How Malcolm Gladwell’s theories about social epidemics have a lot to say to African innovation.
By Nnamdi Oranye
Recently I read Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point, and found a surprising correlation between his premise and my understanding of the plight of African innovators. Gladwell is a fascinating author and social observer. I suspect that even those that don’t buy into his theories still find him thought-provoking. The vantage point he views social epidemics from is one that lends itself well to the need for growth in our African context.
In his book, Gladwell outlines the significance of why certain ideas, trends, or social behaviours cross a threshold and spread like wildfire. His methodology proposes that there is usually a tipping point where these ideas, trends etc. take off. The reason why some do and some don’t is worth critiquing for the African context.
This is a continent that needs every advantage in order to understand its psyche. Pragmatically, the continent should be competing at a more noticeable global level but we know it often fails to get the attention it rightly deserves. Of course, the question is why? The answer often lies in our own understanding of ourselves and how we assess what we value.
One of the case studies that Gladwell references in his book really grabbed my attention. Twenty years ago, the crime rate in New York City was staggeringly high. The then mayor, Rudy Giuliani, got to work to turn it around. His approach was to attack the lawlessness of the city by focusing on petty crimes first: people not paying for their subway fares, graffiti scribblers, littering etc.
The police department clamped down on anyone that evaded subway fares, cleaned up the graffiti, and heavily fined those caught littering. This zero-tolerance approach was visible to all of New York’s citizens. People became well aware that no crime would escape the law and this translated to a drastic decrease in serious crime. What was highly criticised at the time proved to be one of the most notable success stories of crime eradication and has even been employed in other cities elsewhere.
This theory made me think about what the tipping point is for African innovation. Much of what I have written about in my two books, Disrupting Africa and Taking on Silicon Valley, emphasises the importance of promoting African innovators. This is the tipping point for the credibility of African innovation. If enough promotion and visibility
If enough promotion and visibility are given to African innovators, African innovation will become credible in the eyes of its disparagers. In many ways, African innovation is in its prime, but it’s nowhere near enough where it can be because it doesn’t receive the support it should from the very people it helps – you and I.
There are always plenty of complaints about the plight of the African innovator: access to funding, scaling etc. These are considerable challenges in themselves but, if the story of the crime rate in New York City is anything to go by, substantial change is possible by taking small steps. For the African context, it is as simple as actually knowing who the African innovators are before we are able to promote them.
Books can be written about African innovation, funding can be generated through VCs, statistics can be released about the challenges on the continent but, if no one knows who the innovators are, it has all been done in vain. If we focus on promoting African innovators, if we talk about them and give them a voice, then people will know about them. If enough people know about them, we have a tipping point. We have a trend and a social change.
From a negative point of view, Gladwell likes to talk about the “bystander effect”: the common practice of standing by, looking on, but doing nothing. We can’t wait apathetically for people to think differently (or rather, I would say, correctly) about African innovation. Rather it’s up to us to talk about them and support them. If we don’t consciously promote African innovators we will be nothing but bystanders. We can’t expect change if we adopt that attitude.