Lately, I’ve been fixated on innovation. Not the fancy kind they talk about in b-schools, but the grassroots, off-kilter, unexpected, and improbable kind. The kind that might not be “innovation” by official definitions, but strikes me as a category of creative problem-solving that leads to a mindset which can build substantive solutions.

During a decade of research and travel through developing countries, I’ve had the opportunity to catalog all kinds of innovation — whether a group of teenagers improvising a LAN running alongside the eight stories of an old Soviet-style apartment block so they can play Counterstrike together, nimble and undocumented cell phone repairs on the cheap with an old oscilloscope and soldering iron next to a display of expensive smartphones, or the ad-hoc shared transportation networks that bridge the gap between limited public transportation and people’s need to get from point to point — especially across long distances.

Watching how people solve problems with limited resources, limited education and, ultimately, a lack of what we in the university would call “expertise” has left me with a jumble of thoughts. The last piece of this puzzle is the last four or five years of my personal life which has been dominated by spending time with hackers. And also makers. It turns out there are all kinds of communities out there that are doing research — outside of traditional research infrastructures like universities or industry labs.

So, what does it mean to conduct research and inquiry, to build things — to innovate — outside of formal structures? Where innovation isn’t necessarily driven by a profit motive — although every now and then something comes out of the mix which makes someone a bit of cash? And what’s the difference (is there one?) between innovation conducted by experts (whether that expertise is formal or informal) and that conducted by non-experts?


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