Monday, August 21, 2006

Rewiring Rwanda

Here is an account of Greg Wyler's efforts to provide lower cost internet service in Rwanda from the WSJ.

This article contains many of the hurdles that BOPreneurs face. It appears that Mr. Wyler's efforts are showing signs of success: much faster connections at much lower costs.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Losing Our Edge(s) in Innovation

I am working with a new group called Opportunities Without Borders. It is a great group of people, with a great idea. I hope it will bring an innovative solution to helping increase entrepreneurial ventures between countries. Our website will be up soon, and you can find out more.

When we were picking a name, one thing we discussed was that there were a lot of "without borders" groups out there. Some are pretty funny (Beer without Borders), some are well known (Doctors without Borders, Engineers without Borders). To us, the name connotes helping others without regard to the national, racial, economic borders that so often cause conflict.

As an entrepreneur and traveller, though, I love borders. Well, frontiers really (Doctors without Borders, the Nobel prize winner, is actually a french organization, Medicins sans Frontieres, and has a nice double entendre). I like to see what is going on at the edges. I like to see the differences as one crosses borders. The interesting stuff goes on at the edges... of nations, ecosystems, organisims, cells.

Sometimes the scary stuff too, like the current Israel/Lebanon conflict. A lot of energy goes into creating and maintaining these frontiers. And when they change,entrepreneurial opportunity is often created.

My concern is that America is trying to suppress movements at our frontiers, and that this will have the unintended consequence of dramatically reducing our capacity for innovation. [To be clear: I believe America's most important source of competitive advantage is our culture of innovation. I also believe that it is largely taken for granted, and not well understood, by our society and our politicians.]

Some examples: Immigration (our physical border- and not just the laborers, but the knowldege workers who used to flock to our universities, and then stay here and build ideas, companies and capacity to innovate), Stem Cells (frontier of scientific knowledge and discovery), Kyoto (frontiers galore on this one)... these are all areas where our current policies involve a refusal to understand that banning something in today's global society doesn't mean it won't happen, it just means it won't involve as much American influence or innovation. Is that a good thing- that our nation will have less involvement in solving tomorrow's problems?

I saw an interesting slide yesterday on the "homoginization" of species with globalization. Non-natives are spreading around the world rapidly, resulting in pressure on, and sometimes extinction of, the natives. We are talking about plants and animals here, but since I am just finishing the book Collapse, the human analogy is striking. Will this globalization lead to a homogenous world, with little diversity and fewer of the "borders" that keep it interesting?

Thomas Friedman and Juan Enriquez have written some great stuff on the declining value of nations (and corporations) and increasing value of the knowledgeable individual as society continues to globalize. What happens to innovation in this "world without borders"? Well, they are still there, but they shift from the physical to the virtual. Ideas are like the DNA in those invading species... trying to replicate, exploit new spaces, cross borders into new territories. How do we preserve the diversity of species, the diversity of ideas, the diversity of cultures that contribute to increasing the number of frontiers? That drive innovation by connecting diversity, not to eliminate it, but to enhance it?

As a conservative (in the sense that I lack faith in government solutions, not that I believe it is unpatriotic to question Bush policies), I find it troubling that the Administration continues to erect barriers to innovation, as opposed to working on policies that celebrate the power of our innovative culture and support it. Policies that encourage us to push the frontiers of knowledge, not try to retreat to a time when we knew less.

Failure to act when you are aware of a threat is no longer ignorance, it is negligence or recklessness. Failure to be fully engaging the most innovative country in the world in key areas of need, such as medicine and climate change is reckless... and sad. It is a sign of a country that has grown soft and seems to have forgotten that courage and leadership can be manifested in many ways other than military force.