Deviant innovators … think like a pirate, hustle like a gangster, make it up like a hacker, create your alter ego

February 23, 2017

Who are the greatest innovators in the world? Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford. The usual suspects.

There is a myth that innovation comes only from people who are genetically endowed with the ability to innovate. It’s always the lone innovator, sitting in a white lab coat who suddenly gets struck with one great idea.

This myth has been dispelled by the likes of Steven Johnson in Where Good Ideas Come From (see video clip below!) and Kevin Kelly in What Technology Wants, yet most still believe the engine of the economy is fueled by innovators working in the formal world and on the pages of the Harvard Business Review.

I just finished reading “The Misfit Economy” which argues that lessons in creativity, innovation, salesmanship, and entrepreneurship can come from surprising places: pirates, bootleggers, counterfeiters, hustlers, and others living and working on the margins of business and society.

It’s about people you’ve never heard of. It’s about people who are just as innovative, entrepreneurial, and visionary as the Jobses, Edisons, and Fords of the world, except they’re not in Silicon Valley. They’re in the crowded streets of Shenzhen, the prisons of Somalia, the flooded coastal towns of Thailand. They are pirates, computer hackers, pranksters, and former gang leaders.

Across the globe, diverse innovators operating in the black, grey, and informal economies are developing solutions to a myriad of challenges. Far from being “deviant entrepreneurs” that pose threats to our social and economic stability, these innovators display remarkable ingenuity, pioneering original methods and practices that we can learn from and apply to move formal markets.

National Geographic created a series of short films, called Underworld Inc., which was inspired by The Misfit Economy. Watch all episodes online here.

The Misfit Economy’s authors Alexa Clay and and Kyra Maya Phillips, have pulled together a series of archetypes that illustrate the diversity of those who make up the Misfit Economy:

1: The Gangster

Motivated, loyal, seeks a sense of belonging and shows a willingness to take risks. Most often found in the black market. Has a tendency towards territorial behavior and likes to protect “turf.” Operates within hierarchical structures.

2: The Hacker

Anti-establishment, educated, skilled, and experimental. Pursues reputation through risk-taking. Most often found online. Holds values of openness and anarchy.

3: The Unseen

Resourceful, motivated by frugality and a concern for livelihood. Often found within gray markets and the informal economy; dependent on social capital and community for survival.

4: The Copycat

Fiercely independent and competitive. Feels a sense of entitlement to imitate and appropriate. Operates within shadow or “copycat” markets.

5: The Agitator

Inquisitive, mission-driven, primarily motivated by the need to influence and alter. Displays tremendous ability to mobilize populations. Likely found in antagonism with an existing political structure.

6: The Zealot

Charismatic, visionary, pursues truth and stability. Feels most comfortable when in control. Operates largely in hierarchical structures. Perceives only one reality, and has a tendency toward closed-mindedness and orthodoxy.

7: The Provocateur

True individuals motivated by the need for attention; operate in peer-based networks and found mostly in niches bordering on artistic or urban culture. Have a tremendous capacity to shock and provoke.


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