What do Cairo, Egypt, and Greensboro, North Carolina, have in common, and what does either have to do with innovation? Both are scenes of movements involving social and political change that have and will lead to innovation—whether it’s desired or not.
In the wake of unsettling changes in government in Egypt, many of us may have overlooked the 51st anniversary this week of a U.S. event in Greensboro that ultimately changed social, business, and political institutions in our country forever.
On February 1, 1960, four African-American freshmen from what is now North Carolina A&T sat down at the whites-only lunch counter of the F.W. Woolworth store in downtown Greensboro and stayed seated, refusing to leave even after they were denied service.
Many believe that the sit-in in Greensboro—even though it was not the first event of its kind—was responsible for revitalizing a civil rights movement that was losing momentum. Although the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 required public schools to be desegregated, by 1960 the process was proceeding at a rate of just 1 percent a year—hardly progress.
Within a year of the Greensboro sit-in, an estimated 50,000 people had taken part in sit-ins in roughly 100 cities, and 20,000 people had been arrested. And while sit-ins had taken place as early as the 1940s, Greensboro was the first to garner significant national media attention, and many historians believe it was the galvanizing event for the resurgence of the civil rights movement.
Like those in Greensboro, the events unfolding this past week in Egypt—while broader in scope and creating more immediate action—are a reminder that oftentimes “every act of creation is first an act of destruction.” Both are reminders that sometimes the act of innovation is thrust upon us by changes we underestimate or choose to ignore. Whether it’s a political system or cultural order that is “destroyed,” such events are catalysts for innovation, and the correlation between change and innovation is almost always inevitable.
In business, we can be too narrowly focused, paying attention to competitors and tracking societal and governmental changes only as they relate to our immediate concerns and industry-specific perspective. But there are broader, sweeping movements that can swell like waves, sometimes breaking and crashing sooner than we ever anticipated, or hadn't anticipated at all.
It’s hard to believe that it took four to five years after Greensboro for the United States to pass significant civil rights legislation (Civil Rights Act of 1964; Voting Rights Act of 1965). In today’s world, technology enables change to occur much more rapidly, as evidenced by the current happenings in Egypt.
When it comes to innovation, sometimes you have to be ready for what you’re not ready for at all.