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Winch 5

How do you ask the innovation question?

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Casablanca -- Lean, sporting a light beard, Adnane Charafeddine has the intense look of someone with a vision. And yet, when he shows me his method of innovating, I'm surprised – his art is copying. That's how he created (What a Car), a social site bringing together car buyers and sellers. Buyers can find info on cars that are available, read about the race car they dream of buying, and how to maintain the car they can actually afford.

Quelle Voiture
"We simply and viciously copy things people are doing in other places," he explains – in this case, that means copying several automobile magazines and other specialized sites. "What find what works best. We copy it and then we watch. That's my method." I write about this in more detail in an article comparing his method with that of two other Casa entreprneurs, published Friday in Le Monde's Science&Techno supplement (Article in French; subscription required). It makes you think.

Having set off on a world tour of innovation, I realized during the second stage that I've been asking the wrong question. And I'm trying to figure out how to correct this.

After spending 15 years in the San Francisco region, the idea that innovation means creating something that didn't exist before had become ingrained. I was wrong. This false ideal stays with you, as Mohamed Oumazir, who helped me meet Adnane and the others, reminded me with a friendly smile.

Didn't the great Steve Jobs first see the mouse and graphics interface at the Xerox Parc labs?

Combining these, the Mac changed personal computing. The innovation was in the packaging and marketing. All markets are by definition relative. In fact, even if they're often less provocative than Adnane, the people I meet seem to be on the same wavelength, with variations that I will have to learn how to interpret.

This is the case, for example, with Carla Gómez Monroy, a former student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab. In Mexico, she told me that, even if her country lacked audacious capital (my term) and the incentive to innovate, she was fascinated by the hacking people are doing there, creating solutions "that are nothing extraordinary, but solve concrete problems."

Copying and modifying and modifying through combination might not be that different. According to Wikipedia, the term comes from the Latin "innovatus," to renew or change.

This gives us at least two possibilities: innovation means bringing to the market something that didn't exist before. It also means finding new ways to solve problems in an established space.

So we get to the fact that San Francisco innovates for its geek population is able to spread variations on products and services across multiple markets. But Casablanca, Nairobi, Mumbai and Shenzhen don't innovate any less, but do so for their own increasingly connected multitudes. Maybe I'm wrong. Tell us.

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