When an Accident Meets a Concerned Mind

Ken Banks is a good friend, not the virtual variety but the real flesh and blood deal. We've actually shared a few laughs and meals together. He's edited a book that Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu wrote in his foreword, is "A book of hope, inspiration, and a beacon of what's possible."

Coming from someone I admire to a fault, Tutu's words are deeply and personally gratifying, not in the least because I had the privilege of contributing a chapter alongside nine other social innovators that Ken curated. One, himself, didn't tell his own FronlineSMS story, other than in passing. I wonder why.

I also wonder why Ken titled his book, 'The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator.' How do I tell my friend that he chose a discordant title for a rather fascinating book that takes you right into the personal narratives and world of social innovators? By writing this blog, I suppose.

Ken himself asks this question in the introduction, "You might be wondering why they're not accidental, or serendipitous, innovators. Why reluctant?" But almost immediately adds, "The title is deliberately provocative."

I am provoked. As an academic turned social entrepreneur, I have not once felt reluctant to be doing what I'm doing. I am, however, surrounded by a sea of reluctance, resistance and rejection when attempting to persuade policy, though there are always islands of hope. At times I have nightmares that these may have become the 2.0 version of the 3Rs of literacy.

I interact frequently with government bureaucracy at every level and across ministries. Patiently, I have been trying to persuade them to make just one simple, evidence-based and ridiculously inexpensive change -- add Same Language Subtitling on all Bollywood-style film songs on TV in all of India's languages -- to magically turn a large quantum of viewing into reading practice for 700 million people.

In the 17 years that I've been at it, I'm unsure whether I've seen the light at the end of the tunnel but I am supremely confident I have seen the god of reluctance... and know its many addresses. Reluctant, I'm not, maybe bull-headed to keep chipping away gently at walls that do crumble eventually. As glacial as progress may seem, social entrepreneurs need to see it, or at least imagine it, to stay the course. We get an emotional buzz, an intellectual buzz, a sense of achievement much like any scientist would with any new discovery, however small.

Marianne English has an interesting blog on "10 Accidental Inventions," in science and technology, such as Alexander Fleming's discovery of penicillin. She quotes Nobel Laureate biochemist Albert Szent-Györgyi as saying, "A discovery is said to be an accident meeting a prepared mind."

Ken's book makes a strong case that accidents and serendipity are the dominant force in the social innovation space. The best kind of social innovation sometimes happens when an accident meets a concerned mind with a persistent will to act.