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Mapping the misfits

It has been 15 minutes since Alexa Clay and Kyra Maya Phillips have been standing on a cacophonic street outside Kalbadevi Temple, trying to appear casual and oblivious to workers drawing carts and the blur of motorbikes, as they pose for a photograph for this interview.

There is nothing deviant about 28 year-old Clay and 25 year-old Phillips, really. Clay has bright, intelligent eyes and speaks in a deep, quiet voice and Phillips, with her wide-brimmed straw hat and an occasional scowl directed at the temperamental weather, looks like a tourist waiting to escape the heat. Nothing about the duo suggests that they have anything to do with a dangerous Puerto Rican gang or devious computer hackers. There’s no way one could guess that, at this point, what they really want is to have a long chat with Somalian pirates.


Authors Alexa Clay and Kyra Maya Phillips (riding pillion) were in Mumbai earlier this month, and are working on their forthcoming book, The Misfit Economy, which looks at innovators who work outside the realm of ‘right’, yet come up with business models worth learning from. PIC/Pradeep Dhivar

Earlier this month, Clay and Phillips were in Mumbai to work on their forthcoming book, The Misfit Economy, which will be released next year. The book looks at all that is common between innovators like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg and terrorists, city gangs and hackers, who operate in grey and informal economies but have unique solutions to challenges that formal markets can learn from. Clay and Phillips also look at little-known and unseen social entrepreneurs who are making changes within the system by coming up with solutions to social and economic issues, though they are rarely rewarded by the system itself.

We settle down in the lobby of Haredia hotel, where the duo has been staying for the past few weeks. Clay runs her hand through her hair and says, “We wanted to scratch the surface of what we consider ‘normal’ and ‘acceptable’ in a formal economy,” she says. It all started in college. Clay studied Philosophy and Poetry at Brown University in the US and began working with an anthropologist in 2005. The project studied the impact of the US military bases in various regions and involved speaking to activists who were against the move. Clay also looked at domestic violence in the affected communities and how the exercise shapes mainstream behaviour. The stint encouraged her to question and critique the obvious.

“Over time, I began wondering about how people without a history — the unseen forces in communities who are not discussed in the mainstream media, like, say, the thousands who participated in the Industrial Revolution — affect the world around them.” In 2010, Clay met Phillips at a conference of entrepreneurs at Bloomsbury, London, and the two casually joked about what those ‘respectable’ people would think about learning a trick or two from, say, Somalian pirates.

“That’s how the idea for The Misfit Economy was born,” says Phillips. Phillips is Venezuelan and graduated in Politics and Economics at the London School of Economics in 2008. Throughout college, she noticed how the focus stayed on the formal markets and liberalisation, but there was nothing about a street peddler who co-existed on the same street beside a banker’s office and contributed to the economy, too.

“The black market is not on the Western radar at all,” says Clay. By alienating these forces, feel the duo, you lose the thread of some of the best innovation and creativity. Clay and Phillips have raised $17,500 (Rs 9,33,000 approximately) for their book through Kickstarter, a crowd funding website for creative projects.

One of the first ‘innovators’ Clay and Phillips met were part of the Latin Kings, a feared Puerto Rican gang, which calls itself a cultural organisation. “People who are part of the gang provide the community with an alternative history of the region and its people, that the mainstream media has hushed up. The area is notorious for racial profiling. Cops often pick Hispanics and the coloured population for speeding and so on. Once, the Latin Kings employed people with hidden cameras and proved that cops were, indeed, quite racist when they went about picking ‘criminals’. The gang conducts classes about these issues and informs people of their rights,” says Phillips.

Clay and Phillips say they rely on their contact base and local journalists to meet the criminal gangs because they want to learn how they operate in their environment. “We learnt that they too, like any other business, have a code of ethics and never want to kill entrepreneurship among their people.” A South African ganglord, for instance, told the duo that there really is no difference between the black market world and the formal world — both are ambitious and want to make money.

Controversy cannot be far behind, can it? Clay nods. “Yes, I am aware that when we speak of how ingenious some of their methods are, one could assume that we are glorifying violence. But we clearly mention in the book, too, that we are not saying that their means — or their end — is justified. We are simply trying to bring out the characters people don’t usually know about and show that they, too, have their fair share of innovations we don’t usually read about.”

Phillips adds that while society censures their practices, it must not forget that crime is also a lot about how the formal system reacts to it. Both entities shape each other in ways that are not always favourable.

Another interesting group the duo met was the Microphone 3 in Philippines, which uses hip-hop and b-boying to bring attention to social issues and at times provoke people into action. “It is much like the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street movement or even the London riots, isn’t it? We have also written about this guy from Egypt who had developed a mobile app to monitor traffic in Cairo a few years ago, and then used the same tool to direct protestors at Tahrir Square. Social media innovations by the man on the street are just as powerful as any other innovation. They shape public opinion, and often create it, too,” says Clay.

Clay adds she was highly impressed by an anti-corruption drive in Tanzania, where people gave a ‘no bribe’ currency note to officials demanding bribe. In India, they have met a lady named Shikha Roy in West Bengal who is working for property rights for women and against gender-based violence and brings many rural innovations to the fore with her efforts. Clay and Phillips say they also want to concentrate on the IT sector innovations in India — something the whole world may soon benefit from.

“Let’s not go thinking that these informal, unseen innovators aren’t a part of the mainstream,” says Clay. “Companies like Nike are known to employ hackers to strengthen their own systems from potential attacks. They are a part of our system more than we know. What does one have to say about that?” 

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