Defend Truth


You can’t get around it – innovation costs

Andrew Miller is a poet and freelance writer. He is also a founder of Unity Design, a socially orientated arts space operating in Newtown, Johannesburg.

South Africa has masses of innovation potential. The problem is that the money and the imagination lie in completely different places – and, it seems, never the twain shall meet.

There is a big difference between corporate innovation – where a new water bottle graces every seat at the table – and real world innovation, where the guy at Park Station will sell you a pre-RICA’d R5 sim card for twenty bucks.  

As per the Park Station example, there is obviously innovation at all levels of South African society. But it remains a frustrating question as to why so few of our sparks result in clear socio-economic improvements. Despite the energy and intent of our general youth, for example, Sasolburg is currently being looted by youngsters, many of whom are justifiably angry at the fact that they and their families still shit into buckets.

Socially meaningful innovation costs money. If you ain’t got none, and if you can’t find anyone to give you any, even the most profound ideas will quickly wither and die. If we want results, someone must pick up the tab. And, unfortunately for government officials and corporate CSI managers, the cost components are evenly split between man hours and hard cash. Writing cheques from behind the oak desk won’t do it. Someone has to get out there, into our communities, and push.  

In the Jozi street arts scene, innovation is everywhere. This is often what it looks like:

Photo: Sekshin 7 Fashion Show at Katlehong Community Centre

This was a fashion event at the Katlehong community centre. Our organisation helped a young fashion collective known as Sekshin 7 put it on about six years ago. From this angle, the event looks like a failure. The mythology of innovation is such that we are easily misled in this conclusion by a single photograph. We don’t see throngs of young fashionistas clutching drinks in the shot, and this is the primary killer. Numbers are crucial for brands who sponsor ‘innovation’ (where the key sponsorship criteria often seems to be the use of the word innovation in the verbiage, and or enough photos of a lot of people in a small space looking creative) and very often also for government funders who need to justify their spend to higher powers. Numbers in the picture = success.

For me, this shot actually represents the first cycle of the implementation any idea.

Firstly, point of view is always decisive. The chairs in the shot are empty because it was a freezing day and the sun was on the other side of the makeshift ramp. Shot from another angle, the event looks much fuller, and therefore much more successful. Also, we managed to get a few grand for a graffiti board and paint from a sponsor. That’s a success. A few mlungus and city types actually ventured into the ghetto for once. Another win. A complete fashion show was held in an area that seldom sees such things. It was fully organised and managed (from the event itself to the sewing of the clothes) by a local youth collective. This is an achievement. Yes there were many issues, as there always are with the first attempt to execute a new idea, but if this group of youngsters were backed by budget and a project manager who forced them to analyse and repeat their process several times, they could have emerged with a viable arts brand / franchise repeatable in other areas. But of course no such budget or support exists for youngsters like this in the arts. In the corporate world, budget supports a defined innovation ‘try and revise’ cycle. In the world of street art, the artists themselves must bear the cost of this cycle, and thus the first try generally wipes the whole thing out.

In the USA they moan repeatedly about organisations such as Standford University and its venture capitalist proximity to Silicon Valley and the world of business. In that part of the planet professors share risk with students, and universities like Stanford are explicitly structured to facilitate investment in start-ups. In companies like Google. Now this may seem a little ominous to the yanks, but the ‘shared investment and risk’ innovation model could surely do wonders in South Africa, where 90% of innovation effort dribbles away at the first attempt because we can’t, or won’t, fund and support the project over the long term (such is our obsession with achieving and communicating instant glory and vast numbers). Any experienced entrepreneur will tell you innovation is a messy, painful business. One that requires an enormous appetite for failure. We don’t appear to have that appetite.

Another example. 

At Unity we offered free business services to artists for many years – about 30% of our business involved the delivery of such services for a six- or seven-year period. We managed to sustain this as long as we were operating from the fringes of the infrequently visited inner city. But once we’d moved our offices to Newtown, the number young artists coming through our doors pushed our pro bono percentage up to over 60%. We delivered on the pro bono, but it killed our business.

On the way to our death, we came up with an idea which we thought could work. 

