Innovation is a Mindset

Silicon Valley is not a place, it is a state of mind. These are the words of Meg Whitman as she spoke at a panel when we launched the Launchpad Innovation Campus, here in Nairobi. For those who know Silicon Valley, we are amazed by the legendary technology companies that are born there, the amount of wealth that is created overnight and the power and leverage that those companies hold over world affairs.

Every city and country in the 21st century wants to build a city like San Francisco and an area like the Silicon Valley is the epitome of progress and innovation. However, what shocks people is that it is not the most advanced city in the world, neither the best run, nor the most beautiful. It is not that the water is full of innovation-boosting nutrients or the sun shines brighter there. Silicon Valley is a product of the human capital that lives there and the shared beliefs that they hold about the world.

When you read the stories or watch the documentaries of legendary Silicon Valley personalities like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Elon Musk, you begin to see a pattern. There is an optimism that they hold about the world. A mindset that claims that the world can be changed by people who are willing to change it. By thinking big, working hard and leveraging the power of technology and capital, anyone can change the world if they want to. With nothing but a laptop, a nobody from South Africa can build a company that can be used by millions of people and disrupt legacy industries. These are the believers in a digital revolution and the pioneers of the information age, where the world of bits can transform human life and make it better.

The simple act of writing software and building a company around it is a big thing. Computers are latest technology in our toolbox as human beings that is transforming our lives. Just like fire, the steam engine and the wheel, computers and their interconnectedness have created an entirely new industry that is based on the most fundamental thing that human beings care about, information. Without information, we would not know what food to eat, what places to live and what to do in situations. The quality of our lives are determined by the quality of the information that we possess. Being exposed to the right information can increase your status, reduce your suffering and ease your life. Our minds are the main consumers, processors and disseminators of information. We use our networks to store information for us. Instead of knowing how to fix your tap, you call a plumber to help you fix it. Our networks boosts the amount of information we have, without having that information in our own heads. Computers have managed to do this for us, without having to use our brains. Instead of knowing a plumber, you can search online and find one without having to know them prior. Computers are bicycles for the mind as Steve Jobs would say. They accelerate and leverage information from billions of people and organise it in exponentially efficient ways. Instead of asking friends for a good plumber, which can take days, you can search for plumber online and get the best plumber, in minutes. That's the power of computers and the information age.

The people in Silicon Valley know this because they have experienced it first-hand. In fact, they leveraged it as first movers and have reaped the benefits of this advantage. With their progress in building computers like the ENIAC and having great computer manufacturers like IBM, HP and Compaq, they cemented themselves as Silicon Valley, the place where the computer revolution started. Simply funded by government agencies that needed to crunch some numbers, they have turned a silicon-based component into the powerhouse and driver of the 21st century. Who would have thought that a transistor would change the world? A simple switch that represents ones and zeroes, controlled by electricity and miniaturised to the 9 nanometres. That's crazy.

Computers are bicycles for the mind. Instead of creating a financial model in your head or writing your speech on a piece of paper, you can do it on a computer. Instead of going to the library to learn about fungi, you can google search on your phone. The world has changed. Computers, software and the internet have created a world that is full of possibilities. Never has it been that people can communicate about global issues from all across the globe in an instantaneous fashion. The information age is bigger than the local, it is a global and universal changemaker. It leverages the minds of all people across the global. All their knowledge, skills and enthusiasm that can be channelled to whatever vision you see fit. This is the innovation mindset.

Picture this, IBM built mainframe computers and touched millions, Microsoft built an operating system and touched more millions, Facebook built a website and touched billions. The power of innovation has been accelerating in just a couple of decades and it is only getting better. With more people coming onto the internet for the first time, with more people developing more sophisticated digital skills and better software tools being developed daily, we are living in an age where old thinking is a liability. Instead of risk mitigation, you must act despite of risk. Instead of slowing down, you must grow faster. Instead of building moats, speed is your moat. Never settling, always building something new, something fresh and something better. Innovating is the new cool and everyone wants to be part of it. They all want to play with computers, engineering, science and tech, especially those without the prerequisite skills in the space. The barrier is low and all are welcome to join. Build some software that people want, start a company with your mates, raise some money and take that thing to the moon. That's the dream.

As we live today, we all have smartphones in our pockets, laptops in our backpacks, multiple accounts attached to our email, we pay for services using our phone numbers and swipe our credit cards that are connected to the bank. We have cars with speakers that blast music from our favourite music streaming site. We go home to watch a show on our movie streaming platform of choice. We play games on our phones, downloaded from an apps market place. Not to mention that you can interact with your bank account and pay bills through an app provided by the bank on the same market place. The world has changed. It is a Brave New World.