Innovation has many foes, are you one of them?

Innovation remains the engine of economic progress. [iStockphoto]

Innovation has become a byword in corporate boardrooms, streets, and in State offices.

It has even become an area of study in our institutions of higher education. Yet, innovation is rare beyond new gadgets like phones, computers or cars. Innovations can be new products and services or their improvements.

Frugal innovation is more appreciated, it helps us solve problems using locally available materials or resources.

Think of Uji Power or the use of avocado to treat hair. Our traditional society was full of frugal innovations, they have taken us through ages, helping us adjust to the environment. 

If we factor in frugal innovation, there is no big difference in innovation between developed and developing countries.  

It’s in commercial innovations protected by patents where differences emerge. It’s more about the environment we grow up in, not our brains. 

Throughout our lives, our freedom to think is curtailed. Yet freedom to think is the holy grail of innovation. 

From the delivery room to the grave, there are so many forces limiting our freedom to be creative, and by extension innovative. 

As soon as babies start talking and walking, restrictions start. Remember how everyone encouraged you to try to talk or walk as a baby? As soon as you succeeded, everyone stopped encouraging you!  Your parents started restricting you, even how to eat (remember table manners?).  You soon realised freedom has consequences. Once in school, more restrictions came in terms of what to study and how to interact with others.

You even donned a uniform. The national curriculum ensures more uniformity of thought. I Hope the Competency-Based Curriculum (CBC) will consider individual and regional differences. 

In school, you quickly learnt there were right and wrong answers, another restriction.  There were even penalties, some lifelong for being different. Religion added to restrictions after its introduction in childhood. 

The urge to conform, grew as you grew older. By teenage, our friends, and peers joined in restricting our freedom of thought.

Culture adds to uniformity of thought, the enemy of innovation. Add the laws and regulations, within and outside the family, and we find our independence of thought curtailed and our propensity to innovate reduced. 

We would expect higher education to water creativity and innovation with the universality of thought in universities. Freedom is plenty but not where it matters most - thinking and creativity - which lead to innovation.

The biggest restriction in higher education is citations. Have you seen that online joke by The Mayowa Tijani?

Like quoting verses in the Bible or any other holy book, academics must support their arguments by citing similar work.  This restricts creativity, you must think like others.

 Original ideas are frowned upon. For example, my Mum once told me she dislikes free education. She argued that it makes us irresponsible. And free things are not valued. 

That was her original thought, she has never been to school! And has not been published. Her argument makes sense. That is probably why we have co-payment in insurance. But I can’t quote her wisdom in a thesis, for example, Mum (2024). If you want to know her name, let’s visit her. We would prefer to quote well-published academics, who may not have her insights at 88+ years of experience. These writers may never have been to my country and county. 

Higher education becomes a race towards uniformity. The highly cited, mostly from the West share their ideas through books, journals and websites. 

They are funded to come up with new ideas. Are we? By quoting others, we silently become their followers.

Academia and religion have many similarities. But if you count the number of new churches, freedom seems to ring in religion. What did the university law of 2012 do to academic freedom?

The Internet and the expectation it has all the answers to our problems is another threat to innovation. Think of Artificial Intelligence (AI) or ChatGPT. We even seek answers on relationships and emotional issues there. 

Is the salvation in the workplace?  Restrictions are many. The firms can’t experiment. There are jobs and careers at risk. Firms have entrenched traditions and resist new ideas.

In Africa where joblessness is common, workers fear losing their jobs. Being different and being innovative is a risk in most workplaces.  

What about corruption? Why think hard when you can get all the money without any struggle?  Noted how intellectuals and thinkers are disdained in a corrupt society? Remember the issue of fake certificates in the run-up to elections? 

There is a good reason why the Renaissance came before the Industrial Revolution. It sets our minds free to be creative and innovative. That’s why dictatorships spawn few innovations compared with well-functioning democracies.

One could ask why China is leading in spawning patents despite communism. Is there something we do not know about China?

It is indisputable that innovation will remain the engine of economic progress, but it must be facilitated and catalysed by the freedom to think, from childhood to the grave. Why do we read tributes to the dead? Why not when they are alive? 

Have you facilitated innovations or you are one of its enemies?

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