We provided communications services to artists at corporate rates. We signed a contract with the artist, whether it was for a web site or PR services, or help with residency applications and other communications needs, or all of the above. The artist then paid the cost of the contract with their art (shown below). As their profile rose (let’s say, for example, we managed to help an artist get signed to a major gallery) the market value of the work shot up and our asset appreciated significantly. We would then be able to cash out by selling the work to corporates, government agencies, arts investors and the like – the entities who say they support innovation.

And it worked. Well, most of it, anyway. We concluded several projects with artists, some of whom were already high profile, others of whom we’ve helped rise to partially known status, and others who’ve successfully beaten down the door to the big time. They paid us with their art, much of which has risen dramatically in value over a short time period.

But we can’t sell the art.

Throughout our ten years we’ve been a small city art gallery. We never operated in the MOMO, Everard Read, Stevenson, Goodman ball park. Even though a considerable portion of the art in our collection is created by artists working in this sphere, that still doesn’t mean many buyers will give us a cheque for it. What we hadn’t quite figured on is that much of the time big buyers are buying the art and the experience of buying expensive art at a larney gallery. We were only offering half the required package. 

Photo: Running through the street and all I hear is the same talk by Nelson Makamo

Similarly, corporate art purchases in this realm (which must at some stage be justified to the board, and other stakeholders) don’t just happen. Perceptions of value and innovation support must be reinforced by affirmations from an industry expert (friend, relation, professor, consultant, member of BASA etc.) if there is to be any chance of pushing the whale through the cash register, so to speak. In slumping economic times, getting the corporate to give you a cheque for a R50,000 piece of art is a tricky business. You can sell them interiors type art at moderate rates without a problem, but the larger sales are a completely different exercise.

Photo: Uit vind by Lehlohonolo Dhlamini

The lesson: we had ignored the centrality of communications and marketing to our model. To achieve success we would have had to go back to the drawing board and create a full communications and sales campaign. We didn’t have the money or the manpower or the energy for that.

Still, it was a nice try. If we could have sold the art we would have created a weirdly fantastic self-sustaining business model. As it ended up, we own a stack of great work that is worth a lot now, and that stands to be worth a great deal in a decade or two. We may well still cash out when we’re old.     

It’s been very interesting to be so close, and yet so far, to something that approximates the innovation verbiage we all sling around, and to watch the various ways in which people engage, or not, with the concept. Some are dismissive. Some love the story, but don’t have the money. Most cruise the gallery nodding quietly. It’s hard to tell what they think.

In darker moments it’s enough to create extreme cynicism. But really this is unfounded, and only lasts as long as a guttural chuckle. We all know how business and art works, and we’ve always known, and the art business has never been any other way. Indeed, part of the joy of working on the young, emerging side of the arts scene is spotting talent you know will fly, and then watching it gain wings in the mercurial cross winds of fashion, PR and fate.

Photo: Culture Clash by Bevan de Wet

Nonetheless, having spent the better part of a decade working in the raw, first phase cycle of arts innovation, I can’t help but wonder what could be achieved if we could bring elements of the formal corporate innovation process down to street level. I also wonder how much we are losing because there is no Stanford equivalent in our country. How much could we gain in the township areas that are currently boiling with rebellion if we applied the corporate process and budget and capacity-to-cycle-through-failure to what our youth are trying to do?

Ah, the dreams, the dreams. We are many miles from this kind of life, principally, I believe, because of our obsession with macro policy and our terror of actually getting stuck into the micro reality of life – which is, in general, littered with frustration and failure.

In theory we support young artists, but in practice the funding can only be accessed by specialists and/or those with golden connections. Wouldn’t it be powerful if our government and private arts funders were on the street, supporting people and projects that deserve support, rather than waiting for 30-page applications? In theory we support entrepreneurial endeavour, but in practice our young business people and social entrepreneurs take the risk all by themselves – and that risk is considerable. It’s financial. It’s emotional. It’s personal. Wouldn’t it be significant if our funders took shares, and shared risks?

Corporate innovation can draw viable blood from the stone cold environment of the boardroom table because there is budget, and intent, and process. On the street, there are profound flickers of innovation everywhere, but they rise and fall like the weak little candles they are. In Katlehong, in New Brighton, in KwaMashu, in the deathly quiet rural corners of our country, innovation investment is desperately needed. Money, yes. But also the human commitment to use budget to explore failure – repeatedly – until the successes can be identified, isolated and grown. DM


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