Redefining Innovation

01 March 2011

We tend to correlate innovation with factors that directly impact our economy: products invented, jobs created, money generated, etc. So when the MIT Technology Review released its annual list of the 50 Most Innovative Companies last week, few were surprised at the inclusion of usual suspects such as Google, IBM and Apple.

Still this year’s list is noteworthy in that it challenges us to develop our notion of what is truly innovative. If I were to tell you of a company that has earned no money, created no jobs, and is run mostly by part-time volunteers, you might not rush to put them it in the same breath as those aforementioned behemoths. Yet Ushahidi, an open source platform run out of Kenya, finds itself on MIT’s list while traditional and innovative giants like Verizon and Nintendo find themselves – at least for this year – on the outside looking in.

Ushahidi, which means “testimony” in Swahili, spawned in the wake of the infamous and devastating post-election violence that ravaged Kenya in early 2008. Users could text or tweet to report incidents of violence they had personally witnessed. At Ushahidi headquarters, those communications translated to interactive maps tracking areas of the country where the violence was most prevalent. In turn, perpetrators were brought to justice and lives were saved.

Since then, Ushahidi has served a prominent role in disaster relief, most notably in the wake of the devastating earthquake in Haiti. Survivors in need of immediate assistance utilized the platform to inform first responders where to direct relief. Since then, it’s branched out to other Third World countries to map instances of government oppression, voter fraud and tracking UN Aid effectiveness.

With every decisive international event that prominently features Ushahidi, we’re seeing first-hand that there are metrics other than earnings and jobs that define innovation. For Ushahidi, it’s lives saved. And you can’t put a price on that.

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