Media innovation needs the freedom to fail …

Koos Bekker is the poster-child for South African innovation so its not surprising that expectations were high when the head of Naspers was scheduled to present the keynote address on “How do we innovate in the media?” at Highway Africa in Cape Town, South Africa, in September 2011.

Group Chief Executive Bekker was a founder of M-Net, Supersport, MTN, M-Web and several other media ventures. Naspers has investments operating in 129 countries, serving some 500 million customers with internet, TV and print media.

Bekker started by linking the sudden growth of the global economy to, among others, the invention of the Gutenberg Press in 1450. This invention – which happened around the same time as the Fall of Constantinople (1453) and Columbus’ explorations (1492) – led to an explosion of knowledge and its globalization.

Change has been dramatic. In reviewing the evolution of the media over the last century alone, Bekker shows a transition from single-colour newspapers, to radio, to television, to multichannel television to the internet with its social mediums.

“No medium has ever developed the following one,” he warns, and it is unlikely that the print media are going to invent their successor. Instead, it is likely that the new format will destroy the incumbent.

Bekker noted that media evolved very fast, without planning and led to the creative distribution of the old. Remember South Africa’s black and white “picture books”? They died within a year of television introducing the soap opera.

Will newspapers suffer the same fate?

Sadly, when Bekker reviews current innovators, they tend to be absent of women – instead they are young males, living in the West coast of America, Korea, Japan, China and Russia … Africa, like Europe, does not appear to have the conditions in which innovation thrives.

These conditions include the freedom to try and fail; good mathematics at school; good universities; hungry ambition and, computers & bandwidth aplenty.

“Invention is high risk,” he adds.

It is the nature of the beast that most innovations fail. In fact, “inventions” really come about with small, continuous improvements rather than a big bang discovery. If there is no appetite for failure then there is little opportunity to try out innovations which may or may not have an impact in the market.

“Take a concept that has worked elsewhere, copy it, take it in, take it forward…” he says. Be prepared to keep trying and keep changing.

It’s not surprising then that Thomas Edison once said:  “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

And once you have launched your innovation, the task starts again: “Keep reinventing yourself.”

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