Who wants to reinvent the world?

Note: Before I start this post, I want to get something out of the way: If I appear to be criticizing Minister Nicolas Sehnaoui often, it is not because I don’t think he’s hard working or has his heart in the right place. In fact it is a testimony of his dynamism on a topic that I care deeply about that I keep writing these critical posts.

Today I was browsing Lebanese Blogs and I came across Rami’s post about a competition called “Lebanese bloggers reinvent the world”, launched by Lebanon’s ministry of telecommunication. In a nutshell, bloggers are invited to write a post about a revolutionary idea that has the potential to change the world. The submitted posts would then be judged by a panel of prominent Lebanese people in Silicon Valley, and the winner gets to travel with Minister Sehnaoui to California.

From a political perspective, this is a brilliant move: The Lebanese people will love it because it will remind them that there are successful Lebanese people in silicon valley. The media will love it because it’s a nice story with glitz and tech. Bloggers will love it because of the potential prize of travelling to the USA. The Lebanese venture capitalists in California will love it because it will make it seem like they’re looking for talent from all over the world.

Unfortunately though, this competition is premised on a flawed understanding of the nature of innovation.

The deceptive appeal of big ideas

One of the known fairy tales in silicon valley is that a big idea can change the world. What reigns supreme in the San Francisco bay is not the sparkling flash of inspiration, but painstaking execution, iteration and traction. Many people had the idea of a social network in the past (friendster, hi5 and mySpace to name a few), but Mark Zukerberg was the one who properly executed on it and kept iterating (ie tweaking, adapting and adjusting) until Facebook became what it is today: A world-reinventing product.

What silicon valley venture capitalists want to hear is not that you have a bright idea, but that you have a bright idea that works and has traction. Because let’s be honest, the world is full of people who think they have a big idea that can change the world. Also, “revolutionary” products are usually more about evolution than revolution, and the evolution often goes in unexpected directions. For example, the iPhone only existed because of the iPod, and when Steve Jobs unveiled the iPod many years ago, he didn’t think that it will eventually lead to a revolutionary touch interface mobile phone.

It’s all about an enabling environment

What really helps innovation is an environment like that in Silicon Valley, where people try many things and keep failing until something worthwhile comes up.

This requires a cultural acceptance of failure as a necessary prerequisite to success, but it also requires a ton of infrastructure: Fast and cheap internet, good roads, 24-hour power, availability of cheap finance. All this will lead to people with big ideas to come and try their luck at building their dream and see where they can go.

The biggest idea for reinventing Lebanon Mr. Sehnaoui (and eventually perhaps, the world), is better and cheaper infrastructure. Consider this my submission.

Update: Minister Sehnaoui wrote a response to this post. You can read it here.

  • romeo

    I vote for Minister Hamoui. Oh. Wait a minute…

    • Mustapha

      I just submitted my entry to the website for kicks.. let’s see what happens :)

      • romeo

        Good move. Common sense may be considered “revolutionary”. And you may end up in Silicon Valley mingling with the hot shots.

        On the other hand, in the Arab world, your entry may be misconstrued as an “insult to the regime”. Which will make you (in)famous ;-)

        Either way, your readership will soar. Wily eh !?

        Seriously now, I can’t believe a Minister will come up with such a half-cooked idea.

        Shows utter ignorance of the creative process, the required underlying environment, extended time frames, etc.

        It reinforces the stereotype of the Lebanese as “get rich quick” types who have limited potential to build sustainable environments that support invention.

  • http://gravatar.com/anthnader anthnaderNader

    Mustafa, while I do agree with the core of your argument, always remember that there are many Lebanese entrepreneurs and innovators that built big ideas and projects using limited resources, weak infrastructure and a failed state. Let us not wait for anything to improve. Let us take the lead. iza badna nontor to have a proper infrastructure, 7a ettawwil el natra wl 3alam 7a yesba2na. Its time to stop complaining and start working, within the limitations

    • Mustapha

      Thanks for your input @anthnaderNader,

      I think we’re talking about slightly different things. When my great grandfather came to africa, he didn’t even have running water, but 80 years down the line we have a prosperous 4th generation family business. I get it, I know that the Lebanese work well with limited resources, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.

      The competition is not about inventing a way to work with limited resources, the minister wants to take the winner to silicon valley, the heart of cutting edge technology in the world. The competition is about “changing the world”. The underlying subcontext is that this is the natural environment in which the Lebanese mind can flourish, which is at best a delusion and at worse a subtle manifestation of “Lebanese exceptionalism”, the dangerous idea that the Lebanese are somehow better than other people.

      The Lebanese do well in challenging places, but that was never the result of a pie-in-the-sky competition by a Lebanese bureaucracy.

    • romeo

      @anthnaderNader I admire your entrepreneurial spirit and “can do” attitude. This is what the Lebanese are known for.

