Home » OPINION » Columns » SUMESH ARORA — Is innovation contagious?

SUMESH ARORA — Is innovation contagious?



W hen we hear the word contagious, we often think in terms of a disease and how quickly it may spread among the population and whether it could eventually reach epidemic proportions.  The spread of any disease is not a desired outcome, but it usually occurs by direct or indirect contact form one person to another.  The good news is that we have enough medical knowledge to thwart the spread of many communicable diseases, sometimes by taking simple steps as frequent handwashing.   We also think of laughter and enthusiasm as being contagious and everyone can probably identify someone in their lives who brightens their day with their exuberant attitude.

Unfortunately, innovation is not something we generally think of as being contagious, yet extensive research has shown that active and deliberate transfer of information from one individual or group to another set of people is a necessary mechanism to spread new ideas or technologies in society.  Call it catching the bug (pun intended!), or getting on the bandwagon or drinking the Kool-Aid, but when the people receiving the information begin to understand the benefits  of the innovation being presented to them, they are much more likely to get with program or as Dr. Everett Rogers first postulated in 1962 “make a decision to adopt the innovation.”

Since then, Dr. Roger’s book Diffusion of Innovations has been reprinted four times and over 4,000 journal articles have been published applying this framework to a wide variety of topics in medical sociology, marketing, communications, information technology, developmental and organizational studies, health promotion and knowledge management.  I have personally used it to study adoption of renewable energy technologies by the poultry industry in the United States and the business strategy of small biotech companies in India.

At more than 500 pages, the book is complex, but I highly recommend it to any business or civic leader who is interested in learning about how new ideas or products become “contagious.”  My future columns will continue to incorporate various elements of this theory, which finds its roots in research conducted in 1930s and 1940s when new varieties of corn were being introduced to farmers in the Midwest.  The key takeaway from this theory is that diffusion is the process by which an innovation is communicated through certain channels over time among the members in a social system.  While we work hard to curb the spread of diseases, we have to proactively seek ways to spread innovative ideas around the state and create local and regional ecosystems which help transfer innovative ideas.

TECHJXN Innovation Summit and #YesWeCode Hackathon, which I talked about in my previous column, was one such event that took place recently in Jackson to spur further discussions on how to build an ecosystem in Jackson which can be a hub for innovative education, research, product development and ultimately economic growth.  This event was a perfect example of how the diffusion of innovation theory was applied in a practical setting and yielded positive outcomes right away.  Think of the Summit and the Hackathon as the social environment in which the information about the benefits of computer coding was imparted to students of various ages, most of whom were novices at programming.

The event was the largest and most inclusive hackathon to take place in Mississippi and utilized a framework developed by #YesWeCode, a national initiative to help train 100,000 low-opportunity youth to become high-level computer programmers.  Representatives from #YesWeCode were on hand to train mentors, guide team activities and prepare students for their final presentations to a panel of celebrity judges at the Essence Festival in New Orleans.  Local tech-savvy volunteers also assisted the teams develop their apps seeking solutions to address big, real-world challenges.  The hackathon participants were provided with various tracks for teams to explore, touching on topics such as bridging the digital divide; improving education, reducing health disparities and helping cities address infrastructure issues, in other words.

The results in New Orleans showed what is possible by creating the right social environment, with the relevant information conveyed to the students by national and local experts in a manner they found appealing.  The student team consisting of Devon McNeil, Zadarius Macklin, Ariel Dille (Provine High School), Rachael Griffin (Bailey APAC), and Elexis Daniels (Terry High School) won the grand prize with their application called “Global Emergency Community Contact (GECC),” a crowd sourcing app to report infrastructure or emergency issues to government officials, including law enforcement, fire department and public works personnel.  The GECC team chaperone was Sadie Harris, Provine High teacher.  The winning team received new Samsung Galaxy Tablet 4s and six months of mentorship from Matt Kurt, Chief Technology Officer, of the New Orleans-based e-commerce company, Turbo Squid.

The first and second runners up were also teams composed of students from Jackson metro schools including Callaway, Murrah and Wingfield high schools, Clinton and Sumner Hill Junior High, Clinton Christian Academy, Old Town and Thomas Cordozo  Middle Schools, and Lovett Elementary School.  Mississippi students competed against teams from Florida, Georgia and Alabama.

Jackson Mayor Tony Yarber said: “Our kids are talented, creative and capable of competing in today’s tech-driven innovation economy. We must ensure they have the infrastructure in place to expose them to opportunities that cultivate their talents. This summit and hackathon will serve as a catalyst for a long process of developing a viable and accessible on-ramp to the innovation economy for all Jackson residents.”

TECHJXN National partners are Estella’s Brilliant Bus, ScaleUp Partners and #YesWeCode. Local founding partners and sponsors include: The (MS) Center for Education Innovation; City of Jackson; Innovate Mississippi; Jackson Public Schools; Jackson State University; Kids Code Mississippi; the Law Firm of David Pharr; Lemont Scott Group; Midtown Partners, Inc.; Maris, West & Baker Advertising; the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, IMS/Trensek, Mississippi College STEM Institute, Foundation for the Midsouth, Alignment Jackson and United Way of the Capital Area.

So, is innovation contagious? I say yes, and let’s collaborate to help spread this disease I call “innovatitis” all across Mississippi.

» Dr. Sumesh Arora is Vice President at Innovate Mississippi, a non-profit organization with a mission to drive innovative business growth in Mississippi.  His doctoral research was focused on how new ideas spread and its applications to business, economic and policy development.  Follow him on Twitter @DrSumeshArora or contact via email at sarora@innovate.ms with questions about developing innovation strategy for your company or organization.


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About Ross Reily

Ross Reily is editor of the Mississippi Business Journal. He is a husband to an amazing wife, dad to 3 crazy kids and 2 dogs. He is also a fan of the Delta State Fighting Okra and the Boston Red Sox.

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