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Jamaica’s Lost Innovators – An untapped Source of Economic Prosperity

The late American Economist and Professor at the Harvard Business School, Theodore Levitt is quoted as saying that “Just as energy is the basis of life itself, and ideas the source of innovation, so is innovation the vital spark of all human change, improvement and progress.” Professor Michael E. Porter, author of “The Competitive Advantage of Nations,” speaking on the topic of Innovation is noted as saying that “Innovation is the central issue in economic prosperity.”

Examples of Jamaican Innovation

I remember hearing about a young Jamaican who made a one man helicopter out of scrap metal and stuff he found lying around places like junk yards. The Chopper was opened using a magnetic strip similar to what’s on credit cards. In addition to this, it had an on board computer along with a host of other cool technologies. Best of all, the helicopter could actually be flown! He was featured once, on one of Jamaica’s local television stations back in the mid to late 1990’s. It’s now 2011, and I haven’t heard a thing about him since then.

More recently, another local television station featured a self-taught engineer who made a large remote controlled Hummer Truck. The Hummer was not large enough to seat an adult human, but it was as long and as wide as maybe a Go Kart. Among its features were video camera’s that fed visual information back to it’s remote control system, solar panels, a flat screen television that would pop out from the rear of the vehicle, sub-woofer speakers, a detailed interior design, powered windows and even a voice that could be heard echoing “Attention please! This car is backing up!” as the Hummer was being reversed!

With talent like the ones mentioned above, there is no excuse for Jamaica to be behind in terms of technology or engineering. We even have our own motor car, designed and built to withstand the strain of being driven on the pot-hole riddled roads that one may encounter in some areas of Jamaica, but how many Jamaicans actually own a Jamaican car?

The “Self-Taught” Roadblock

Both of the Inventors mentioned above were self-taught, but they don’t seem to be getting the necessary attention, in terms of financing or marketing of their products. This lack of attention may be as a result of them not having formal qualifications such as a College Degree – the apparent licence to get a good job in Jamaica. They are self-taught, but they are obviously more creative than a lot of Jamaica’s formally trained and certified Technologists or Engineers.

Jamaica’s Power of Influence

Throughout history, Jamaica has been known for the great cultural impact it has made on our world. This impact has primarily been championed by creative pursuits such as Music and Poetry. A world renowned Religion was even spawned from the shores of Jamaica! If our tiny island has influenced the peoples of the world on such a massive scale, I see no reason for us not to be able to have a similar world impact by supporting or promoting the creative and innovative self-taught Geniuses within our local Technology Industry.

How can we impact Our World through Jamaica’s Tech Industry?

One way we can impact our world through technology is by being tech entrepreneurs. For example, in order to start a Web or Software Development project, all it takes is that an individual possesses the requisite technical knowledge or skills such as the ability to write the code for their product, a decent computer, and a reliable internet connection. This has been done by many persons worldwide, and they are currently reaping great financial rewards for their independent entrepreneurial efforts, instead of waiting for a job within an established company to be handed to them. Not only is this done worldwide, but there are several Jamaicans that have applied this principle to their own dreams, and have successfully brought them to life. If the project idea is more tangible in nature, there are companies online offering services that allow you to submit your design to them for manufacturing. They’ll manufacture your product for you as well provide you with a variety of sales and shipping options. Examples of such services include Quirky.com and Zazzle.com. If financing is a concern there are websites such as Kickstarter.com and Kiva.org that can help you in that regard.

At first glance, we may see a number of issues that are preventing Jamaica’s Technology Industry from impacting our world the way it should be. Some of the main reasons may include the  kind of elitist tech culture that seems to exists within some sections of our society, as well as persons feeling that they are not qualified to produce great products because of a lack of formal training in their area of interest. Within Jamaica’s Entertainment Industry, this is not the case. As long as you’ve got the talent, and you come up with creative ways to market yourself, you are allowed to soar like an eagle! And through their soaring, these creative folk have spread different aspects of Jamaican culture to every continent on our planet! If Jamaica’s Technology Innovators copy this concept, there’s no valid reason for them not to soar, just like those within the Entertainment Industry.

I may be wrong, but I think in order for Jamaica’s Technology Industry to impact our world in ways similar to how our Entertainment Industry has, we need to kill the culture of elitism or the “need to have a College Degree to be great” culture that now obtains within our society. If one can get formal education and get certified, that is great and it is recommended that he or she capitalizes on such an opportunity, but education does not have to come formally, and in reality true education is much more than a college has to offer.

