IN OUR ‘TRAILBLAZERS’ SERIES, we bring you individual perspectives on creative leadership, social innovation, and positive change from THNK’s worldwide alumni community. Today we present a unique view on innovation by C. M. Samala (known simply as Samala), a visionary community builder and seasoned social entrepreneur with expertise in using culture, technology and social events as organizing tools.
Just what is innovation, really?
Firstly, can we all agree that innovation is an overused and, occasionally, ab/mis-used word? Right? Right. Okay, now that’s out of the way, I invite you to open your mind to the reality that innovation is so much more than a new app available for you to download on your smartphone, or some new piece of hardware that could be shipped to you for free in the next 48-hours via your Amazon Prime account, or some new platform to maximize the profitability of your personal assets while getting to say you’re a part of the so-called sharing economy. I also implore you to demand that innovation must be more than these things.
A bit of context
Some things to know about me to help put what I’m about to say in the subsequent paragraphs in context. I’m a queer, cisgendered, American woman who had the privilege of being the first person in their family born in the United States. I’m a child of the 80s. I’m a product of K-12 public schools. I started the first digital organization in America to serve Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. I co-founded one of the first global distribution networks for mobile art. I spoke at the White House’s LGBTQ Tech & Innovation Summit this summer. I have voted in every election where I’ve been eligible.
These are important things to know because, one, as a card-carrying member of several communities that are marginalized in at least a dozen different ways, I’ve seen innovation every damn day of my life and very little of it gets love from the likes of Silicon Valley. Two, I also know precisely what it’s like to succeed as an entrepreneur in San Francisco, hustling my butt off to get ventures off the ground, and the struggle bus that is bootstrapping. (For the sake of clarity, I mean real-deal bootstrapping that involves side-hustles like valet parking cars, catering gigs, and almost — or actually — maxing out credit cards. If you’re tapping your trust fund or borrowing family money, sorry if I’m breaking news here but, you are decidedly not bootstrapping.) Third, I care deeply about the civic health of societies, voting and otherwise, and think more people should, too.
When I moved to San Francisco in 2006 after getting my degrees from Wharton and the University of Pennsylvania, I really did believe I was going to change the world, to change people’s lives for the better. That belief was so steadfast that I declined job offers from finance, consulting and pharmaceutical titans of the time because I saw greener pastures in, what I felt, was the mecca of technology, culture, innovation and social movement. I turned my back on what was, at the time, considered a safe and smart move financially and career-wise to accept an offer from a Goldman or McKinsey or Pfizer, get my signing bonus, et voilà.
I was determined that the Bay Area would afford me better, more fulfilling opportunities, though — and, in many ways, I was right. I’ve managed to live a life where I have the means to pay my bills, apply my creativity in ways I find meaningful, build technology for social good, lead a very low carbon footprint life (by American standards anyway), and have a plethora of community around me at all times. All while managing to still hold down DJ residencies and staying active in justice movements. I wasn’t wrong about the opportunities I’d find and make for myself in the city by the bay. I am, however, starting to consider if I was wrong about San Francisco; if I was wrong about it being a mecca of innovation.
I wouldn’t dare argue that San Francisco’s tech scene isn’t profitable and isn’t finding tremendous financial success. What I am supposing is that tech, especially in the Bay area, with few exceptions, isn’t truly innovating. The industry is not building products and services that will change all lives for the better. It’s gotten very good at minting new millionaires and billionaires while lining the wallets of those who already had wealth.
The limits of technology
On a less snarky, more generous note, tech has also been a little beacon of job-creating-light during a time when our economy was looking pretty dark. But is that enough? Does that justify the pedestal we’ve put tech and Silicon Valley on? Do we really want our best and brightest to keep flocking to the Bay to figure out how to maximize clicks and mine our data? Can we stop calling planned obsolescence innovation?
If I sound bitter, well, it’s because I am a little bit. I’m bitter that such big-dollar amounts go into tech ventures and create such little change on the other end. This is true in the literal sense. Venture capital, as an industry, has consistently been behind the S&P 500 when it comes to returns. Despite the excess of capital injected into tech by VCs, by and large, we’ve seen relatively little social, environmental and economic change. Yes, the personal lives of the middle class and upper middle class have improved but, on larger socioeconomic and environmental scales, I’d truly love to be proven wrong. The one exception I’ll make here is Tesla. Powerwall? I mean… Damn. I’ll give Google the credit they deserve, too.
Where innovation matters
What troubles me though, is that communities that live at the margins, along with their friends and allies, are innovating all day everyday. Not because a hefty payout awaits them on the other end of an acquisition. Not because they are trying to close out their Series A. Not because they have the luxury of having the space to dream up the next moonshot. People at the margins are innovating all the time because their survival depends on it.
For your consideration
Here are a few examples I’d love for you to consider as innovation worthy of the media’s attention, Silicon Valley-level capital, and mainstream support and respect:
- Refugees Welcome was founded just recently to help match refugees in need of housing and generous citizens who’d like to host them.
- Mission Launch, run by Teresa Hodge, is a civic tech organization building software that helps citizens more quickly rejoin society after incarceration.
- Isang Litrong Liwanag (A Litre of Light) is a global, open source movement that started in the Philippines and aims to provide ecologically sustainable and cost-free lighting for simple dwellings with thin roofs. The device is simply a transparent 1.5L to 2L plastic bottle filled with water plus a little bleach to prevent bacteria growth and fitted into a hole in a roof.
- La Orquesta de Instrumentos Reciclados de Cateura is the orchestra of kids featured in Landfill Harmonic. Led by Favio Chávez Cateur, the young orchestra living near the Cateura Asuncion in Paraguay creates opportunities for themselves through music and recycling.
What innovation could be
The invitation, the ask, and the important thing here is that we demand that innovation be something that yields healthy returns well beyond venture capitalists, founders, technocrats and oligarchs. Similarly, innovation and creativity that uplifts the opportunities, voices, and spirits of less fortunate people we walk this earth with, must be lauded at least as much as the next viral app, if not more. If. Not. More. To borrow words from the title of Vijay Iyer’s incredible piece that you should read if you haven’t already, and read again if you have, “we cannot remain complicit with excess.”
This article was published in the THNK series on Medium and republished here with permission.