education and income – how un-academic…). And the rest is history.

    Manuel Acevedo

    October 24, 2013 at 9:56 am

  2. […] Right now innovation is literally “the new thing” but if we are not able to come up with sound approaches to mainstreaming it and scaling up the results then it may be just another development fad rather than a new way of doing business. Then innovation won’t be as “sexy” as it is now but it will be making a more lasting differenc…. […]

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