Clay Christensen: Disruption and Innovation Can Solve Global Poverty

Disrupt. Innovate. If these words echo through your head like a familiar TV show theme song, you’ve been influenced – whether you know it or not – by Clayton Christensen. A Harvard professor, businessman, and guru of disruptive innovation, Christensen has altered our vocabulary, inspired a generation of startup entrepreneurs, and made a bundle on the speaking circuit at $100,000 a talk.

He’s the Marshall McLuhan of our time.

Now, with The Prosperity Paradox: How Innovation Can Lift Nations Out of Poverty, Christensen, with two co-authors, strays from his familiar turf of big-business strategy and seeks to save the world. His bottom-up philosophy and contrarianism are a sharp and welcome contrast to much of the prevailing wisdom on alleviating global poverty.

You might think that, by now, the desirability of disruption and the mandate to innovate would be played out as intellectual themes. In one sense, they are: Everybody knows about them, and another book on these topics seems superfluous. But, by explicitly extending these concepts to fulfilling the needs of the global poor, Christensen, Efosa Ojomo, and Karen Dillon break new ground. The Prosperity Paradox is well worth reading.

Left to right: Karen Dillon, Clay Christensen, Efosa Ojomo Source

The poor are still with us

Despite the amazing and well-advertised progress the world has made in reducing poverty – with half the world’s population now said to be middle class or better, and less than one-tenth in extreme poverty – Christensen et al. remind us that “suffering [is] a part of daily life” for billions, not just the poorest of the poor. Sub-Saharan Africa, except for the southernmost region,1 declined in prosperity from the mid-1960s to the present – when many other regions have made rapid advances.

In fact, most of the release from poverty has taken place in East and South Asia, while the growth in much of the rest of the developing world has ranged from pretty good (Chile, Poland, Turkey) to downright awful (we’ll get to those). An extreme case is Venezuela, which, as recently as 1957, was the world’s third richest country – after Switzerland and the United States – and is now starving.