Four things you’ve always wanted to know about innovation but were too afraid to ask

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e-waste in ChinaEach year thousands of tonnes of electronic waste is disposed of incorrectly globally, and in China. Photo: UNDP China.

The creation and implementation of new ideas can be an arduous task. With projects subject to revisions and changes, the process behind finding the new is tough and, like a good detective story, can often take unexpected twists and turns.

Flexibility and imagination are certainly required as the initial spark quite often bears little resemblance to the finished product, but perseverance is paramount to success, as the following story illustrates.

About a year ago we at the UNDP China came up with the idea of partnering with Baidu, China’s largest internet service provider. In recent years Baidu has been actively mobilizing resources to pursue the public good and due to this overlap with UNDP’s sphere of work we decided to get in touch with them to see what innovative tech-driven development solutions we could come up with together.

Baidu’s reach, from search engine to online encyclopaedia to music, images, video and mapping services, extended wider than we had imagined when we walked into our first meeting. It was instructive.

Our first idea was to conceive, prototype and eventually develop a disaster management utility, namely mapping and providing information on the nearest emergency shelters – a potential life-saver in untoward situations if it could go viral. Concept plans were formulated and we passed everything along to our counterparts at Baidu.

But there the process stalled. Emails went unanswered, or came back with short replies. We began to sense recalcitrance from their somewhat muted response, and we didn’t like it. Couldn’t they see the value in our innovative emergency shelter mapping initiative? Why weren’t they coming on board?

So we paid Baidu more visits to talk things out and discover where their sticking point was. It turns out that our emergency shelter plan didn’t really stimulate or motivate them and simply didn’t have the pull to generate enough social media interest for it to actually be picked up by millions of ordinary Chinese citizens.

Not all development challenges will find solutions in social media and technology – and there is little point in resisting this reality with wishful thinking.

So we went back to the drawing board in the spirit of what has become popular in innovation lexicon as ‘design thinking’.

What we came up with next, Baidu seemed to fall in love with. An idea in a completely different area from disaster management and one which tied neatly in with Baidu’s status as a leader in the technology sector with their various products: e-waste.

Each year thousands of tonnes of electronic waste is disposed of incorrectly globally, and in China. The significant levels of toxic materials present in your laptop pose a threat when it comes to responsible disposal.

Not only this, but e-waste tallied well with our mandate here at UNDP as chemical waste in China is a massive problem. The government has even identified it as one of their major challenges and this partnership would be able to assist all three parties in their common goal of battling the ever-growing volume of disposed electronic devices.

Together with Baidu, we had the idea of creating a mobile app which allowed the end user to scan their electronic device, presented a detailed breakdown of the internal components and their toxicity and correct disposal procedures, only then directing the user to the closest recycling centre. (Stay tuned for updates on the app, btw)

The moral of the story is to be flexible, listen and be open to new thinking. Some key points to remember for any innovative souls:

1. Understand your prospective partners: It takes a long time to build a successful relationship and requires thorough understanding of their platforms, products and corporate culture.

 2. Understand social media and come up with an idea which leverages  social media by harnessing its strengths.

 3. Have your prospective partners understand you: our organisation is multifaceted and it takes time for partners to understand our capabilities and limitations too.

 4. Keep in touch and never give up! The best ideas can pop up over coffee. Get out there and meet with people, brainstorm crazy ideas and never ever lose heart. If one idea doesn’t work, the next one might.

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