What do Somali pirates, Latino gang members and French computer hackers all have in common? According to Alexa Clay and Kyra Maya Phillips, authors of The Misfit Economy, they can all teach us a thing or two about business and innovation.
Clay and Phillips argue that hackers, pirates, drug dealers and inner city gangs are natural-born-innovators with more in common with Silicon Valley entrepreneurs than we like to imagine. Their book The Misfit Economy, published last month by Simon & Schuster and already rated as a top business book by The Telegraph, investigates the darker side of innovation. Who are these unknown visionaries? How do they work? How do they organize themselves? How do they catalyze innovation? And ultimately, how can we take these lessons into our own world?
The misfit revolution
The philosophy behind The Misfit Revolution is based on creating bridges between informal and mainstream economies. It’s about questioning our moral frame of good and evil and learning what we can from “Disruptive and underground approaches to innovation”. Changing the industrial systems and mental models that we’ve come to inherit, the command and control systems that have helped to shape the industries that we’re innovating in, and exploring a future based on a different kind of economic culture. A culture that’s built on principles of informality, alternative models of governance and greater participation.
It’s about building a world where conventions are constantly questioned: where innovators who posses different hacks are not just accepted, but also celebrated. Where a business is no longer just about conforming to a job description but about unlocking the entrepreneurial and positive deviance of employees, and innovation isn’t focused on the latest gadgets but rather on addressing our deepest needs as a global community. A place where criminals are no longer burdens to society, instead their expertise is valued and repurposed for society’s benefit. Where students no longer work to fit themselves into educational environments to “consume” knowledge, but rather direct their own studies to develop their passions and knowledge in collaboration with others.
We have already witnessed many of these organising models on a global scale with various social movements and activist collectives such as Occupy, Anonymous and La Barbe which allow individuals to function in alternate cultures with more decentralization and collective ownership. But the movement doesn’t stop there…
Who are the misfits?
Throughout The Misfit Economy, readers are lavished with many well-drawn and interesting examples of innovators beyond the mainstream, proving that the spirit of entrepreneurialism can be found everywhere, even in the most unexpected of places:
- Misfits in Consumerism: A Saudi entrepreneur, after realising there was a potential yet risky gap in the market, followed his convictions and worked together with Amish camel farmers in order to sell their milk to USA supermarkets.
- Misfits in the Arts: The UX, a clandestine group of French art hackers, broke into the Panthéon in Paris to restore a neglected 19th-century clock.
- Misfits in the Pharmaceutical Industry: Scientists in India, dubbed the “Robin Hoods of the pharma world”, have reverse-engineered a great number of pharmaceutical drugs, delivering them to the poor at much more affordable prices, monopolising the market and forcing western pharmaceuticals to compete by developing more tiered pricing models.
- Fortune 500 Misfits: The League of Intrapreneurs, co-founded by Clay and supported by Richard Branson, brings together intrapreneurial misfits from across Fortune 500 companies with the aim to build entrepreneurial capacity inside large companies by supporting misfit ideas that generate value for both business and society.
- Misfits in Education: Described as the “anti TED”, Wisdom Hackers is a group of emerging thinkers coming together to build a community for peer-to-peer philosophy. The group’s aim is to build an informal collective to enable individuals to carve out space to wrestle with life’s burning questions.
- Misfits in Biotechnology: A biohacker space in Paris known as La Paillasse offers a community-based public laboratory for citizens to try their hand at biology and biotechnology.
- Party Misfits: Organised events such as Burning Man, the iconic community-centred festival, and Morning Glory who organise early morning parties to “rave your way into the day”, provide an escape from self-consciousness, a sense of unity, connection and spontaneity, and the full experience of the senses.
- The Rise of the Freelance Worker: The growing number of freelancers in the modern world is making hustlers and entrepreneurs out of a new creative class.
- Even Nasa is getting involved!
Just imagine what the world would look like if we all refocused on building collective peer to peer organisations instead of restructuring formal ones…
Why we need misfits
Misfits are those who go against the status quo. They can be in the black markets or be disruptors within an institution, but often they are the ones pushing the boundaries. Society should value misfits. Recognise gang leaders as having the equivalent skills to corporate CEOs and see how they can be redeployed in the workplace. Or see Nigerian spammers as competent IT professionals, if that’s not pushing it too far.
Most breakthrough innovation isn’t created by drones embracing ‘business as usual’, but by renegades who shake up systems. When Sean Parker founded Napster he transformed the music industry and paved the way for things like Spotify and iTunes. And believe it or not, much of the great video streaming technology that we all benefit from today was incubated in the porn industry!
Old-school pirates left their work aboard merchant vessels because they found commercial ships too dehumanising. And that’s what many misfits are doing today. They are living experimental lives that can help us develop alternatives to the stale version of capitalism we find ourselves trapped in. That includes squatters, activists working to transform our financial system, urban prototypers and underground hacker collectives working to make cities more livable – people that aren’t afraid to act first and apologise later.
Unleashing your inner misfit: hustle, copy, hack, provoke pivot
The book’s principal contention is that “the free market economy does not possess a monopoly on innovation”. They suggest five key principles to help discover your “inner misfit”: hustling (“spotting an idea and going for it”); copying (described as “collective innovation”); hacking (taking on the establishment and getting “to know a system intimately in order to more effectively take it apart”); provoking (sparking dialogue); and pivoting (enacting “dramatic change in the course of one’s life to pursue greater fulfilment and inspiration”).
Being a misfit means having the courage to pursue a new path, even in the face of self doubt, pressure from society, resistance within an organisation, or community opposition. It entails a willingness to completely transform one’s sense of self by stepping into the unknown, despite being uncertain. Like Alice’s journey into Wonderland or Dorothy’s trip down the yellow brick road, being a misfit can mean heading out on an unknown adventure, not expecting a perfect destination.
We are the misfits
The Misfit Economy explores stories of incredible human resilience, self-sufficiency and teeming innovation. It argues that lessons in creativity, innovation, salesmanship, and entrepreneurship can come from surprising places, but if we want to tap the power of misfits, our formal institutions have to start becoming better hosts.
We need to rethink how we organise ourselves outside of traditional hierarchies of organisation. Instead of developing participatory government structures, we should be fostering a culture of fraternity and collaboration. Rather than fighting to conserve out-dated industries, we should be harnessing their power and strength and rechanneling it into something new.
Now is the time to focus on the informal actors: the grassroots organisations and black market innovators largely unnoticed and unaccounted for in our economy. The hackers, protesters and con artists. As Steve Jobs famously quoted: “It’s better to be a pirate than to join the navy.”