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Reinvent A Better World: A Series

August 05, 2013

Welcome to August, the dog days, the month when life slows down and there’s time to think about the things that really matter. In terms of my work at the Gates Foundation, I can get back to first principles: Why do we do this work, and how can we be most effective?

That’s why we’re running a feature called “Reinvent A Better World” on our social channels throughout August. We believe the world changes when the boldest thinking is directed at the toughest problems. It’s what we are all about, so we will run a series of pieces about reinvention in several core areas of our work.

Reinvention requires innovation, and innovation is one of those words that can mean so many things that it almost means nothing. But it is such an important concept that it’s worth trying to reclaim.

 We believe the world changes when the boldest thinking is directed at the toughest problems.

When Bill and I were working at Microsoft, innovation was everything. At computer software companies, brilliant people were making stunning breakthroughs every single day. The ideas kept getting bigger and bigger, while the devices kept getting smaller and smaller. The level of creativity and energy in our world was astounding.

But when we started getting interested in philanthropy in the mid-1990s, we realized that the same creativity and energy weren’t being tapped to save people’s lives. The way the market worked, there just weren’t enough incentives to get the leading innovators in the world to focus on the problems of the poorest people.

That helped to explain why there were so many gaps—like the fact that the diagnosis for tuberculosis was inaccurate and slow, yet the world hadn’t come up with a new TB diagnostic for more than a century. Or the fact that American high schools still teach children according to a model that predates the computer.

Sometimes innovation involves technology, as it did when we were at Microsoft. In the area of contraceptives—which we’ll be focusing on the first week of our Reinvent series—we must invent new products that work in different ways and have fewer side effects so that all women can get what they need.

However, just as often, innovation simply requires thinking in new ways about the barriers that prevent progress. For example, we’re now working with men in poor communities to explain the importance of family planning, because often it is their opposition that prevents their wives from using contraceptives even though they want to.

This is the key to reinvention. It is not a single solution. It is a process. It is a frame of mind, a way of constantly looking at problems from new angles so that you can see more and more powerful solutions, try them out, and keep improving on them.

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