Friday, November 30, 2012

Cultivating Egypt's Social Entrepreneurs

By Lynne Weiss

Ayman Ismail
When Professor Ayman Ismail went to visit his home in Egypt early in 2011, he had no idea he was walking into a revolution. Three weeks after he arrived, however, demonstrations began in Tahrir Square, and Ismail saw he had a positive role to play.

Ismail, who today holds the Abdul Latif Jameel Endowed Chair of Entrepreneurship at the American University in Cairo (AUC) School of Business, received both his Ph.D. in international economic development and his master's in city planning from MIT. Selected by the World Economic Forum as one of Egypt's two most influential and inspirational leaders of 2012, he discussed the prospects for social entrepreneurs in Egypt at an October 11 event co-sponsored by the MIT System Design and Management (SDM) Speakers Series and the MIT Egyptian Students Association.

He began his talk by describing the situation in Egypt when he arrived there some 20 months ago. On a macro level, Egypt's economy was strong—levels of foreign investment, economic growth, and foreign currency reserves were increasing. Domestically, however, there were problems. Poverty was at 42%. Poverty in Egypt means living on around $1.70 a day. The unemployment rate was high and labor unrest was increasing.

In the wake of the revolution, investments have slowed and foreign currency reserves have declined from $35 billion to $15 billion. Poverty and labor unrest are still widespread.

Ismail believes, however, that Egypt offers reasons for optimism. First, Egypt now has its first democratically elected civilian president in over 60 years. Second, it has a healthy middle class with significant disposable income and a desire to build a safe, stable society. And third, Egypt's burgeoning entrepreneurial activity gives Ismail further reason for optimism.

While small businesses such as corner groceries have long been the traditional backbone of Egypt's entrepreneurial economy, today Egypt has an increasing amount of contemporary innovation and is home to many of the same types of technology-based start-ups that one finds in Cambridge or Silicon Valley. One of the most exciting ventures is a business to develop solar-powered water pumps and desalination stations for Egypt's desert climate. Another uses patents on nanoparticles for diagnosing hepatitis C.

Ismail is co-founder of Nahdet El Mahrousa, a nongovernmental organization that provides incubation services and seed funding to young social entrepreneurs. He also leads the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program (EIP) at AUC. "That's my baby," he grinned, as he spoke enthusiastically about the huge network of mentors that EIP has created to strengthen the entrepreneurial ecosystem. "I hope to come back next year to tell you about our success."

Ismail ended his talk by offering a final reason for optimism. Egypt's network of 18 national and numerous private universities provides a solid foundation of technical education. Ismail said, however, that the country's most interesting entrepreneurs are not necessarily those with the best academic background, but those who bring something unique at this moment of massive political, economic, and social change: a mix of "business skills, street savvy, spirit, and tenacity." Revolutionary, indeed.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Elizabeth Cilley Southerlan, SDM '12: Complex Systems for Healthcare, WiSDM, and More

Elizabeth Cilley Southerlan
Photo by Kathy
Tarantola Photography
From military bases to Vermont farms, Elizabeth Cilley Southerlan, SDM '12, has followed her interest in complex systems. Now she's a fellow in MIT's System Design and Management (SDM) Program, where her interest has become a passion for improving complex health care systems and for helping to build strong communities within MIT and SDM.

Southerlan came to SDM from Accenture, where she was a management consultant with the firm's retail and health care practices. For the latter, she managed projects in health care analytics and clinical transformation.

In looking to build on her training in industrial engineering and experience in health care management consulting, Southerlan opted for SDM. She believed that SDM's MS in engineering and management, rather than an MBA, would enable her to increase her business acumen as well as her understanding of engineering principles. SDM also offered courses to help Southerlan gain a better appreciation of how organizations function and develop a multi-disciplinary perspective on factors affecting health care over the long-term.

Southerlan is currently conducting research under faculty from the MIT Engineering Systems Division's Sociotechnical Systems Research Center Specifically, she is applying systems thinking to the process of analyzing and mapping potential changes in the US Military Health System's (MHS) treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). By examining how PTSD is handled at different levels of the MHS, from a single unit or facility through entire service branches and military itself, she aims to map out a better understanding of how the military is currently addressing the problem, how it might improve care, and what steps it could take to achieve that.

Southerlan's research draws on a method known as Enterprise Architecting, that was discussed in an SDM course taught by Professors Deborah Nightingale and Donna Rhodes. The approach involves comparing behavioral health care systems at the scale of a particular Marine base, with those of the Navy, and of the MHS as a whole. Southerlan also broadened the comparison to include military health care internationally.

