Hirofumi Yokoi (President, AFJ): Sequoian Innovation: Define Seedling through Being
03 February 2014
Tokyo, Japan

(This is the original, full manuscript of his article which has been published in the book, “Innovation: How Innovators Think, Act and Change Our World,” written by Kim Chandler McDonald in October 2013.) [1]

‘Seedling of Innovation’:
For Akira Foundation (and me personally…), innovation is a thing not that can be deduced from the general principle or theory but that would inductively be realized and recognized over time from a subpar but meaningful move or performance which would otherwise have been treated with bias and prejudice and/or have been overlooked or neglected by the majority of people as a result of an adherence to an unquestioning embrace of the current and conventional socio-economic status and standards. More often than not, an innovative and disruptive idea or thought, product or practice, tends to gain less recognition and support from outside at its first phase of development or improvement. This is the most critical stage when it comes to identifying ‘something’ which we believe cannot be missed as a ‘seedling of innovation’ that may grow for social change and impact once provided appropriate ‘nutrients in the right soil.’ In such a way, to define innovation is to abstain from any prior perception, experience and even belief temporarily, especially when to identify the meaning of ‘being’ in each own case and examine its fundamental ontology in a context of ecosystem, or ‘being-with-others’ if I am allowed to use that phrase from in Heidegger’s book, Being and Time (1927). I think such a bracketing and Heideggerian phenomenological approach works well in this regard, and is empirically and practically applicable in the real world in defining innovation at the beginning and over time.

‘MENA’ to Mission:
First of all, innovation makes me feel ‘alive.’ This is what I always say in response to any questions of this kind. Suffice to say, innovation is not just for myself but also for others. Once again, our hermeneutical understanding is that the terminology or recognition of ‘innovation’ tends to be given and fallen from outside and the public at a certain point, inductively and intermittently, rather than being spoken out from ourselves (but needs to identify a ‘seedling’ of innovation on our own at an early phase). As such, it may be argued, counter-intuitively, that we may not be obsessed with and haunted by ‘innovation’ in such a monolithic way that it has captured people’s minds and hearts, phenomenally and prevalently in recent years. In other words, we always keep a categorical proposition that innovation is essential for ‘what.’ This ‘what’ is the thing we have been considering ‘essential’ and has driven us forward. For me, innovation is not a purpose or goal but kind of a spatio-temporal process that is ‘essential’ to reach out to ‘what.’ For Akira Foundation, ‘what’ precisely means our tagline, ‘Social Bridge between Japan and Global Village,’ which turns out to make our society and world more inclusive. In order to realize this ideal society, we found through our career and business that the following three elements should be factored in innovation: experiential learning (by seeing brutal facts), collaborative leadership, and sustainable development. To put it another way, innovation may be comprised primarily of those aforementioned factors under a clear vision and determined promise toward realizing that society for a next generation to come. To me, this proposition has been very critical and influential in shaping my vision and value, as well as sharpening my business skills, experiences and expertise at firsthand. It showcases my continued exposure to and business career in the world unknown and uncharted to me. For one, Lebanon was the first place I was relocated to and worked in residence with several international development corporations and charitable organizations such as MIT Enterprise Forum and Grameen Foundation in the field of microfinance and entrepreneurship in the developing and transition economies. I had a direct look and feel that, in the Muslim society, there exist unsolved, mixed issues of its diverse sectarianism and lopsided economy, people from which have great passion, ideas and potential to make a difference despite such chaotic, subsistence lives. That exposure led us to shape the fields Akira Foundation tackles, one of which is the ‘base of the pyramid’ (BOP) market where Akira Foundation has addressed several social, economic and environmental issues since its inception by working collaboratively with visionary believers and entrepreneurs through MSME finance, water pumping and desalination technology, among other social development projects across MENA and Sub-Saharan regions, and beyond. In a nutshell, I believe that such a relational and holistic perspective is very important inside and out of innovation, while keeping reminding us of the raison d’etre of Akira Foundation and myself to help make the world better and more inclusive.

