6 lessons on innovation from Bill and Melinda Gates: number 4 will break your heart

Bill and Melinda Gates

I listened to the commencement speech from Bill and Melinda Gates at Stanford University over the weekend and one thing stood out: the couple are big on innovation. This is, after all, the guy that revolutionised the face of personal computing.

The speech was quite thought provoking, on what true innovation really is and what technology is and can be used for. Is the role of technology to make people’s lives better? Whose life? Should innovation bridge the digital divide? Who is technology serving right now?

“If rich kids got computers and poor kids didn’t, then technology would make inequality worse,” Bill Gates said early on in the couple’s speech.

There is constant debate in Africa about what problems entrepreneurs need to solve and what needs to happen here before we begin competing with the Instagrams, Twitters and Facebooks of the West.

The couple see the world of innovation with two distinct lenses: optimism and equality.

“Whether you are a scientist with a new discovery, or working in the trenches to understand the needs of the most marginalised, you are advancing amazing breakthroughs in what human beings can do for each other,” say the couple.

At the same time, if you ask people across the United States [or world] is the future going to be better than the past, most say no. My kids will be worse off than I am. They think innovation won’t make the world better for them or their children. So who is right? The people who say innovation will create new possibilities and make the world better? Or the people who see a trend toward inequality and a decline in opportunity and don’t think innovation will change that? The pessimists are wrong, in my view.

Here are some insights I think any entrepreneur needs to keep close at heart when thinking about their next big idea.

Work on the most important problems

“Our formula has been to get the smartest, most creative people working on the most important problems.”

There are so many smart entrepreneurs out there, it makes sense that they should busy themselves working on the world’s most important problems. They way they could see it, there is no point having the intelligence and opportunity if you are not going to do something worthwhile with it. Let your innovation be worthwhile. The tech inventor goes on to say that innovation can solve any problem.

Empower people

“I believed that the magic of computers and software would empower people everywhere and make the world much, much better.”

This school of thought is quite common. At the Microsoft Sharepoint conference earlier this year, Bill Clinton talked about the role of technology in changing lives and empowering people and giving them hope. Innovation should empower people.

You can’t change the world if you haven’t seen the problem

“No matter how much suffering we see, no matter how bad it is, we can help people if we don’t lose hope and if we don’t look away.”

You can’t conceptualise and find the solution for a problem you have never experienced or witnessed. The couple reckon that in order to truly be innovative you have to look at the problem and witness the suffering the problem causes.

Let your heart break

“Let your heart break. It will change what you do with your optimism.”

This goes back to understanding the problem well. If you let your heart break according, say Bill and Melinda, it will change how your optimism works and what you do with it. It will inspire you to do more to be better and change the world.

Be optimistic

“Optimism is often dismissed as false hope. But there is also false hopelessness.”

There is nothing more motivating to entrepreneurs with great ideas than the optimism that they can solve a particular problem. The couple’s whole talk hangs on optimism as a key driver of innovation and that it is the fuel that brings about great discoveries.

“Even in dire situations, optimism fuels innovation and leads to new approaches that eliminate suffering.”

Technology should benefit everyone

“Technology should benefit everyone. So we worked to close the digital divide.”

There is so much inequality in the world that we don’t need to add more to it but rather eradicate it. According to the couple, if your innovation widens the digital divide perhaps it needs a rethink. Gates talks about visiting South Africa at the end of Apartheid and realising that people needed more than computers to make their lives better — they need innovation in healthcare and education to help them.

“If innovation is purely market driven, and we don’t focus on the big inequities, then we could have amazing advances and inventions that leave the world even more divided.”

Watch the full speech below.



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