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‘Too many complainers, not enough doers’

Thursday, April 27, 2017
Innovations consultant Keita Demming:
Keita Demming

Some may remember Keita Demming for his frank statements last July about our lack of free speech in T&T. “If we think we can speak truth to power without fallout or backlash, we are sadly mistaken,” he had said in a provocative July 25 post on the website “Until we can address freedom of speech, we will be living in a country ruled by financiers and big business.”

Others may know Keita Demming as the licence holder of TEDx Port-of-Spain, the annual independent talk shop event featuring outspoken thought leaders from a wide range of professions in T&T. Demming, Trinidad-born, is a Toronto-based innovations strategist and consultant who educates and coaches entrepreneurs. He spoke with the T&T Guardian recently about his passion for helping organisations change for the better.

Born in San Fernando and growing up in Chaguanas, Demming, who recently completed a PhD exploring social innovation, has always seen T&T as a unique space, divided into many smaller communities.

When he was very young, he explained that both his parents worked in the oil industry, his father as an engineer and his mother as a corporate communications specialist. This meant he and his brother got to attend a private primary school for free, with a mix of expat children and privileged locals. Then, when his mother changed jobs, that meant a new school: Carapichima Primary School, where he saw a different face of Trinidad. His parents also had strong community links in Port-of-Spain, so the boys spent a lot of time there.

“I spent a lot of my childhood playing cricket, football and rugby at the Harvard’s Sports Club and many of the friends I made there have become lifelong friends,” he says.

So from north to central to south, Keita Demming’s awareness of T&T diversity grew. He comments:

“I have always understood T&T to be a complex mix of isolated and interconnected communities. Some people, like myself, traverse these siloed communities and hence understand T&T differently.”

The TEDx experiment

Demming’s TedX Port-of-Spain event has achieved global visibility, at least online: it has made its way into the international website. Demming says:

“We are one of the most successful TEDx events in the world. We have had three TEDx videos go on—when of the 13,000 TEDx events in the world, only one per cent have had talks featured on”

So why did Demming decide to start a T&T version of the ideas platform TEDx?

He says:

“I decided to do TEDx Port-of-Spain because I was tired of the notion that we need to hire foreigners to do the work that many locals are qualified to do. Since then, the vision for TEDx Port-of-Spain has moved from me being angry about the shortcomings of one particular cultural norm, to an understanding that our potential, as a country, is infinite, but our insititutions are too weak to help us be the best versions of ourselves. TEDx Port-of-Spain is about building a community of doers. We have too many complainers and opinion holders and not enough doers.”

Demming said last July that even people in power here are afraid to speak their mind for fear of victimisation.

The T&T Guardian asked Demming whether he feels that situation, if true, would ever change. He said yes—but that it may take something drastic to force us to change:

“Yes, I think it will change, and we need to leverage technology to do so. On our current trajectory, we are heading for crisis. Nothing is more motivating for change than crisis, and it may take one to get us to smarten up.”

On disruption

Demming is a big believer in the notion of “disruption.”

According to Caroline Howard, writing for the American business magazine Forbes in a March 27, 2013 online article: “Disruption vs Innovation: What’s the difference?”:

“Innovation and disruption are similar in that they are both makers and builders. Disruption takes a left turn by literally uprooting and changing how we think, behave, do business, learn and go about our day-to-day. Harvard Business School professor and disruption guru Clayton Christensen says that a disruption displaces an existing market, industry, or technology and produces something new and more efficient and worthwhile. It is at once destructive and creative.”

Does Demming not think that the very idea of “disruption” is a peculiarly corporate American idea, which ignores the deep impacts of authoritarian colonialism and cronyism on the entrenched thinking and practice of dependant small island states such as ours? He happily answers:

“Nope! We could start by disrupting colonial legacies. Most people do not understand disruption. They think of things like Uber and AirBnB. Disruptions can be activities that cause shifts in markets, or they can cause shifts in our social fabric. I have colleagues who are working to disrupt the welfare state, I have other colleagues who are working to disrupt the way cities are built or the way decisions are made in organisations and at the government level.”

So what must we do to “break out” and innovate?

“We need to do a number of things to innovate. On the most abstract level, we need to embrace radical transparency, radical collaboration and radical willingness to fail.”

“This island of ours is a powerhouse, and it cannot be the place where ideas come to die. We need to find ways to make these ideas bloom. That is our focus moving forward. We have always known that ideas are not enough. Moving forward, we are seeking to develop a platform to catalyse ideas worth doing. TED is very good at inspiration, but bad at the implementation of ideas; we need to find ways of becoming good at implementation.”

The TEDx Port-of-Spain event is financially sponsored by Demming’s venture 868CHANGE, a non-profit organisation whose sole purpose, until now, has been to host the annual conference. Demming, though, is looking to change this: “868CHANGE will be the first and only citizen-led foundation.

We are hoping to start a foundation that leverages citizens’ knowledge, resources and expertise to catalyse social innovation. We are aiming to be the go-to social investment brokers for everyday citizens. Our tagline is simple — Ideas in Motion: We catalyse uncommon approaches to generating social innovation.”

For now, Demming plans to be working outside of T&T for about a year, but he will manage all projects remotely, and the annual TEDx Port-of-Spain conference will continue as normal. He explains: “At the moment, most of my work is in Canada, but that is not for lack of trying to work where my heart is. No matter where I am in the world, I am from T&T. No matter how much this country lets me down, this is my home, this is our home. If we do not do what we can to change it, no one else will. The plantation owners are long gone and it is my dream that we understand ourselves as a complex intersectional society.

The artificial boundaries of north and south, east and west, black and Indian are not helpful.”


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