Thursday, October 10, 2013

Innovation Lessons from 16-Year Old Kelvin Doe

Kelvin Doe

Fast Company runs down their 100 Most Creative People in Business 2013, and I studying all of them one by one.  Nate Silver, who predicted the outcomes of the 2008 (49 out of 50 states) and 2012 (50 out of 50 states) US presidential elections, is #1 on the list.  Bryan Cranston, he of the Breaking Bad fame, comes in at #8.  But by far the most enthralling has been #43:  Kelvin Doe.      
Sixteen-year-old Kelvin Doe has an endless desire to tinker. When he was just 11, he started collecting discarded metal and electronic scraps, eventually gathering enough bits to put together mini generators. Last year, he cobbled together an amp, a mixer, and enough equipment to launch a one-young-man radio station. He broadcasts to the residents of the Dworzark Farm neighborhood of Freetown, Sierra Leone’s ramshackle capital, where he’s also known as DJ Focus. “I am curious,” Doe says simply of his wunderkind accomplishments. That curiosity well explains why his first trip out of his native Sierra Leone was to MIT, where he worked on engineering projects last summer. He’s spoken at TEDxTeen and wowed people in a short documentary about him and his inventions on YouTube. But Doe’s definition of success is unselfish: His current project focuses on building a windmill to provide power for some of his Freetown neighbors, and he hopes to become a scientist to help improve life throughout Sierra Leone. “I love my country,” he says. “I love my people.”
15-Year-Old Kelvin Doe is an engineering whiz living in Sierra Leone who scours the trash bins for spare parts, which he uses to build batteries, generators and transmitters. Completely self-taught, Kelvin has created his own radio station where he broadcasts news and plays music under the moniker, DJ Focus.

Kelvin became the youngest person in history to be invited to the "Visiting Practitioner's Program" at MIT. THNKR had exclusive access to Kelvin and his life-changing journey - experiencing the US for the first time, exploring incredible opportunities, contending with homesickness, and mapping out his future.
THNKR is proud to present the next chapter in the riveting story of 15-Year-Old engineering prodigy Kelvin Doe. THNKR has exclusive access to Kelvin as he returns to the United States to deliver a riveting talk at TedxTeen and grapples with the impact of newfound YouTube superstardom. 
So what do we learn about innovation from this boy?

If you've reached this point in my article, without having read his story and watched his videos, then please go back and do so.  None of these is lengthy.

I encourage you to simply experience what he has to say and what others have to say, then reflect on your experience.  What thoughts, emotions and reactions come to you?  Make note of them.

If the spirit so moves you, as the spirit has moved me, re-read and re-watch.  Keep a mindful, reflective look at what you think, feel and do, and note it down wherever you usually note things.

Top leaders, business people, professionals and consultants alike seem to be under such pressure to innovate, that I sometimes wonder whether, or how well, they can actually innovate.  In part, this is what Clayton Christensen speaks to as the innovator's dilemma:  the wish to create is often at odds with the need to produce.

So, if only for the sake of this little exercise I am walking you through, simply experience first.  Learn from what you experience.

How do we ever innovate when resources are limited?

I hear that often, and variations on a theme: We need more tools, we need more staff, we need more budget.

What if you had next to nothing at your disposal, instead?  Speaking of disposal, what about the things we've disposed in the trash bin?  We wealthy, resourceful Westerners don't do that, do we.

Ah, Kelvin Doe isn't a Westerner, and he hails from an impoverished family in Sierra Leone.  He finds what he needs from trash heaps.

No doubt, he also finds things he isn't looking for necessarily, but discovers some other purpose or avenue for these things.  He tinkers with whatever he has at his disposal.  He tinkers with ideas that amble on inside his head.  He uses his hands to make something like a music system from the trash he finds and tinkers with.

So, if you simply cannot get the resources you ask for, what do you choose to do:  Stop trying to innovate, out of disappointment, frustration or even anger; or look around and tinker, look around some more and tinker?

What do we do with the things we find and tinker with?

We see that Kelvin Doe is no geeky kid who tinkers at all hours, all alone, simply for the sake of tinkering and for the sake of his own curiosity.  No, he doesn't seem to a young man who's prone to isolate him or think solely of himself.

Instead, there's a wonderful spirit about him that's purely with the people and of the people in his community.  We Westerners may take our social media and high technology for granted, when we think about reaching others.  But I often wonder, How much of us is truly about engagement, relationship and community?

The catch phrase we toss around now and then is, It's not about ourselves, rather it's about others.  I don't know whether Kelvin Doe even knows this phrase, but consider this:  Thousands of miles away from home, in a country where technology is everywhere and beds are soft, he misses his family.  He is after all a boy, and he is far from home.

Innovation is quintessentially a human endeavor.  It is indeed naturally about people and for the people.  We lose sight of the basic humanity behind it, and innovation is a meaningless proposition or, perhaps worse, a failed effort.
Thank you for reading, and let me know what you think!

Ron Villejo, PhD

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