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.