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I have been an elementary and secondary school teacher and administrator. Currently, I am a faculty member in the Faculty of Education at Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. My M.Ed. and Ph.D. had a focus on the educational and linguistic experiences of children who moved from other countries to Canada.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Stoplights: How a set of stoplights in Haiti got me thinking about social innovation

Five or more years ago I was traveling through Port au Prince and came across the first set of stoplights that I had seen in Haiti.


In Port au Prince.

As I approached the stoplights, I quickly realized that there was no operational green, yellow, or red light. There was no electricity.

So, of course, drivers ignored them.

A week or so later, I was returning through the same intersection and recognized that the lights were working!

But no was obeying them.

I've used this story many times in talking about how well-intended ideas may not make sense for the context (click here to watch a TEDx Talk I did that uses this story).

It has also helped me wrestle with the idea of social innovation.

Traffic can be crazy in Haiti. First-time travelers flinch as they see trucks hurtling toward them on the wrong side of the road. Yet, amazingly, there seem to be rules for the road that are not easily evident. Drivers have developed innovative means to determine who goes first, how one passes, and how one navigates the road system.

Social innovation is a funny thing. Systems (like stoplights) can help support social innovation or they can get in the way. In my experience, I have learned that it is critical is to be a keen observer of human behaviour and to look for the ways in which innovation naturally "bubbles up" from our interactions with each other and with our environment.

Let's remember to not put stoplights up too quickly in the way of innovation.

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