I recently read a book called The Misfit Economy. The non-fiction book, by Alexa Clay and Kyra Maya Phillips, published by Simon & Schuster, looks at innovation from businesses on the fringes of society. I encountered this book on the way back from traveling to Dubai and London and was drawn immediately to its theme of innovation. Although the authors look at “out-of-the-box” innovators in the world’s black market and informal economies, it was a perfect read for me when I was feeling displaced by travel.
Clay and Phillips examine the commonalities among Amish camel milk traders, computer hackers, inner city gangsters and more under appreciated innovators and consider what they each have in common with the disrupters at GE or creative minds in Silicon Valley. You’d be surprised by what they discover, even though there is no LinkedIn network for the underground economy.
One example from the book follows an elite group of people connected with an underground collective called UX (urban experiment). The group comprises French men and women who have “above ground” duties of work and family that also work to restore the forgotten artifacts of French civilization. In one audacious move, they worked for over a year restoring a 19th century clock in the basement of the Pantheon — secretively. They smuggled tools, internet connections, and food through tunnel excavations — for over a year — all without being detected. For the book’s authors this example showed how informal networks and information sharing can accomplish innovative goals and objectives.
A “legal” example the authors share comes from innovative Amish camel milk traders who used relationship building across networks to address a Food & Drug Administration (FDA) restriction on the camel’s milk. Working collaboratively the Amish developed a network of associations to bring camel milk to California’s health-conscious consumers and have now successfully placed pasteurized camel milk on the shelves in 40 Whole Food stores.
What is exhilarating about this misfit economy is realizing that there are interesting problem-solvers and innovators in all walks of life. The more you look around, the more you will see “misfit innovation” and “informal entrepreneurs” everywhere.