When we think about innovation, we typically think of a one-way flow of ideas — from West to East, from North to South, and from developed world to developing world. However, as the increasing number of far-flung, volunteer-run TEDx events reminds us, “ideas worth spreading” are also worth spreading from places that might be considered to be on the very fringe. At this week’s TEDx Kabul — the first-ever TEDx event in Afghanistan — a mix of human rights activists, entrepreneurs, artists and technology visionaries described the types of innovation that a still-proud nation hopes to share with the world.
Take mobile social networking, for example. While Facebook, where Washington Post Co. Chairman and Chief Executive Don Graham is a board member, is still struggling with its new mobile strategy, a little-known mobile social network in Afghanistan called Paywast has rapidly scaled to nearly 1 million users since its founding in Jan. 2010. Those users may pale in comparison to Facebook’s 1 billion users, but Afghanistan’s Paywast connects all of its users into social networks via SMS — a method that is in stark contrast to Facebook’s mobile app. When you consider the battered infrastructure and limited financial resources of a war-torn nation, you can appreciate the enormity of that endeavor.
Or, take for example, how Afghanistan is progressing in the emerging area of mobile education. While most Western educators see the mobile phone as a “nice-to-have” complement to the traditional classroom experience, Afghanistan’s Ustad Mobile has figured out how to create a mobile classroom experience for people living in cities without schools and reliable wireless networks. A nifty bit of software essentially makes available Afghanistan's national literacy curriculum on "dumb phones" that can then be picked up for cheap at bazaars around the country. If you think the task of coordinating the new generation of massively open online courses is gargantuan in scope, just think about what it takes to coordinate a massively open offline educational system.
At a time when Afghanistan is surely one of the most unforgiving places in the world to live if you’re a female entrepreneur, the number of innovative stories from women speakers at TEDx Kabul was inspiring, at least from what could be gathered via content shared online. Most notably, there were the women and young girls of Skateistan, who helped to create the world’s first co-ed skateboard school that later became the subject of the documentary film by the same name. This is just the start, one hopes, of broader female empowerment throughout the Afghan economy.
TEDx Kabul mirrors other TEDx events in war-torn areas, such as Baghdad and Mogadishu. These events have featured a similar lineup of nation rebuilders with innovative work-arounds to seemingly insurmountable problems. TED curator-in-charge Chris Anderson, who himself was a surprise guest speaker at the TEDx Kabul event, describes these TEDx events in the world’s most forsaken areas as part of a broader process of "reordering the patterns of the world and making new possibilities."
As the tagline for TEDx Kabul, “Innovation in Unexpected Places,” suggests, innovation often occurs where it is least expected — on the edges, far from the center. That appears to be the case, first in Iraq, and now in Afghanistan, where you almost couldn’t imagine a more unexpected place for innovation to occur.
Dominic Basulto is a digital thinker at Bond Strategy and Influence (formerly called Electric Artists) in New York. Prior to Bond Strategy and Influence, he was the editor of Fortune’s Business Innovation Insider and a founding member of Corante.com, one of the Web's first blog media companies. He also shares his thoughts on innovation on the Big Think Endless Innovation blog and is working on a new book on innovation called "Endless Innovation, Most Beautifuland Most Wonderful."
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