Innovation at Acumen: Putting the 'adjacent possible' into practice

Sasha Dichter, chief innovation officer at Acumen. Photo by: Acumen / CC BY-NC-ND

SAN FRANCISCO — Sasha Dichter, chief innovation officer at Acumen, believes the most useful definition of innovation is what is described as the “adjacent possible” and it is one that would-be innovators in the development sector should pay close attention to.

That theory holds that the best ideas tend to come from a recycling and combining of the possibilities that are already available at any moment in time. Consider the printing press, an example of adjacent possible innovation described in the bestselling book “Where Good Ideas Come From.” Each of the elements of the printing press were developed long before, and it was adapted from a screw press, which was being used for wine.

At Acumen, a nonprofit that invests in companies that are responding to problems of poverty, Dichter works with what he describes as an adjacent possibility set: A commitment to tackling poverty, proximity to the problem, and understanding of social impact.

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“Most of the ‘innovating’ we are doing, for lack of a better word, has to do with process improvements,” he said. “Philosophically, there are two different contexts for these sorts of roles. One of them is how do we take a mindset and orientation and culture of learning and shifting and changing and formalize that and put more resources behind that? The other is, ‘We don’t really innovate, so we need a change agent to bring that into the culture.’ My role at Acumen is clearly the former.”

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About the author

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    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology and innovation in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported from all over the world, and freelanced for outlets including the Atlantic and the Washington Post. She is also the West Coast ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit that trains and connects journalists to cover responses to problems.