Innovation — Right Where You Are

I recently highlighted my enterprising grandson, Liam, and his interest in inventing. We now have a box at our house that is filled with failed electronics and other interesting things that is set aside specifically for Liam. Sometimes he takes things apart (with permission) just to see how they are constructed. Other times he harvests pieces and parts for some other invention. I love watching him learn and invent, and I want to encourage it in any way possible.

It should be noted, Liam is an American boy with many advantages over millions of children around the world. His inventions are based on personal interest, not on a need to create a life-giving result that his family may depend on for survival. And yet, we often hear stories about children in far-off places with little to no resources coming up with amazing innovations that stun and delight. This was the case in a video my sister Linda recommended to me. The video highlights a boy named Kelvin Doe, a.k.a. DJ Focus, who lives in Sierra Leone and created a small but fully functioning broadcast radio station using just bits and pieces of electronics he found in the trash. Kelvin is only 15 years old, but his ingenuity and resourcefulness rival that of any college freshman.

In the video, Kelvin is invited to come and spend three weeks at MIT through an exchange program so he can learn and work on projects over the summer. He is stunned to see the level of equipment that is at his disposal, and he is introduced to concepts and engineering skills that would have been difficult for him to learn and practice back in Africa. David Sengeh, a Ph.D candidate at MIT, who is also from Sierra Leone, spearheads the exchange program. David wants to provide opportunities for people like Kelvin who show exceptional promise.

And that is how we will advance as a society. There will always be young inventors that have drive, inquisitiveness and a thirst for innovation in places where there are limited resources. But many of them will have phones and Internet, which will give them access to instructional information and YouTube videos. (And you can learn almost anything from a YouTube video nowadays.) But that will still only take them so far. Someone in a position to provide access to resources beyond the inventor’s reach, like David Sengeh, needs to step up and offer their help—this is the spark. And as a nation, as a society, as a world, we need a lot more spark creators. David not only gave Kelvin an amazing experience, but more importantly, he provided us with the model for an ongoing program that seeks out those with aptitude and provides an opportunity that encourages and expands their innovative drive.

Kelvin got a spark from David Sengeh. Look around at the resources you command and figure out how you can sponsor someone around the corner or around the world who has the fuel to innovate but just needs a spark.

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