The Ecology of Giant Sequoia:
If the premise of innovation is a string of developmental phases from vision, promise and relation to sustainability and impact, the most imperative part would be the transition from vision to promise and the greatest bottleneck behind the innovation is the development from relation to sustainability. Let me give you an analogy of it with the following fact: Giant Sequoia. When I lived in California, I visited the Sequoia National Park. Driving my car, my wife and I climbed up a meandering pathway toward the park. It is no giant tree until it is elevated at 5,000 feet where a certain climate of keeping soil “moist, rich, balanced ph, and well-drained.”[2] Even in that zone, Giant Sequoias do not stand closely side-by-side, given the fact that the sequoias compete with one another for “nutrients, water, sun and space.”[3] Good gardening techniques and irrigation systems enable Sequoia to grow over many thousands of years. This law of nature behind Giant Sequoia tells us some implications of a significance of social innovation. A vision in social innovation is analogous to a seed of Sequoia. Likewise, a promise in innovation is to a climate for Sequoia. Repeatedly, without placing a right seed in an appropriate soil and climate, even a good seed of having a potential to grow ‘giant’ would be dead. It must be true of innovation. Even having a good vision or ambition may be necessary but would not be sufficient unless it would be well prepared and planned as a promise to be implemented by carefully and profoundly reviewing and examining many aspects of it in terms of mission, cause, scope, resource, relation, viability, among other things. Practically, it must be critical whether to transform your creative or innovative idea or thought into the one which has implications and considerations at all levels and theoretical, empirical and practical rationales behind it, and is ready enough to proceed to a next phase of development in the real world.

The transition from relation to sustainability in innovation may seem most painstaking. Before becoming a full-fledged, innovation needs to be spread, mobilized, maintained and sustained in the long haul. To forge partnership or alliance is necessary to make the innovation more efficient and effective, and to scale it out for further impact. It also means resource consolidation, system integration, and/or fund development among actors, stakeholders, and funders. This may look as if Sequoias strived at competition (i.e., cooperation or collaboration in innovation) for becoming larger (i.e., becoming more impactful). Then, why would this part become a barrier for innovation? Let us go back to the analogy of Sequoia. For a Giant tree of Sequoia, a thing that it cannot control is ‘climate.’ To put it differently, it needs to be adaptable and responsive to the environment and ecosystem around it. This means, in our world and human activities, how innovation fits well in the environment where you bring about, addressing a mixture of constraints and influences: legal, political, economic, social, technological, and environmental. This might force you to play hardball and even compromise in some way. For one, that may hinder an innovator from exploring prospects, raising funds and building partnership. This actually has happened to our social business enterprises led by Filipino migrants and Lebanese entrepreneurs who have been underserved and/or misperceived, socially and politically. Given that the reform and change of macro-environment takes longer, innovation needs to weave its continued development and improvement, internally, with its responsive attitude and adaptive practice. In the latter case, we do take into account a comprehensive, top-down approach as well to policy making and lobbying by getting into dialogue with decision makers in government and public sector, and to higher education, training and capacity building for university students and young professionals in new emerging areas and crucial issues of social innovation. Last, a creative, meaningful partnership associated with the environment leads to sustain social innovation. Internally, an organization must continue to monitor and review its fundamentals and value creation “through innovation toward innovation.” Is its cash flow enough to make innovative activities go on? Is an organization transparent and accountable? Is it well decentralized and technologically innovative? Such tinkering processes for good governance and operational excellence are required for sustainable performance through innovation, well responsive to environmental changes and stakeholders reactions. This is another relevant challenge for innovation before being scaled out and impactful.

[1] McDonald, Kim Chandler, How Innovators Think, Act and Change Our World (London: Kogan Page, 2013) Available at: http://www.koganpage.com/editions/innovation/9780749469665 (Accessed: 3 February 2014)
[2] Giant-sequoia.com [online]. Available at: http://www.giant-sequoia.com/faqs/giant-sequoia-landscape-questions/ (Accessed: 3 November 2012)
[3] Giant-sequoia.com [online]. Available at: http://www.giant-sequoia.com/faqs/giant-sequoia-landscape-questions/ (Accessed: 3 November 2012)