Think Like MacGyver: Creative Resilience in the 'Developing World'

If you deconstruct TV character MacGyver's ingenuity, you can find four enablers of creativity.

Raise your hand if you’re familiar with the TV show MacGyver. The main character is truly a phenomenal human being. The plot of the 60-minute show is pretty consistent: He’s a secret agent whose specialty is finagling himself out of the most impossible situations. He had an uncanny ability of taking everyday objects from his immediate surroundings and transforming them to solve problems. He could turn a coffin into a get-away jet ski. He could disarm a nuclear warhead using only a safety pin. In one of my favorite episodes he builds a long-distance bomb using a rubber glove, a gas pipe, a light bulb, and shards from a toilet bowl. He’s a universal symbol for resourcefulness, ingenuity, and creativity.

If you deconstruct his actions in every episode, there are four factors that enable his success. I’ve called them the four enablers of creativity:

1. He is a do-er. It’s easy for teams to sidestep creativity when taking on a new endeavor by quibbling over objectives. Ambiguity is uncomfortable. MacGyver uses action to work through the ambiguity. He could sit and have a discussion about his options, or create a tradeoff matrix, but he chooses to learn by doing.

2. His resources are defined. One of the first things we do at the start of a design project is figure out what we know and what we don’t know. We make constraints. It’s a contrast to what we associate with creativity—which is blue-sky, free-thinking, no rules. But the lack of constraints, or lack of a creative process, is in fact a deterrent to producing innovative results.

3. His goal is clear and a deadline is imminent. For MacGyver, the bomb is always ticking down. He has a defined amount of time. Failure is not an option. It’s similar to that feeling you get the night before a deadline, when the creative adrenaline rushes in at 2 a.m. The pressure is necessary to drive action.

4. He doesn’t have to ask for permission. Imagine if MacGyver had to stop with 15 seconds left on the bomb ticker to get clearance to use a set of pliers. Creating an enabling environment—tools on hand, creative 'places,' 'time' for creativity, diversity in thought—is what helps him get the job done.

There are a number of websites dedicated to debunking this TV character’s ingenuity, but he’s not entirely fiction. There are real-life MacGyvers throughout the developing world exhibiting the same resourcefulness and creativity, as well as entrepreneurship. This past November I bought a Rwandan-made LED lamp (pictured above) for 800 RWF (about $1.25 USD). It’s simple—some re-purposed wood, spent batteries from a radio, an LED, and some wire. There’s not even an on/ off switch, just exposed wires to complete the circuit.

This isn’t a solution that will produce IP, and yet it’s a prominent source of lighting in rural Rwanda, which makes up nearly 95 percent of the country’s population. It’s a great example of how creative individuals within the local context have 'MacGyvered' solutions to their needs.

Between 70-95 percent of the creative economy’s economic output in Africa comes from SMEs, the informal sector. They are local craftsman, operating under the radar, using their creative wits to survive. They are among the most resilient people on the planet.

In my previous career I was a product design consultant in Silicon Valley—the land of abundance. I worked on new technologies for American households, all for companies who wanted to build reputations for innovation. The irony is that I see more innovation, and less volatility, coming from what we call “the developing world” or the informal sector, where innovation is born every day from extreme constraints and necessity. (Just like in MacGyver).

In these places, the landscape is littered with broad meaty challenges like the lack of energy access, cross-cultural barriers, and the digital divide. They’re addressing these challenges in new ways and new models that are poised to leapfrog anything we can imagine in Silicon Valley. And I’m not alone in my thinking. This week at the World Economic Forum 2013 Annual Meeting in Davos, Muhtar Kent, the CEO of Coca-Cola, shared that Coke’s innovation, which he referred to as “frugal innovation” is coming from emerging markets.

With that in mind, how might business leaders leverage the global creative economy to enable the MacGyvers working within their company and perhaps to support economic development in new economies? If you can’t answer the question, you might find yourself struggling to catch up sooner than you think.

Image courtesy of Catapult Design.

Heather Fleming, CEO of Catapult Design, is a designer, engineer, and an entrepreneur motivated by social inequality.


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