Is Innovation Just Another Business Model? 3 Systemic Innovation Processes

Innovation has gone from being an “A-Ha” Moment to a field that is studied and can be predicted.

Innovation is no longer the product of a singular “a-ha” moment. It has evolved into a field that can be both studied and predicted, according to Judith Rodin, the President of the Rockefeller Foundation. At the Clinton Global Initiative yesterday, Rodin suggested three systematic innovation processes that can be applied to social sector issues like global warming and malnutrition.


Jack Ma, chairman and CEO of Alibaba Group and Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation at the Plenary Session: Harnessing Innovation for Development at the fifth annual Clinton Global Initiative in New York City.

1. User-Driven Innovation.  This type of innovation relies on “successful outliers.” Rodin says, “we found three or four incredibly well-nourished kids in a completely improvised village [in Asia] over the course of several days. In those few families we found that the mothers didn’t wash out the few small shrimp and crabs that were in the rice paddies. Their children were the only kids in an otherwise carbohydrate-based diet that were getting some protein. Once we observed that user-driven innovation, we taught people throughout the village to follow this process, and that practice spread in Southeast Asia.” Now, the number of kids suffering from malnutrition in Southeast Asia has decreased simply because mothers are no longer rinsing their rice.

2. Crowd Sourcing. To get small businesses involved in this so-called planned innovation, Rodin looked to InnoCentive, a company that has a database of 170,000 registered scientists and technologies around the world dedicated to solving science-based problems. “We could train that brain trust who are linked virtually in social sector problems and combine them with [research and development] units and have them work together in one place.”

One example is an 18-month InnoCentive Challenge to develop a solar-based mosquito repellent that was less expensive then net beds and more cost effective. A company in Houston posted the challenge and a company in New Zealand was the “solver,” with the runner-up in China. “The solution is a small cone shaped little instrument that had para-fin wax and human sweat that at the end of the day melted and absorbed heat. People who were using it wore sweatbands around their arms during the day and took them off at night and put them on a panel close to their beds. The combination of wristband and a water-based repellent gave the scent and moisture and heat level that felt like the human body,” explained Rodin. The product is currently being taken to scale in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

3. Collaborative Competition. With a shout-out to Ashoka, a company that invests in social entrepreneurs worldwide, Rodin explained that a global water challenge was posted a few months ago with a prize for the winner. Instead of groups of people competing quietly in their own places, competitors posted their solutions–the sooner they posted the sooner they received access and visibility to the other solutions people posted. “That gives you two things, a line of sight to see where the white spaces may be, and a collaboration in the competition because the sooner you re-post and revise the sooner you get access to other people’s re-posting.” The winning solution came from 54 different companies connecting one solution. This solution is now being taken to scale with a million dollar grant from Coca-Cola.

As the world has become smaller through technology, globalization, and interconnectedness, the speed with which ideas spread around the world is increasing, which means ideas come twice as fast and their half-lives are halved. Instead of being a singular idea, innovation with a capital “I” now has empirical data, an evidence-based canon of literature, and innovation models. The “a-ha” moment, according to Rodin, is becoming yet another predictable business model. So long innovation, hello Innovation.