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Why Is Innovation So Important?

We knew when we gave our Centennial year the tagline “Innovation for the Next 100 Years” that we would be asked to define what, exactly, innovation means—and how The Rockefeller Foundation plans to continue our legacy of innovation into the next century.

But I was often asked another question: Why is innovation so important? And, more specifically, why do we spend so much time and resources on innovation when incremental improvements to existing solutions could take far less effort?

I admit, it’s a pretty good question. And, now that our Centennial is drawing to close, I’m able to articulate one important part of the answer.

To do so, I go back to where The Rockefeller Foundation began.

In the early 20th century, one of the Rockefeller philanthropies was devoted to improving education in the United States, particularly in the rural South.

As it spent more time in schools in the South, it became clear that a student’s achievement was directly related to his or her health. Hookworm infection was often the culprit for missed class and poor performance. In many rural countries, infection rates were as high as 60 percent.

A commission was formed in 1909 with the purpose to “bring about a co-operative movement of the medical profession, public health officials, boards of trade, churches, schools, the press and other agencies for the cure and prevention of hookworm disease.”

But this wasn’t the only goal.

This rampant yet easily curable disease also provided a “favorable wedge,” allowing the commission to promote the creation of an organized and well-funded public health network across the southern United States in order to solve future health problems.

When the commission eventually disbanded, it had examined more than 1 million people and treated over 440,000 in just five years. The organization evolved into the International Health Division and the Foundation moved on to new global public health goals, including malaria, tuberculosis and yellow fever.

Which brings us back to the question of why innovation is so important: it solves problems today in a way that positions us to address the unforeseen problems of tomorrow.

Incremental improvements have far less potential for future impact.

I recently returned from a trip to Africa where I visited the iHub in Nairobi—an open collaboration space for the tech community. There I learned about the potential for the global positioning system (GPS)—originally developed by the military in the 1970s—to help save the rhinoceros. Apparently, you can now implant small GPS chips into their horns. When chased by poachers, rhinos accelerate in such a way that can be sensed by these chips, and this leads to the dispatch of wardens to the rhinos’ location.

GPS was invented decades ago, is currently a staple feature on every smartphone, and now stands poised to help preserve a precious endangered species. That’s the continued benefit of innovation. Incremental improvements, on the other hand, have far less potential for future impact.

This interplay between present and future benefit is why The Rockefeller Foundation is constantly scanning the horizon for promising innovations. We can apply our risk capital and convening capacity to help civil society, government, and the private sector overcome the temptation to privilege incremental solutions over the bold ideas that can yield benefits today—and a hundred years down the road.

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