I am by no means discounting the importance of formal education. As I said before, if one gets the chance to pursue their education formally, they should make the best of that opportunity. Formal education does not prevent people from being creative or innovative. It is more than likely to enhance one’s natural creative abilities. With that said however, a major problem I’ve noticed is that people keep promoting formal education without also including in their promotions, the fact that a person can educate themselves through personal experience just by trying to create something, by going to their local Library to read up on their specific area of interest, or finding tutorials and electronic books on these topics via the internet.

Lest We Forget

Let us not forget that some of our world’s greatest inventors or innovators had little or no formal eduction, yet they found ways to gain knowledge and impact our world in ways that some persons with formal education could only dream of – that is, only if their imagination could take them to such creative heights of thought! Examples of such Innovators include Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb, and Henry Ford, who made the automobile more affordable and accessible. Not only was he a great Innovator, but Mr. Ford was once the world’s richest man!

Even in more recent times there have been self-taught persons or college dropouts leading the fields of technology globally. Men such as Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway; Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft; Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple; as well as Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook. These men produce or are the main overseers of the production of innovative software, gadgets and web applications that most of use on a daily basis.

Are We indirectly stifling Jamaica’s Chance of Economic Prosperity?

By refusing to acknowledge the genius of the self-taught Technologists, Engineers, Inventors or Innovators among us, by neglecting to give them a break, or financial backing, and by placing them on the back burner, while saying that only certified persons can contribute greatly to Jamaica’s Technology or Engineering industries, are we extinguishing the light of a possible Jamaican Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Dean Kamen, Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerbug? But more importantly, are we stifling our chance at having economic prosperity as a Nation?

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Roger Davis is a Visual & Interaction Designer from the Isle of Springs, otherwise known as Jamaica. He's passionate about Human-centered Design and is known to have a healthy obsession with all things interactive such as robots, websites and portable electronic devices. You can follow him on twitter or check out his Blog where he writes about Design along with other crazy things.

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4 Responses to "Jamaica’s Lost Innovators – An untapped Source of Economic Prosperity"

  1. So true. Jamaica invests so little in the development of Science and Technology, only paying it lip-service in the form of scholarships and financing to go abroad. Guess they telling talent what many know from common-sense: more opportunity abroad. Same story!!!!!

    • I actually disagree. Jamaica invests quite a bit in Science and Technology. Yes we could try to find the money to invest more but that will make little difference if we don’t also start investing in the COMMERCIALIZATION of the results.

      Investing in research alone can only get you so far if it is never commercialized. That is why Canasol got somewhere after all the investment in the research in Jamaica; a commercial partner was found.

      A man inventing a helicopter or the remote technologies mentioned in the article are worthless unless commercialized and we spend too little time on that area.

      With the Internet, it is now easier to draw attention to the genius that exists in Jamaica yet so few inventors ar trying to showcase their work via videos on YouTube or seeking out interviews in overseas magazines/on blogs.

      Investors can’t support what they don’t know about and we don’t spend any money on that part.

      • Roger says:

        Thanks for your comments Lindsworth and David. I guess one solution to this problem would be helping to educate inventors on how to commercialize their products, as well as how to promote them using new media.

        Do you know of any Angel Investor groups in Jamaica that would be willing to support the commercialization of these types of products?

        • Alas no. Plus we have another problem: a lack of interest in Technology in General

          http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/business/Jamaica-s-technology-declines_8663141

          Jamaicans only see computer as being able to burn DVD movies and music CD as a means of making money. They see smartphones and other devices as “the latest lick” and thus do not take interest in phones as business tools or lifestyle gadgets.

          Coupled with the low levels of Debit and Credit Card usage as well as our lower than normal poverty levels and the lack of a centralized credit bureau to centralize borrowing, people see great difficulty in paying for apps, instead opting for free ones.

          A developer, were it not for the EU and US markets, would starve to death.

          case to point: the Irie FM app is mostly used by North Americans and EU. Very few people in Jamaica have a Apple iPhone, let alone see the point of listening to the radio via streaming over the phone which required them to be in an area where you have internet access.

          Programming and writing apps is not a part of our culture. But then again, it has to do with the relatively low penetration level of computers and smartphones in Jamaica, our view as it relates to purchasing apps and other things online and out lack of support for all things computing, relegating them to the level of mere toys for our children.

          After all, the improvements in computers i.e. SSD, smartphones that double as gaming consoles seem to be, at least from a hardware point of view, catching up with Game console world, which has long had advanced hardware designs.

          This is not surprising at all!!!! Jamaican’s are just not tech savvy. Especially as most Jamaicans eschew the makes of apps and smartphones as being “Chinese” a Jamaican slang for ham-fisted business people always looking to make a profit from them.

          This is something Jamaicans try to avoid, using the Recession as a excuse to force business people to lower their prices.

          But in spiting the people who conduct business or who they perceive to be making money from smartphones i.e. Telecom Providers, they shortchange their own future.

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