Sometimes a person has clear idea for an innovative output, and they are very motivated to work on it: perhaps they are an entrepreneur setting up a new business, or a nurse introducing health care services in response to an emergency, or an engineer building the engine that they dreamed about as a child.
Most of the time, such clear ideas don’t exist. A person may want to innovate, but ideas either aren’t immediately presented to them, or the ideas may not be obviously better than others. The person needs a way to identify suitable ideas, and assess the ideas’ merits before investing time and money in their development. Indeed, even for someone with a clear idea for innovation, it is prudent to consider and assess alternative ideas as well. Their development may be a better use of the person’s time.
This blog post will look at sources of ideas for innovations, with examples from organisations in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Future posts will look at the collection and assessment of ideas.
Sources of ideas
Happily, there are many possible sources of ideas for innovative outputs. They include the innovator themselves, their organisation, the users or consumers of the innovator’s outputs, the innovator’s competitors or collaborators, and bodies such as lobby groups in the innovator’s field of work. Sometimes people in the sources may provide ideas freely, while in other sources the innovator may have to work harder to get the ideas from them.
This section will discuss the sources of ideas shown in table 1. It will discuss the type of ideas that the source may provide, the places within the sources to look for the ideas, and the likely focuses of the ideas. For the public sector, the section will also briefly describe the different institutions of this source that may provide distinct ideas.
Because the sources in the table are in frequent interaction with the innovator or their field of work, they are likely to provide ideas that are relevant to the innovator’s operations. As such, the innovator is more likely to have relevant skills and connections for the development of the ideas from these sources, compared with ideas from other sources. As a result, it makes sense for the innovator to focus their time and effort looking for ideas from the sources in the table. However, some people and organisations from the wider economy and society may also provide useful ideas. For example, the computer industry may provide good ideas for innovating business processes in other industries. An innovator can’t thoroughly scan the whole of society for ideas, so they would benefit from good general alertness to wider economic and social changes, and the resulting possibilities for innovation in their own work.
Table 1: Sources of ideas
People within the innovating organisation as a source of ideas
One source of ideas is the people within the innovating organisation. The people in it will be very familiar with its output and its production methods, and so are likely to have ideas for their improvement or development. People may have the ideas currently, or they may have had them in the past and recorded them in reports and publications.
An example of a person who provides ideas to their innovating organisation is Dieudonné Kayembe, the founder and CEO of Flechtech, a small technology company operating in the DRC. Kayembe was the source of an innovative idea for developing and selling a tablet computer. He had the initial idea when he was at university and implemented it after founding Flechtech (). He had experience in the design and production of computers from his university course, and was already a prize winning innovator (, ). The idea was only initially specified in broad terms – the details of the design were subsequently developed over many years (). Today, Flechtech has designed the tablet and built its software, adapting its construction for operation within the DRC, and is looking to commercialise it.
Video: Dieudonné Kayembe and his tablet computer
Note: The video is in French: for subtitles, please 1) press play, 2) hover over the player, 3) click the subtitles icon at the bottom of the player, 4) click the settings icon at the bottom of the player, 5) click the “subtitles/ CC” option, 6) click the “auto-translate” option, and 7) click the English option.
Producer: TV5MONDE Info (https://information.tv5monde.com/). Used under YouTube terms: https://www.youtube.com/t/terms
Product and service users as a source of ideas
Another source of ideas is the people and organisations who use the innovator’s products and services, or who may use them in future. They have detailed knowledge of their own preferences, and may have experience of the products and services. These two characteristics mean that they may have ideas for removing weaknesses from the products and services, developing strengths, and adding features that increase appeal to users. The ideas can be found by speaking to users or surveying them.
An example of product users who provide ideas is the clients of the firm Adi-Construct in the DRC. Adi-Construct is an architectural and building company which has managed many large construction projects, including roadworks, offices and industrial buildings, storage facilities, a laboratory, government buildings, schools, blocks of flats, and street lighting (). Their clients provide ideas about the building’s purpose, form, implementation, and location, and Adi-Construct realises those ideas. Clients initially contact the company by e-mail, telephone, or social media (), and they maintain contact with the company throughout the project ().
Other organisations doing similar work as a source of ideas
An organisation or person can get ideas from other organisations doing similar work to the organisation, such as competitors. They have expertise in the same areas as the organisation, and experience the same pressures to generate new ideas. They are likely to generate ideas that can increase success in the organisation’s area of work, and an organisation that doesn’t follow or adapt to these ideas may lose its position in its industry. The ideas may be known by other organisations’ workers or written down in the organisations’ documents, or they may be the basis of active projects within the organisations. These ideas may be accessible by discussions or collaboration with the organisations, or by hiring or contact with its workers. Alternatively, ideas may be apparent from new goods and services provided by other organisations.
