Sarah’s Diary Episode Fourteen

Up to this point in the semester, Jenny had focused on innovation that addressed a recognized problem. The innovators she most admired were visionaries who developed innovations for problems that others didn’t see.

“I want to begin class today with one of my favorite quotes: ‘Some people see things as they are and ask why. Others dream things that never were and ask why not.’  That’s a quote from George Bernard Shaw, and it’s the theme of this class. Let me share a story of an innovator who saw an issue that had gone unnoticed.”

Henry Dunant grew up in a family known for its civically-minded humanitarian work in Geneva, Switzerland. His father worked to improve the lives of orphans and ex-prisoners. His mother worked with those dealing with illness and poverty. This family focus on social activism would have an impact on Henry.

Henry was an indifferent student and withdrew from his college studies, deciding instead to become an entrepreneur. He acquired the rights to a large tract of land in French-occupied Algeria, intending to use the land to start an agribusiness. However, the water rights were unclear and he got little help from the French colonial authorities to resolve them. He decided to appeal directly to Napoleon III, then Emperor of France. Henry traveled to the city of Solferino in present-day Italy, where Napoleon was engaged in a regional conflict.

Henry arrived in Solferino after a fierce battle had been fought. There were 23,000 soldiers lying on the battlefield, many severely wounded. There were no efforts being made to care for them. Henry organized the citizens of Solferino to help tend to the fallen, without regard to which side the soldiers had served. He paid for needed medical supplies from his own money.

Henry was shaken by his experiences in Solferino and wrote a book about what he saw, with recommendations for treating the wounded in battle. Henry and four other prominent men met in Geneva to discuss the implementation of his recommendations. Their first meeting in February 1863 is now considered the date of the founding of the International Red Cross. A year later, 12 countries met to agree to principles regarding the treatment of the wounded and captured in battle.

This agreement is known today as the First Geneva Convention. It remains a generally accepted approach for humane treatment of those wounded or captured in battle.

When Henry died, according to his wishes, there was no formal ceremony. He was buried in a pauper’s grave. The money given to him from the awards he received was left to humanitarian causes.

Just imagine how many injured people have been rescued from battlefields around the world due to Henry’s innovative work. Think of the norms for neutral humanitarian aid that he helped establish. Just imagine what one person could do to bring some form of humanity to unfortunate conflicts.

Jenny asked the class what made Henry Dunant’s innovation so special. The class was quick to realize that he had a vision to develop an innovation that had gone unseen for ages. She then commented, “When you look at the traits of visionaries using internet searches, you will find a list of traits from those that doesn’t really look that different from that of leaders, entrepreneurs, and others.”

“The reality is that visionaries are aware that our thinking is limited by what we already know. Our voice of judgment tends to limit our thinking because we are fearful of pointing out ideas for problems that others don’t see. Visionary innovators are able to stop their conventional ways of thinking and perceiving to think of things that might be.”

“Tomorrow I’ll be reading a diary entry from one of the Malcomb children that had a visionary innovative idea 130 years ago that has become more and more important to us today.”

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“The visionary starts with a clean sheet of paper and reimagines the world.” – Malcom Gladwell

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