News & Views

Emerging Innovation: How Cuba’s Creative Voices are Conquering Constraints

by Nick Parish

Next time you start complaining about an app update taking 'forever' to download, consider this: in Cuba, smartphone users who want to update their Conoce Cuba app – an entertainment guide featuring restaurant reviews, nightlife listings and more – need to take their jailbroken device to a neighborhood phone shop and manually update the app in person. Call it offline connectivity: visiting a physical location to tap into a network of information and entertainment, without ever touching an internet connection.

In a country lacking a broadband network, this type of people- and location-based network has become common. Many Cubans own smartphones…but don't have data plans. Instead of using their phones to go online, they tap into peer networks to get access to news, entertainment, and cultural effects from both within and outside the country. Take, for example, 'El paquete semanal' (the weekly packet), a collection of about a terabyte of TV shows, movies, music, and news, from just-released Hollywood blockbusters to the last week’s episodes of soap operas from the South Pacific. Want to get access to the paquete? Tap into a sophisticated yet simplistic network: find someone with the packet and pay them around $2, based on how much material you transfer. You're now the proud owner of this week's entertainment bundle, complete with classified ads and even video advertisements for local businesses, crafted by a production house that specialises in the form.

This is the ecosystem Contagious’ found itself in last month in Havana, Cuba, while helping to facilitate the inaugural Incúbate workshop, together with Uncorked Studios and The Flow Collective through the Aspen Institute’s Global Alliances programme and the Richardson Center.

Imagine running an innovation workshop in a foreign country, with an unknown group of participants. Imagine that country has dial-up internet in fewer than 10% of homes. Imagine that, until recently, very few citizens have had access to any version of the modern internet.

Now imagine that fifteen minutes into the welcome lunch, participants are sharing the apps they’ve created and the data analysis they’re running, and describing a sophisticated culture of staying connected despite daunting obstacles. Innovation thrives in the face of constraints, and Cuba has more than its fair share.

You've just imagined Incúbate.

Contagious Insider has been active in spreading innovation and design thinking around Latin America through our guiding lens: inspiring and equipping companies across the globe to achieve the top 1% of creative ideas. This time, we joined forces with a group of creators who had more constraints and barriers than any we’d worked with before: a group of Cuban computer scientists, web developers, lawyers and sole-proprietors who made up the inaugural Incúbate workgroup.

Together with a team of American technologists, entrepreneurs and designers, we spent two days building empathy, swapping problems, sharing knowledge and establishing the foundations of a community using simple workshopping tools and design thinking principles. The purpose of our mission was to connect, collaborate and share insights together with entrepreneurs in the technology, hospitality and sustainability sectors.

The Incúbate workshop was held at a piano bar across from the American Embassy, where diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba were re-established this summer. It’s unclear whether the diplomats made anything of the proliferation of Post-Its on the bar windows.


Those two days of open conversation and concept-generation allowed us to understand the challenges and success stories of the Cuban entrepreneurial class, and to think about how we might be able to help them along the journey as their country comes online. We’re headed back in April for our second meeting, but here’s what we learned during our initial time together:

There’s no communist MBA

It’s terribly obvious, but it’s something that took our delegation of mostly-American entrepreneurs a few days to fully grasp: the mechanisms of a state-controlled economy don’t have much use for the sort of thinking we tend to take for granted in higher business education. We encountered a sophisticated education system that supplied mostly, on the business side, economists and accountants, and, given its gradual steps away from full state control, gaps in people’s skill sets appeared.

So sharing things like strategic frameworks, concepts around metrics and advertising views to monetise activity became useful. And, as crazy as it sounds, light bulbs went off around a table when one member of the group sketched out an org chart and described how it could work to portion off specific areas of a business.

An important sidebar: There are two types of for-profit bodies in Cuba, other than the state. ‘Cuentapropistas’ are essentially sole-proprietors, the closest analog to entrepreneurs. And ‘cooperativas’ are age-old cooperatives, where all members are equal, all vote on leadership and functions and all share in the outcome. But there’s little else in the way of businesses. And a for-profit corporation, where one can contribute capital and receive profits in return, doesn’t quite exist, save high-level infrastructural tie-ups with the state. So as the Cuban government gradually allows certain groups of state employees to ‘induce’ their own cooperative and take control of their profits (rather than give them to the state) and allows other groups of cuentapropistas to band together to form a coop, the sort of higher-level management elements around negotiating with suppliers and managing a workforce are becoming increasingly necessary.