An example of an organisation getting ideas from another organisation is Congo Airways. It signed a memorandum of understanding with Kenya Airways, which is a loose commitment aiming to promote exchange of innovation, knowledge, experts, and best practices through technical cooperation. Both air carriers operate in passenger and freight transport, but have some differences in expertise, most evidently in regional specialisation with one company based in the DRC and the other in Kenya, which presents opportunities for use of complementary skills and knowledge, as well as for direct exchange of ideas. The loose form of the agreement supports informal shared investigation and contacts, to establish what ideas are viable and profitable prior to a more formal agreement (, , ).
Suppliers as a source of ideas
Another possible source of ideas is suppliers. Suppliers sell goods or services to an innovating organisation. They are familiar with potential inputs to the organisation’s innovation, and are also likely to be familiar with many possible uses of those inputs from their experience with the organisation and other organisations like it. They may also have some understanding of how their goods and services can be applied in the organisation’s specific circumstances. Together, these features of suppliers’ knowledge mean that the suppliers can provide ideas for changes to the organisation’s inputs, leading to innovative processes or products. Suppliers often actively seek sales, so they may use their marketing literature or personal contacts with the innovating organisation to propose ideas for innovation that promote those sales.
An example of a supplier that provides ideas for innovation is Essor Equipments, a Congolese company which sells medical equipment to health professionals. The company has operated since 1996 throughout the whole of the DRC, with a team consisting of pharmacists, biologists, and commercial experts (). Because of their experience and knowledge, they can identify medical goods that their clients could use to innovate their own processes and services. Essor Equipments sells a wide range of medical goods, including bandages, clothing, diagnostic equipment, test tubes, furniture, and washing machines. They present their goods to potential clients on their website (), with sales representatives as a source of more individualised ideas for goods.
Interest groups in the innovator’s field of work as a source of ideas
A source of ideas is interest groups in the innovator’s field of work. These are groups of people and organisations who have a shared interest in some part of the work that the innovator does, such as groups for managers or employees working in an industry, groups that promote public awareness of their members’ activities, groups for networking and support for people working in an industry, or groups that represent their members in dealing with government. The ideas generated within interest groups may relate primarily to the subject of interest, or they may be related both to the subject of interest and to the separate concerns of one or more of the members, which can create a wider set of ideas and possible partnerships. Ideas may arise in group activities such as meetings and conferences, or they may be presented in publications or communications to members. Individual members may have ideas that the members express through the interest group.
An example of an interest group that provides ideas is the Congo Business Network (CBN), an international network of professionals and entrepreneurs of D.R.Congolese origin. The CBN organises and sponsors major forums to discuss digital commerce and technology in the DRC (, ,  (in French)). The forums bring together business people, political figures, consumers, and others, so these people can discuss challenges in the Congolese economy and propose ideas to solve them. The forums comprise of workshops, public speaking, and networking events, all facilitating the exchange of information and ideas.
Universities and research institutions as a source of ideas
Another source of ideas is universities and research institutions working in the innovator’s field of work. These are public or private organisations whose work is primarily focussed on the study and dissemination of advanced knowledge that relates to the innovator’s own work. Their expertise and familiarity with the knowledge will increase their awareness of its potential applications, and because the knowledge is advanced and probably not widely possessed, these potential applications may be innovative. Universities and research institutions may publish ideas in research documents, or they may present ideas through public presentations or teaching. They may also share their ideas with other organisations through partnerships or consultancy.
An example of a university that acts as a source of ideas is the University of Kisangani, which undertakes teaching, research, and consultancy across multiple academic areas. It publishes its research in articles (, ), presenting a source of ideas for innovators particularly in the DRC, as much of its research focuses on the country. The University’s Technological Centre also actively seeks work as consultants, in which its expertise is employed to identify clients’ problems, present ideas for solutions, and implement those solutions. It proposes ideas and implements solutions in computer maintenance, cyber security, network establishment and maintenance, and personalised training ().
“We also propose technical solutions if you want to develop your IT system. We can: determine the client’s expectations and needs, analyse the current system, study solutions with our technical department, send the solutions to the client and advise the client about them, accompany you during the new system’s integration, …”
Public sector institutions as a source of ideas
Public sector institutions can be a source of ideas for innovation. They have multiple roles, including setting and enforcing laws, providing services, controlling and running state-owned companies, implementing regulation, analysing information, and using military force. Examples of public sector institutions corresponding to each type of work are shown in table 2.
Table 2: Public sector institutions and their work
The institutions are experts in their areas, and may want assistance when working in them, and so can act as sources of related ideas. An innovator can find ideas in their public presentations and documents, by discussions with members of the institutions, and in their invitations to tender.
An example of a public sector institution that provides ideas for innovation is the DRC Ministry of Health. The Ministry releases invitations to tender for supply of medicines and equipment to health centres and hospitals, as well as the Ministry itself. For example, it released an invitation to tender in June 2021 for supply and installation of computer equipment for use in the national program against tuberculosis ( (in French)). The products may not be radical innovations for the supplier, because the Ministry can require the supplier to have experience of supply of similar goods, but there is still some scope for development of new products that meet the Ministry’s requirements. The invitation to tender are announced on commercial websites (, , ).
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The blog and site are written by James Waters. He is a British economist.