Blog Posts

The innovative gorilla

For reasons that I don’t entirely understand, I have had a lifelong passion for gorillas. These mammoth creatures, the largest primates, are at the same time majestic and intriguing, frightening yet adorable.

I suspect it’s their intriguing behaviours that most capture my attention. And not only my attention – researchers also find many of their behaviours captivating and illuminating.

For example, the use of twigs by some gorillas to fish for termites in termite mounds is considered to be a form of tool use, demonstrating their problem-solving skills and adaptability. Furthermore, the exhibiting of variety within tool use between different gorilla communities suggests the capacity for cultural transmission of behaviours and the capacity for shared learning.

Gorillas exhibit complex systems of gesture and expression. Researchers have identified over 20 different vocalizations and many more non-vocal gestures, allowing them to convey emotions and intentions. They also demonstrate signs of empathy and mourning. They have been observed comforting each other during times of distress and showing signs of grief when a member of the group dies. This emotional intelligence is indicative of a complex inner life.

And gorillas have proved themselves to be innovators through their nuanced ability to solve problems and overcome obstacles. Whether it’s figuring out how to reach food, navigate their environment, or interact with objects, gorillas display a high level of cognitive flexibility alongside their problem-solving skills.

I am writing this blog post from Kigali in the beautiful – and too oft maligned – country of Rwanda. It is a particularly special home to the gorilla, and they prove to be a major boost to the Rwandan tourist economy. I am here, however, not to engage my gorilla passion (sadly – next time maybe) but to attend Innovation Africa 2023, the Pan-Africa Ministerial Summit on innovation. It is an important event in which innovators, consultants and companies can collaborate with African ministries on their innovation agendas. I feel immensely privileged to be taking part.

Rwanda as a nation has an immense appetite and potent ambitions to be an African leader in innovation so it is fitting that the summit should be located here. Inevitably, and perhaps predictably, the confluence of Rwanda as home to the summit and to the gorilla has set my mind ranging and connecting.

I note that the sophisticated gorilla behaviours mentioned above which have long-intrigued researchers and fans alike, are the same behaviours which sustain and enhance innovation. Too often, when theorising about or planning innovation programmes, we focus unduly on methodical considerations. And, while such methodologies can be immensely helpful in shaping, testing and scaling our innovative endeavours (see, for example, my blog post on the Innovation Ecosystem), my experience is that it is the more fundamental human characteristics that spark, drive and nurture innovation. I like to refer to this as the innovation mindset about which I have written elsewhere in this blog. Efforts to stimulate innovation, be they in companies, organisations, or among nations, will not reach their fullest potential if the nurture of the innovation mindset is neglected.

I note, of course, that above I describe these enabling drivers sloppily as ‘human’ characteristics. Yet, we have just explored these same characteristics, albeit in nascent form, in gorillas. Clearly the extent and complexity of these innovation attributes differ in scale, but their parallels are interesting.

Perhaps I should have referred to ‘sentient creatures’ instead of ‘humans’. But that begs wholly different questions about sentience, intelligence, and artificial intelligence. Can an artificial intelligence be an innovator, I wonder? That’s a question for another day? For now, I’ll focus on innovation in Africa while I am inspired by the wonders of the innovative gorilla.

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