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Don Quixote

Daring to innovate in the face of adversity

5th Mar 2019
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Crisis and chaos offer their own opportunities, writes AccountingWEB columnist Kevin Philips. Seizing the moment requires ingenuity and just a dab of bravery.

Coming to the BBC and Netflix later this year is the movie, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. It's the true story of William Kamkwamba, who, as a schoolboy in Malawi, saved his family from famine during a drought. He’d had to leave school because his family couldn't afford the fees, but he used library books and scrap metal to build a wind turbine, and later a water pump, to help his family and his village.

Truly a case of resilience in the face of adversity.

And this, I'd suggest, needs to be the UK’s mantra in the next few months and years. At the time of writing, it looks like a no-deal Brexit is potentially on the cards. But of course, the situation could still turn on a dime (or a five pence piece). Things are looking and feeling pretty bleak right now, and, understandably, the focus is currently on the negative. The companies moving out of the UK, the job losses, the shortages, the rising prices, and the very real impact on day-to-day lives of everyone, doom and gloom.

But unfortunately, it is what it is. But this doesn’t mean you have to passively accept things. So, once the emotions have run their course, it's what you do next that matters.

And the thing about a crisis is that it can go either way. It's a tipping point that doesn't necessarily have a foregone conclusion. And it's that resilience in the face of adversity that can change the rules and control the outcome.

In Cape Town last year, we faced a water crisis. At one point we were literally days away from a water Day Zero, i.e. actually running out of water! Horrifically, Cape Town would have been the first major city globally to have found itself in that situation.

Yet by pulling together and collectively taking action we managed to stave off Day Zero and are now in a better position than we were. For instance, as well as developing good water saving habits, we have now built the infrastructure, such as rain water tanks (to collect and recycle water) and boreholes, to provide a framework for future sustainability. This puts us in a much more resilient and self-reliant place, given the dire climate change forecasts.

The trick is to look for the opportunities amid the adversity. The makers of the big water tanks that you'll see catching rainwater all over Cape Town, and the rest of South Africa, saw their business grow by 500% to the end of 2016, which was before the drought really hit Cape Town hard. They already have operations in Zimbabwe and are expanding into other countries in Africa, as well as growing their business to include fish breeding tanks and some other innovations.

Likewise, the local borehole industry has been busy, creating jobs and also driving increased sustainability. Residential water purification technologies at affordable prices became a reality borne out of necessity to convert borehole and rain water into drinking water, giving birth to a new industry. In addition, South African researchers and academics have been making breakthroughs in desalination technology – something that will have global implications. So out of our local doom and gloom we identified new initiatives, grew existing industries, created new technologies and grew the local job market.

South Africa is a country perpetually in crisis, and, having got over the water shortage, for the time being, we now face an energy crisis, which will hopefully lead, again, to new innovation, increased self-reliance and less dependence on unsustainable power sources. Towards the end of last year, solar power initiatives were contributing R300bn (£16bn) towards the GDP of the country and accounted for 90,000 jobs -- and this is growing.

My examples have the benefit of hindsight but, whatever your views on Brexit, the same will prove true for the UK. Protesting and complaining is your constitutional right, but the true heroes of change, the people who will rise from the ashes, are those that focus on finding the shafts of light shining through the doom and gloom. So, look for the opportunities, and think entrepreneurially and creatively so that you can create your own tomorrows, today.

And as I said in my previous column on this topic, don't take all the responsibility for this on your own shoulders, speak to your people on the ground, you may be surprised where new ideas come from.

This entrepreneurial optimism and resilience could result in two happy outcomes. First, you may find that you are better off than when you started, and definitely in a better place than where you expected to be. Second, this initiation by fire will turn out to be a great boot camp for the skills we will all need to navigate the future: between digital disruption, climate change, and political upheaval, we'll all need that resilience in the face of adversity.

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