We have now been through the first round of project proposal review at the Innovations Lab. When asked for feedback about the application process, we have been told that more support needs to be provided to projects before they submit proposals. While we tried to provide office hours and some additional mentorship for the first time around, some 1 have suggested that support at the Innovations Lab should be available much before “projects” are thought of. That we should think about supporting youth with “ideas” or problem statements, not just “projects.” “Projects”, after all, are fairly detailed, need quite some effort for formulation and proposal-writing, have a budget, and much more. What about nuggets of ideas or problem statements, which many can propose, and are far from “projects” that only a few can develop and follow through with?
Well, one thing I personally (and other members of the team here) feel is that ideas aren’t the hardest part of innovation; the hard parts are the implementation, the follow through, the tweaking of the idea, and actually making it work. (Smarter people, including serial entrepreneurs and writers about entrepreneurship I have read, largely agree.)
But still, in a land of high unemployment, one wishes someone would try out an SMS job board (like Souktel). In a city where indoor public venues are filled with smoke despite legislation to the contrary, I wish someone would start campaigns to decrease smoking. I’m sure NGOs or other groups with specific and concrete problems might not mind passing them onto others with talent or capacity to help “solve” them. And I wish that the Innovations Lab provided some framework for listing out what was just said in this paragraph.
So, a challenge for the Innovations Lab is to build appropriate mechanisms for fostering the creation of problem statements (like, create more jobs in Kosovo), ideas that contain possible avenues of attack (like, create SMS job boards), in addition to projects (which would contain a plan for how to launch the job board, who to target, the budget, etc.).
Some potential ideas that may help:
An Idea Wall at the Innovations Lab. Originally, we were thinking of this as cork board, with lots and lots of sticky notes. These would be organized in some way (perhaps by problem/idea/project), each with “comments” coming from others at the lab in the form of more sticky notes. This would not be a “solution” 2 to the problem, obviously, rather an input into the creative processes of the minds that walk into the Innovations Lab. We are now thinking of having entire walls at the Innovations Lab covered in IdeaPaint, and that some of this space will be used as the Idea Wall.
Accepting lab members without “projects”. In the current formulation of the lab, all Kosovo youth wanting to use the lab (on a regular basis) must have projects they are working on. Relaxing this constraint to accept those working from problem statements or ideas rather than “project proposals” would be one way to address this challenge. Which, as usual, offers an interesting trade-off. Relaxing the constraint completely would mean admitting any Kosovo youth to the Innovations Lab, and investing quite some facilities and mentorship resources into him/her. How does one justify such an investment? Putting it starkly, how can we figure out whether someone working on “refining a problem statement” or “developing an idea” is actually working towards something, or is just wasting his/her and our time? I believe many will not be, but the question this avenue of approach brings along is whether it is possible to tell.
Online Ideation Platforms. Jerri Chou has been working on many projects to foster ideation: ChangeConnect is one, InnovationAfrique another. She and I are also familiar with a few other similar projects, including MIT Global Challenge, Africa Rural Connect, OpenIDEO, and Ashoka Changemakers competitions, among others. I have been doing some browsing, and it seems that the essential elements of these systems are: forging new connections, allowing collaboration and discussions around ideas, and allowing “remixing” of ideas. So the Innovations Lab team will be doing some thinking about what would make sense for our context. I already like the fact that whatever we do, there will be follow through possibilities (resources, motivation, mentorship etc.) at the lab itself. But even before, a system that echoes some of the existing ones I’ve listed, and somehow synchs with our offline “Idea Wall” will probably be the best fit.
 — One of the things I take to heart from my time at MobileActive.org is that there are no “solutions” to problems, especially in development contexts. Press releases like to talk about “solutions” all the time, but there are very few “solutions” to tough social issues; tradeoffs and unintended consequences always rear their ugly heads. What I mean here is that I don’t even think of the Idea Wall as a “solution” in the sense a press release would use it. The Idea Wall is necessarily a small part of helping this process.