Surprising things we can learn about innovation from Uruguay, Estonia and Lesotho


A big part of thinking about innovation is looking at things differently. We become accustomed to a certain way of seeing things and thinking about how we do business, for example, within the parameters of an established thinking pattern.

Innovation demands we remove those blinkers, see things afresh, and think in ways that may not always at first seem intuitive.

There are fantastic little exercises you can do every day that can get you seeing and thinking in new ways: drive to work using a new route; read an article about a topic you know next to nothing about; watch a film from a genre you usually wouldn’t watch. It’s often just about giving your brain a little jolt so that you realise there are other way of thinking about and doing things. Taking up hobbies like learning a new language or even dancing can help your brain to start working in new ways.

When it comes to business management and leadership, our main models come from examples we see in the UK, US, and to a lesser degree Western Europe. The ideas and thinking that come from these places create the worldview through which many of us see things. This is entirely reasonable as Australia shares an intellectual and business culture with these highly successful countries – but it does mean we can become locked into seeing through this prism.

In terms of innovation and disruption, we’re all very well aware of Silicon Valley as the big tech/startup powerhouse hub of the past few decades (it’s so ubiquitous that there’s even a TV sitcom called Silicon Valley). Many of us would also be familiar with the success of Tel Aviv’s startup community, which has propelled Israel to the front of the pack of tech startup countries.

But there are other spots across the globe where interesting things are happening when it comes to fostering innovative technologies and ways of doing business.

Expanding our horizons

We know we can learn plenty of things from big centres like San Francisco, London, and Berlin when it comes to clever thinking, but how about Uruguay, Estonia or the small southeast African country of Lesotho?

The World Intellectual Property Organization’s (WIPO) Global Innovation Index (GIL) is a leading reference when it comes to mapping innovation hotspots around the world.

The annual GIL report provides a comprehensive and detailed look at what different countries are doing to ensure they are competitive in the 21st century global economy. If you’re interested in the policies that inform competitive, tech-based economies, the report is well worth a browse.

The GIL is made up of 79 indicators across such areas as institutions, human capital and research, infrastructure, market sophistication and creative outputs. While many of the countries you would expect to find at the top of such indicators are present – Switzerland, UK, Sweden, the Netherlands, and USA are the top five ranked nations – there are some surprising results in certain indicators.

This infographic culled from GIL data reveals some of the things happening around the world in terms of innovation policy that we might find quite surprising:

  • Uruguay is ranked third behind South Korea and the Netherlands for online e-participation (Australia ranked seventh)
  • Estonia is ranked third after Finland and the United Arab Emirates in the category of ICTs and business model creation (Australia ranked 34th)
  • Lesotho is ranked first for the highest education expenditure as share of GDP, just above Botswana in 2nd place and Denmark in 3rd position (Australia ranked 54th)
  • Belarus is ranked first, above Russia and Israel, for women employed with advanced degrees (Australia ranked 15th)
  • Serbia is ranked equal first with Luxembourg, ahead of the UK in third position, for cultural and creative services output (Australia ranked 61st).

Of course this kind of data taken in isolation does not necessarily reveal the full scope of innovation policies for a country, and many of these countries (like Lesotho) cannot be compared in an economic sense to a developed economy like Australia.

However, it does give us an idea of the global nature of the push for innovation, especially in regard to technology and online industries. It also allows us to stretch our thinking on what factors might be important to establishing an innovation culture in a country.

There is no doubt we can learn plenty from the big players like the US, UK, Scandinavian countries and emerging powers like China and India, but it’s worthwhile keeping an eye on peripheral and developing economies. These might be the places Australian entrepreneurs and companies could either find excellent collaboration partners or above-average return on investment in partnerships.

As the GIL report states:

“Nations also increasingly recognise that if they are to succeed ‘at innovation’ (especially the type of innovation that is not purely technological in nature) they need to train their CEOs, entrepreneurs, government staff, and so on in the latest tools and methods available to stimulate the development of innovative concepts and business models.

It’s a big world out there, and smart chief executives and businesses will do well to take that into consideration and think globally when they are looking for new inspiration and strategies to drive innovation.

Fi Bendall is CEO of The Bendalls Group, a business that leads STRATEGY : ADVOCACY : MOBILE delivering the business acumen to drive effective positive results in a disruptive economy for the C-suite. Fi has recently won a Westpac/AFR 2015 100 Women of Influence award. See more at:

Fi Bendall is CEO of The Bendalls Group, a business that leads STRATEGY : ADVOCACY : MOBILE delivering the business acumen to drive effective positive results in a disruptive economy for the C-suite. Fi has recently won a Westpac/AFR 2015 100 Women of Influence award.

We Recommend


  • Lonnie McRorey

    After living and working in Paraguay, with a high level of certainty, I can confirm that Paraguay’s government, Business and Commercial sectors, lag far behind and lack modernization across all levels. My active participation in such talks with leaders of the country paints a different picture than explained here. Having boots on the ground and vetting from sources that are unbiased may improve accuracy of your research Fi Bendall.

  • Andy Esposito

    The title says “Paraguay.” The text shows “Uruguay.” Which country is it?

    • Eloise Keating

      Hi Andy. Thanks for pointing out this error. The headline should say Uruguay – it has been updated. Thanks, Eloise