Each scale of system is analyzed through the "elemental lenses" of strategy, infrastructure, processes, products, services, knowledge, information and organization. In theory, grasping the interrelationships and interdependencies of the elements in these systems can produce better outcomes.

In a separate project at the Veteran's Administration hospital in Boston, Southerlan examined the hospital's use of data, from patient admissions to clinical outcome, identifying strategies for improving staff-wide access to data and better aligning decision-making with information flows.

Southerlan's work in health care management benefits from her training in industrial engineering and her lifelong appreciation of the medical profession (she grew up in a family of health care practitioners). She also pursued a concentration in life sciences as an undergraduate at Penn State.

"I have always been passionate about improving health care," she says. Her goal is ensuring that the organizational and administrative side of health care enhances, rather than hinders, delivery of care. For instance, while she sees the potential upside of the current push toward electronic health records, "it can be frustrating and sometimes seems ad hoc. It's a new language, which can be inefficient now, but has long-term potential," she says.

Southerlan, who holds a B.S. in industrial engineering, spent several weeks this past summer studying food production as part of a certificate program in sustainable food systems from the University of Vermont. While not directly tied to her health care management studies, the experience dovetailed with her interest in diet and exercise as preventive medicine, and added data to her expanding health care systems model.

In addition to her dedication to improving the delivery of health care, Southerlan also believes that a well-balanced life is essential to success. She has lived these words as the social chair and student life representative of her SDM '12 cohort, as well as the COO of Women in SDM (WiSDM) and director of logistics for the MIT 2012 Career Fair (school wide).

In her social and student life roles, Southerlan has worked to increase the professional and social relationships shared by her classmates and students outside of SDM. She worked with other WiSDM leaders and SDM staff to organize and present the first WiSDM Symposium, which took place during the annual SDM conference. The women worked together to bring in three accomplished female leaders across a wider variety of industries to discuss the application of systems thinking in their organizations.

Southerlan worked with the other career fair directors to organize and facilitate the largest and most well-attended career fair in MIT's history. While the event was school wide, Southerlan helped form a partnership between the annual career fair organizers and participants and SDM. This provided her classmates with opportunities to work side-by-side with industry representatives of their choice while also increasing SDM's industry relationships.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Eric von Hippel: user innovation and the revolution in consumer product design

By Eric Smalley

Eric von Hipp
Many people are product designers, even if they don't know it. In fact, millions of people have become innovators but are generally not recognized as such. They are the tinkerers who modify products to suit their needs, and they represent a paradigm shift in product design and development. SDM's Eric von Hippel is measuring this trend and developing strategies for businesses to adapt to the changing landscape.

Von Hippel, the T. Wilson (1953) Professor in Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management and Professor of Engineering Systems in the MIT Engineering Systems Division, studies the sources of innovation and develops new processes to improve product development.

He recently conducted a study of consumer product innovation in the US, the United Kingdom, and Japan, and found that innovation is as much the province of product users as it is product producers. "Data shows there's a huge amount of activity and it's invisible," said von Hippel. "People assume that the producers are the innovators so they don't measure user innovation at all."

Von Hippel and colleagues determined that consumers in each of the three countries spend billions of dollars on product innovation. They estimated that US consumers spend one third of the amount that businesses spend on consumer product research and development in the US. The researchers described the work in the paper "The Age of the Consumer-Innovator," published in the fall 2011 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review.

The innovation paradigm shift from producer-centered to user-centered is catching many businesses flat-footed, von Hippel said. "Some new companies are built around that concept," he said. But "many traditional companies still don't get it at all, so we're in a transition. To convince people that the world is different now is not an easy task."

The key is to help businesses tap into the wellspring of consumer innovation. "Many of the things that companies develop internally are already developed by user communities," he said. "If companies could simply get these lead users to work with them, they could do a much more successful job of innovation," he said.

To support user innovation, businesses need to organize product development systems to accept prototypes developed by users, said von Hippel. Businesses also need to create developers' toolkits and user forums, give credit to user innovators, and avoid the stifling effects of unfocused intellectual property protection strategies.

Von Hippel is writing a book that describes changes in innovation, including user innovation and crowdsourcing.

Von Hippel joined the MIT faculty in 1973. "My father was a professor here too, and I actually have been hanging around the place since I was 12 years old," he said.

One aspect of MIT that stands out is the faculty's high level of practical experience, which is particularly useful for teaching in the SDM program where most of the students are midcareer professionals, said von Hippel. Another aspect is the high degree of collaboration. "Professors are very accessible and there's no real sense of hierarchy," he said. "People are delighted to work with each other across levels."