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.
Chief innovation officers at aid agencies and NGOs are tasked with changing the way development is done. How can these organizations make their work more efficient and effective, and can they keep up with the rapid pace of change in this technological revolution? Throughout 2018, Devex will be meeting the people doing this work to explore what they’ve learned along the way, and where we go from here.
“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.”