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People who are elderly, poor, or not white have new ideas too

Jun 15, 2015

The Next Idea

“We never know where the next big innovation is going to come from.”

That’s a common phrase we hear over and over, and it is true. 

Yet rarely does anyone look for new ideas from an elderly man in a wheelchair, or a recent immigrant who’s starting a small business, or a single mother who is barely making ends meet. Often these are the folks we think are only in need of help. But what if we stopped viewing those who are marginalized in our society as always needing handouts, and instead asked them for their ideas and, dare I say, worked together to find new solutions to age-old problems?

Those who live on the margins of our society have insights and ideas that would help all of us in Michigan, says Logan Williams.
Credit Flickr/George A. Spiva Center for the Arts

Those of us who are poor, disabled, or from a minority race or ethnic background have valuable insights. Too often, however, we miss the potential to translate them into new solutions – what I like to call “innovation from the margins.”

Ramping up

A great example of innovation from the margins is accessible entrances to public buildings. Until fairly recently in our country’s history, most architects gave little thought to how people who cannot walk might enter and exit our courthouses, medical offices and libraries. Disabled activists and their allies protested this injustice, and since 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act has mandated that all public buildings have entrances that are accessible to everyone. This led to new solutions like ramps and automatic doors.

While this was a great victory for people with disabilities, it turns out that they aren’t even the predominant users of these ramps and doors. We now see delivery persons rolling or carrying heavy loads, parents pushing strollers with babies, toddlers learning to walk, students moving into dormitories, senior citizens with canes, and even able-bodied people using them all the time. The new entrances originated as innovations for people with disabilities but ended up serving everyone.

Often, people who are facing significant ... barriers have valuable insights that are expressed through deeply personal stories of struggle. What innovator who is committed to solving real problems wouldn't want to hear them?

Most of us tend to think rather narrowly about how to reach out to people on the margins of our society. Some of us want to serve them by offering assistance and that’s about it. This help is important for many, but we must find more creative ways to exchange ideas as we seek new ways forward for Michigan.

So what’s the Next Idea?

In order to include more of these voices, elected leaders, entrepreneurs, professors – anyone who’s looking to innovate – must try to directly engage people on the margins of our society where they are.

One way to do that would be for business incubators and universities to cultivate relationships with their local retirement homes, homeless shelters, public libraries, and places of worship. This would allow innovators to open up their questions about such topics as technology design, social policy, and science innovation to all citizens, and allow people who struggle more than most with physical and financial limitations to contribute to the important conversations about our state’s future.  

A critical point to keep in mind when facilitating these exchanges is the need to create safe and welcoming spaces.  Often, people who are facing significant physical, economic, and social barriers have valuable insights that are expressed through deeply personal stories of struggle. What innovator who is committed to solving real problems wouldn't want to hear them? We just have to consider that people are likely stepping outside of their comfort zones in order to share what they know. By establishing ground rules in advance that promote respect for all participants, it will ensure that every voice is heard and that people will want to continue to participate.

There’s more at stake here than just offering new ways to help those less fortunate in our society. Take the case of Aurolab in India. They tackled avoidable blindness, which affects millions mostly due to cataracts, by developing affordable treatments and technologies. I spoke with one of Aurolab’s founders, Bala Krishnan, and he explained it this way: “[We] wanted to play that role of being the catalyst of bringing down the price. We priced it intentionally low in order to make that change – that is the continuing role we see for Aurolab.”

Not only is Aurolab changing eye health care in India by focusing on people who are poor and elderly, but the organization generates a consistent revenue stream to support new innovations, this despite making their products available at a more than 10 percent discount of the price in the U.S. and Europe.

As Next Idea contributor Jamie Shea argued in a previous essay, Michigan has a tremendous opportunity to be a global leader in new ideas to address some of the world’s most entrenched social problems. If we don’t engage those who are marginalized, we are missing an opportunity to both serve a large population in our state and to create transformative innovations that stand to benefit all of us in Michigan.

Logan D.A. Williams is an assistant professor of sociology in the Lyman Briggs College at Michigan State University. 

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