What is Global Innovation — and Why Does it Matter? Reflections from the Global Innovators Intensive
I started my position as the Environmental Innovation Fellow at Yale in the summer of 2021. In my entry interview I was asked what kind of a program I wanted to create. Without much hesitation, I said I wanted to create an intensive around skills for international entrepreneurship. Back then, I wasn’t sure what that program would end up looking like, but I knew that I wanted to highlight not just the experience of being an international student at Yale, but actually center that as an approach for solving complex global challenges.
With encouragement from Zoe Hunter and Stuart DeCew, wonderful humans at Tsai CITY and CBEY, I started writing out a plan for what this program could look like — pulling in expertise from within and beyond the university. We named it ‘Global Innovators’, but what was yet to be seen was what that would actually mean and how we could operationalize it to promote learning and collaboration. I was also excited to work with Wei-Ting Shih, a stellar Yale College student who proved to be invaluable to the success of the intensive program.
Global innovation as a term does not really have a widely accepted definition; in fact, the closest definition I could find was ‘innovation at a global scale’. Despite a nebulous definition, a simple Google search of the phrase ‘global innovation’ reveals that several organizations have produced work around it — be it sharing a global innovation index to rank countries based on their innovation performance to a global innovation fund meant to support key development problems.
When I initially thought of this program, I wanted it to do a lot of things. I wanted it to serve as a resource for international students who were considering entrepreneurship as a career choice in the US. I also wanted it to be a program that allowed students at Yale to widen the scope of their thinking, seeking inspiration from solutions and innovation happening outside the United States. And finally, along with the focus on skill-building, there was a desire to create a community of folks who would value each other and embrace the diverse backgrounds that each person came from.
A tall order.
Very early on, I realized that doing all of those things would be pretty confusing for a participant and hard for me to provide a coherent experience. I had to define who the audience for this intensive was going to be. I decided that I would keep the audience pretty wide for this intensive and provide space and resources for international students to learn more about entrepreneurship in the US — even after the intensive ended.
Taking place in the fall of 2021, the Global Innovators Intensive was a six-week program, taking a cohort of passionate students from throughout Yale through several modules on topics ranging from developing global competence to managing and leading global teams.
Something I really appreciate about programs at Tsai CITY is that they serve as the meeting place for people that may not have met otherwise. For the Global Innovators Intensive, we were lucky to have 30 students from across the university, representing Yale College, and professional schools including: Environment, Divinity, Management, Architecture, Public Health, Engineering and Applied Sciences, and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
We planned the intensive to take place entirely in-person. As someone who spent more than half of her time as a Yale student on Zoom, I was glad to provide a safe yet meaningful in-person extracurricular opportunity in Tsai CITY’s beautiful new building.
During the course of the intensive, here are four key things that we learned:
1. Asking questions is great, but you must know which questions to ask — and how.
Braving heavy rain, participants in our intensive’s first session were taken through the Question Formulation Technique by guest speakers from the Asia Society, Dr. Neelam Chowdhary and Ms. Heather Singmaster, who are experts on teaching and learning global competence. The QFT is a structured exercise meant to generate and improve questions, an important skill when trying to conceptualize the global challenges we seek to solve. Through this, I realized how important it is to ensure that you are asking the right questions — bounded enough to allow a jumping off point and yet flexible enough to allow creativity. Asking questions really is a skill! Especially because once you’ve framed the question, it sets the tone for any solution you come up with.
2. Innovators are doing very impressive work across the world, but innovating in a different geographical or cultural context is difficult.
In the third week of our intensive, we hosted a mini-documentary screening showcasing the work of innovators from across the globe, followed by group discussion. These short videos largely focused on social entrepreneurship. It was heart-warming and inspiring to see the work innovators were doing to change the world, everywhere from India to Kenya to Myanmar to the United States. Often, solutions are led by those within the community itself, making them best suited for the job. However, through our discussion, we also acknowledged that helping a community we may be unfamiliar with can be impactful, but requires humility, respect and the centering of those most affected by the problem.
3. Leading a global, virtual team requires trust, consistency and vulnerability.
Innovating globally might mean that team members may be spread across the globe, working from different regions and time zones. After participating in a team-building exercise to help participants understand how to launch new teams, we heard from Camino de Paz, Managing Director of Global Initiatives at the Yale School of Management. In her role, Camino builds relationships with member schools, from around the world, for the Global Network for Advanced Management.
Being able to lead and manage a global team requires building trust. Some pearls of wisdom she shared were to set expectations and deadlines early on, to maintain consistency, and to show vulnerability and empathy as a way to unite folks from different backgrounds and geographies.
4. Systems thinking is key for effective innovation.
For the penultimate session of the Global Innovators Intensive, we hosted a panel discussion on approaching global innovation, featuring Prof. Jennifer McFadden of Yale’s School of Management, Prof. Nathaniel Hawthorne of the Yale Jackson Institute & School of Public Health, and Srikumar Misra, CEO of Milk Mantra and Yale World Fellow. Across the three panelists, systems thinking emerged as perhaps the most important tool when thinking about innovating in a global context. An innovator must question their own assumptions as they go about looking at a global challenge to ensure that innovation does not cause harm and is multi-dimensional in that it solves more than one problem. And being at an institution like Yale, it is key to acknowledge that we are in a privileged space, and must take into account the impacts of innovation on others — such as those most vulnerable to the problem we seek to address.
To bring this intensive to a close, we ended with a design thinking sprint, looking at the problem of rural access to healthcare. We tasked participants to work together in groups to find a solution to this issue in a specific geographic context that they were familiar with, through various lenses, such as financial, operational or technological.
Group members used their personal experiences in different geographies like India, Belarus and the US to frame the problem. Then, through a combination of individual and group ideation, participants brainstormed a lot of different ideas to tackle the problem, before picking one solution to present to everyone. While different in terms of what the solutions entailed, a common thread linking all the solutions presented was community, and the importance of centering all those whom the solution is trying to help.
In roughly an hour, we had solutions that included localized health kits for villages, a training program for local community leaders and a partnership with local religious organizations.
As I wrap up my reflections coming out of my very first experience building an intensive at Yale, I am both proud of what we achieved and curious and hopeful about the future. I was glad to see students learning by doing, and was grateful to learn more about what students were looking for outside of classes that I could provide through my work. Of course, nothing is perfect, and one thing I learned about the program plan itself was that it might have been better to sort students into groups from the very start for more structure and consistency. Nevertheless, I am excited to continue to explore what global innovation means and how we could use it to solve complex challenges.
If I were to attempt to define the term ‘global innovation’ now, I imagine I would say something like, “Global innovation is both simultaneously the process of being inspired by innovation in different cultures and geographies, and using systems thinking to identify and tackle a problem common across geographies, but with an approach that centers the community you are working with.”
As I continue to explore this topic at Yale and beyond, I am continually inspired by the community of change-makers who are taking action, globally.