On Innovation

When life hands you a lemon, they say, make lemonade.

There’s another way of looking at it. You got a problem — fix it. Find a solution. And while you’re at it, make it a fun one, a creative one. Turn a minus into a plus; turn a sour, rindy fruit into a delicious drink.

The process of innovation, of finding appropriate solutions, is a fairly involved one, and to succeed requires something that we seem to have lost as a nation — confidence in our ability to solve problems. To be innovative, one has to define the problem, consider a variety of possible solutions, and then pick the best one. Not the cheapest, or the one that gets the most votes, but the best. That is how wonderful things like electric lights and telephones get invented; that is how people get sent to the moon.

Now we Bahamians, throughout our history, have been a pretty innovative bunch. We invented an original way of building houses, for instance, based on our original way of building boats. We invented unique ways of singing, of keeping ourselves occupied. We invented 101 ways to cook a conch, something a whole lot of people throw away. We created an economic model for our country that works, and has worked, in a region where dependency-based poverty is a curse. Our ancestors found a use for every single thing in their environment. A good look at our history, or in any old family island home, will show exactly how innovative we were.

We aren’t any more. These days, we seem to invent very little. For some reason, we have become pretty bad at looking at our problems from our own perspective and working out something that is relevant to us. No; instead the first thing we do is engage some “expert” from some foreign country — usually a country to the north, too, as we all know that southern nations just don’t produce experts — to come here and tell us what to do with our problems.

The second thing we do is suggest, as gospel, some highly impractical and impracticable “solution”, and then complain for the next generation or two that no one has Done Anything. Nobody can, considering the general idiocy of the “solution” we proposed.

Cases in point.

Water — on Sunday, listening to Parliament Street, I heard once more the idea that the solution to New Providence’s water problems is a water pipe from Andros to New Providence. Well, I was ready to throw the radio on the ground and stamp on it — not because the idea is necessarily a bad one, but because — well, it’s a bad idea. Simple on the surface, but difficult to execute. Difficult to pay for, too. And it’s not a solution at all; all it does is push Nassau’s problem — a shortage of potable water — onto another island, in much the same way that rich Western countries “solve” problems of toxic waste and so on by sending it to poorer, less developed places. In another generation or two, Big Yard or no Big Yard, we will be facing the same issue — only we will have used up the fresh water reserves of not one island, but two.

Immigration — the only thing we seem to be able to come up with collectively as a country is send ’em back. In all fairness, we have heard a number of ideas proposed, but rather than considering them for their promise, their originality or their potential success, we tend to throw them out without real thought. Well, you should all know by now what I think of that.

Development — the only thing we seem to be able to do here is to invite foreigners in and sell them our land for second homes and for resorts — or (in a more absurd move) for the creation of salmon farms on Inagua. Salmon? Why not grouper farms, what with the limitations being placed on grouper fishing?

Allow me to be radical here. And let me do it not simply for The Bahamas, but for the world.

What the world needs is not a whole army of carbon-copies occupying every populated space. People are different, and God gave us the infinite power of creativity. There is no sense in asking other people for solutions to problems of which they have no comprehension. They’ll offer the solutions, sure, and they’ll charge dear for them, but the solutions we’ll get won’t amount to a hill of good beans. (Just take the concept of the four-way stop, for example, in this country where the bigger you are, the more rights you have.)

Why aren’t we creating our own solutions?

There’s more to this question than simply fixing our problems in ways that work for us. There’s something else too. Good ideas are hard to come across anywhere in the world. If we cultivate good ideas of our own, instead of cookie-cutting others’ solutions, then we may find ourselves in the position of selling our solutions to other people, instead of buying theirs.