All Cubans are designers

Very early on the second day, when we were working together to think about how our group might concoct ongoing meetings, one member, a self-described pedagogue who helps lead Cuba’s school of design, said, ‘Of course all Cubans are designers. Take for example my car: it’s an old Peugeot from France with transplants, an engine from Russia, a German carburetor and a steering system from Italy. To live here, one has to be a designer.’

The most striking feeling a first-time visitor to Cuba will inevitably come away with is the sense of dilapidation; the slow, relentless march of sun and salty sea air have taxed the infrastructure, which is perpetually short on materials. While we were traveling in the finest fetter, we were never stymied by things that flat-out didn’t *work*. Things functioned, a little slowly, and with a little more instability, but they worked.

The careworn materials are indicative of being forced to operate in a state of lacking, yes, but tell of a broader principle: solidarity.

For instance, two participants in the workshop were restaurateurs who were new to the pursuit and have their own ‘paladar’, essentially a restaurant they operate in their home. A group of sole-proprietors, waiters, dishwashers, cooks, et al. make up their workforce. But acquiring the supplies to run a restaurant without a Costco or other cash-and-carry restaurant supply wholesaler takes a tremendous amount of energy. Three individuals work independently over the whole day to gather ingredients so that the restaurant can open each evening.

The principle of solidarity  –  banding together with any fellow citizen, even a stranger, to overcome an obstacle  – is so ingrained in Cuban society that all the moving pieces, the handshake deals, the multiple rendezvous that need to take place, the sister’s cousin’s friend who’ll eventually meet to make the connection, all just work out, eventually, because a commitment or a promise is honoured.


Parallel thinking isn’t copying

For the last year Contagious has worked with the Inter-American Development Bank to bring a broader concept of brand to the dozens pan-Latin pro-social startups that have been part of its series of Demand Solutions events. This past September, Oincs, a transportation startup from Uruguay, was awarded Most Innovative Concept among the latest class.

Oincs is unique in that it brings a very Latin flavour to mapping and GPS. It allows users to report protests and dangerous roads (that contain potholes, or are too dark) and crowdsources that data to help commuters get home quicker and in one piece. One could argue that Oincs is building a Uruguayan version of Waze, given that Waze could eventually just add a pothole reporting feature, or import protest data from some other source. But that would belittle the specificity of Oincs’ mission, and its potential brand alignment around safe driving as opposed to smart or fast driving.

Similarly, some Cuban cuentapropistas were working in territories already well-trodden by American startups: restaurant reviews, real estate mapping, classified advertising, business services. Does that mean they’ve somehow copied others? No; those problems exist to be solved everywhere, out of sheer necessity, but the solution will never be entirely the same in each place. Do they run the risk of Yelp, Zillow and Craigslist arriving and making them irrelevant? Certainly. But the local insight and knowledge is a strong head start, and whether that ‘home team’ edge can defend against a more sophisticated service or better-designed user experience is the truest test of a business.


Habaneros gather at one of the city’s new WiFi zones. Web access is pricey by the official standards of the average wage  –  one hour is about a tenth of average monthly income.


Empathy is the universal solvent

We took pains to create conditions in which our group – in some cases without the benefit of a common language – could empathise with one another.

Participants were encouraged to sketch out a brief autobiography with details of conquests and setbacks; they were encouraged to share their support network and their vision for the world. Despite coming from what they themselves probably perceived as radically different places, they weren’t far from each other.

Together with Cuban hospitality and solidarity and American optimism, our group was able to forge strong connections in a very short session, which is both hopeful and a burden. Hopeful, because it helps reinforce that the rhetoric of governments is not always the sentiment of the people. A burden, because we now have a responsibility to this nascent, fragile community.

If participating in building this relationship is something you or your company might be interested in, please get in touch, we need all the help we can get. The next installment of Incúbate, to be held in late April or early May, will help us grow the group of Cuban talents we’re in touch with as well as establishing continuity and deeper working relationships so we can tackle bigger challenges.