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

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.

conoce-cubaTake, 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 specializes 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 program 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.

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