      That said, your advice to “stop complaining and start working” may perpetuate the status quo.

      If we do so, we will be letting all these so-called Lebanese leaders off the hook. And we will be letting the future generations down.

      A leader’s job is not to come up with a half-cooked, “Invention-in-a-Box” scheme.

      A true leader’s job is to:

      * Build the required infrastructure (cheap, high-speed internet)

      * Build innovation incubators (office space/cubicles, cheap rent, plenty of parking space, etc)

      * Schedule mini-conferences/gatherings for individuals involved, or interested in hi-tech

      * Create seed funds ($$$) to encourage cash-strapped individuals with “big” ideas

      * Seek local and international investors by meeting with angel investors, venture capitalists, etc.

      * Promote budding, high-potential inventions to same investors, companies, foreign governments with deep pockets

      * (and the list goes on, I am sure many readers of this blog have such experience and could add more)

      Now if we keep patting those leaders on the back and showering them with praise for half-cooked ideas (and then insults after they fail), we are doing a disservice to Lebanon!

      Don’t get me wrong. We are all on the same team here. But we differ on strategy and implementation.

      Cheers,

      -romeo

  • tasteofbeirut

    It is such a pleasure to read you! My son Nick who grew up in the US (Dallas) is now at 22 a young entrepreneur and has hired a fourth developer to help manage his software business. He never set foot in a college instead learning all these codes on his own ( I think he knows a dozen). Well, anyway, if I had insisted to raise Nick in Lebanon, were would he be? I think he’d be doing drugs to escape boredom. Lebanon is seriously in danger of falling way back and that’s very unfortunate.

  • http://nicolas-sehnaoui.org Nicolas Sehnaoui

    Editor’s note: This comment now has its own post. Kindly respond to it in that post’s comments section.

    Thanks Mustapha for this useful reminder to Lebanese entrepreneurs that nothing comes without hard work, sustained effort and perseverance.
    Of course the competition didn’t hint to the contrary. It is just intended to steer creativity and imagination. They have a virtue in themselves. I will mention three that comes to my mind.
    1/ To remind us of the power of ideas. I will refer you to my AUB speech which had the objective of unleashing the power of our youth’s minds.
    2/ To force us to think beyond our borders, our physical limitations because a small country like ours can be one of the main beneficiary of this new geography where any point in the world can be its center.
    3/ It will help us regain much needed assurance and self-confidence because contrary to what you said I do believe Lebanese have strong points in which they are better than other people. I do think that some of their promoted strong points which helps them succeed abroad are in fact some of the ingredients that destroy the country here at home. Their sense of trade, their ability to adapt, etc. All traits that diminish their national identity and their willingness to build a strong state. But what I am sure of, and more so since I took the helm of the telecom sector, is that they have a unique talent for creativity. Look around and notice: the best cloth designers if the Middle east are Lebanese, the best jewelry designers, most of creative in ad agencies are Lebanese, first cooks, hairdressers etc.
    It could be a way of the universal balance to give us something positive out of the fact that it made us a crossroad of religions, sects, languages and invaders. Let’s not waste it. In the digital world, the digital village it could be a plus that can help us outshine others countries and we badly need this edge.
    The other thing worth mentioning is that making Lebanon a digital hub has this fantastic benefit that instead of exporting our people we will be giving our local brains a chance to work from Lebanon and sell their products and services to the whole planet from right here. Dermandar (6 million downloads) and Pou (25 million downloads) are good examples that it is possible. It’s the fastest way to reverse the vicious cycle of emigration (economie de la rente).

    Last, let me insist on the virtue of positive approach. I know it’s tough in a country like ours where things seem out of our control and where the disproportion of force between local will and international players seem impossible to beat because of a deeply divided political spectrum.
    It’s tough but it’s possible. Its more than possible it is necessary or else why would we stay? Where would hope lie. We have to believe it’s possible and we have to try and make it work. That’s the positive attitude. That’s what drives me every day in the morning to get out of bed and face the infinite dangers and minefields of the political and administrative arena. For me it’s this or abandon our fate to the bad guys and accept that we cannot but move backwards.
    Although the country is at a halt in almost every aspect and the government have difficulty governing we leapfrogged in the telecommunication field. This is due to a resolute attitude, refusing to accept anything that would stop the necessary changes and the infrastructure improvements. Just remember that 2 years ago we use to wait half an hour to download 1Mega Bytes of emails. And there is much more to come. Of course it would be easier if all political parties and figures would accept to sideline telecommunications from the political struggle. It would also help if all citizen’s from all political or non-political sides would support the important infrastructure upgrades.
    I believe we should have a willful pragmatic approach. Yes the country is unbelievably tough and intricate. But what are we going to do about it? Whine until it gets better or put our hands in the works, set achievable milestones and achieve them and then start again.