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Global Development: Investors in People?

We hear it all the time. Investors invest in people, not products or ideas. Marty Zwilling, a veteran start-up mentor, describes people as the great competitive advantage. I wonder what the non-profit world might learn from people like him?

The vast majority, if not all, non-profit foundations and donors are project-focused. In contrast to many angel and traditional investors, they’re primarily interested in the products and ideas. It doesn’t matter too much who has them, as the hundreds of online development competitions and challenges testify. These investments in products and ideas, however helpful and generous they may be, almost always miss one key thing – investment in the person.

I’ve long been an admirer of the MacArthur Foundation. They were first out of the traps when FrontlineSMS began to get serious traction in 2007, and became its first donor later that summer. And yes, they invested in the product. For others not so lucky to get funding from them, MacArthur are better known for their Fellows Program, or “MacArthur Genius grants”.

Each year, the Foundation names around twenty-five Fellows who receive a no-strings-attached gift of $625,000 paid over five years. Crucially, the Fellowship is not a reward for past accomplishment, but an investment in a person’s originality, insight, and future potential. What it does, in many cases, is free up the individual financially – pays off a mortgage, covers school fees, living expenses and so on – giving the Fellow total freedom to take risks, be bold, and to pursue their dreams and future work without limitation.

In short, the purpose of the Program is to “enable recipients to exercise their own creative instincts for the benefit of human society”.

MacArthur Fellows are a broad-based bunch. In 2014 they added a physicist, a cartoonist and graphic memoirist, a lawyer, a composer, an engineer, a saxophonist and a poet among others to their cohort. It’s the breadth of the award, the many different disciplines it touches, which makes the Program so inspiring and effective. The only restriction is that all Fellows need to be residents or citizens of the United States.

I can’t help but wonder what the non-profit sector might achieve with a similar approach. Imagine if a large, private Foundation picked half-a-dozen people working in global development – people with a track record of vision, thought-leadership and execution working and living anywhere in the world – and supported them in a similar way? Imagine being able to free up some of the greatest minds – conventional and unconventional – to imagine and deliver their own vision of development into the future? Freeing them up financially would, in the same way as the MacArthur Fellowship, allow them to be bold and brave with their ideas, and in the same way “enable recipients to exercise their own creative instincts for the benefit of human society”. Isn’t benefiting human society, in essence, what the non-profit world is all about?

A Program like this could have significant impact, and the costs would be minimal in the grand scheme of things. It could unleash projects, products and ideas –  which might not have materialised otherwise – from people who have already shown they can deliver. And it would give a clear signal that people matter, and acknowledge that people drive change, not ideas.

In a blog post from 2009, I talk about the need to inspire and support the very best in our field. We’ll only tackle some of the bigger problems facing us if we do:

In the mobile world we talk a lot about project sustainability, but little about human sustainability. If we’re to have any chance of ongoing success then we need to attract the brightest young minds to the “mobile for development” field, and then give them all the support they need to keep them there.

A private Foundation, or group of Foundations, should find it easy enough to pool a few million dollars each year to develop a “Global Development Fellows Program” to support a dozen or so of the best leaders and thinkers in the field. I know from my own experience, as I transition from a relatively ‘free’ period in my professional life to one where my priorities now lie much closer to home, how much a Program like this would positively impact my ability to continue to push the boundaries in my own work.

Things may be a little too late for me, assuming I was ever considered worthy enough for such an award, but it would be my hope that it won’t be too late for others. I already see many talented people ‘selling out’, moving into the corporate world or finding a changing ‘work/life’ balance a challenge.

Global development can’t afford to keep losing people like this. If it really does want to be seen to be innovative, and really is serious about tackling some of the biggest problems facing the planet today, recognising the need to do a little more “investing in people” – and then doing it – would be the best signal yet.

February 23, 2015   No Comments

Book Review

The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator
Ken Banks (ed), London Publishing Partnership, 2013, 232 pages

Review by the Society of Business Economists

“Any book with a foreword by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and comments from the World Economic Forum, the BBC and National Geographic is surely one to take notice of, and this book still exceeded my expectations in so many ways.

If the book has a purpose, it is probably to inspire us to innovate using existing technology for those who cannot help themselves. As an economist in the field of innovation and creativity I was ready to uncover the principles involved. What I didn’t expect was the emotional roller coaster that made me stop and wonder why I was so close to tears. Human stories of injustice and income inequality are so much more powerful than statistics. Politicians and economists please take note. I was moved by the magnanimous response of the human spirit to solve the problems. Surprising as this may sound, the story here of a patent lawyer was especially moving.

There are ten stories of ‘reluctant’ innovators. None was forced to innovate but they had the classic necessary combination of motivation, knowledge and ability.

The book was hard to follow sometimes, but much easier if you read about the person and their innovation at the back of the book, before you read their chapter. So many stories in one set of covers made it a little messy too, but also gave so many interesting angles on ‘social’ innovation.

It is an emotional book about the human spirit and the desire help people who cannot help themselves. It is a book about the struggle that innovators face to introduce even low-budget, life-saving innovations. It is a book about the failure of the current economic system to address social needs and how poorer people are locked out from the most basic health care. I got an insight into why childbirth is so dangerous in developing countries; it is more basic than I thought.

This is an uplifting and motivating book about the best aspects of human creativity and desire to help those who need it. It is also a book about not clearing your conscience by convincing yourself that Governments and NGO’s are acting on your behalf; their ego and short-sightedness often gets in the way of innovation despite them being good at some things. It is a story of how any of us with the will can creatively apply our knowledge of existing technology in new situations to have outstanding life-saving or life-changing effects for others.

If that is not enough for you, there is a hidden ‘how-to’ manual about social innovation including the qualities you need. This is no technical manual about stage-gating and managing risk, but rather a guide to making something happen against all odds.

It inspired me to make some of our social innovations around economics happen and it’s a long time since that happened to me. I’ll be using some of the examples of creativity, and recommending partners read this book to get them fired-up for innovation.”

Review by Adrian Woods. Reprinted with permission.

For more on “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator”, including endorsements and a free sample, visit the book website at reluctantinnovation.com

January 22, 2015   No Comments

Principles and Charters: A recipe for harmony in ICT4D?

There’s a phenomenon in the science world known as ‘multiple independent discovery‘. It’s where “similar discoveries are made by scientists working independently of each other” and the Theory of Evolution, the jet engine and the television can be counted among its ranks. Not that any of my work comes close to any of these, it was no surprise when I recently announced my Donors Charter to learn that friends on the other side of the Atlantic were working on something very similar. Or at least that appeared very similar.

My Donors Charter was borne out of a specific frustration that donors often appeared to be funding ICT4D projects they shouldn’t. The result? A sector full of replication, failed pilots, poorly thought-out projects, secrecy and near-zero levels of collaboration – none of it useful.

The Charter was an effort to encourage both donors, and project owners, to ensure they were clear about what they were planning, why they were planning it, and how. The questions didn’t seek to steer them in any specific direction, or encourage them to choose one technology solution or principle over another, but simply to be clearer about the what, why and how of their idea. The questions fell into three categories:

Preliminary questions

  1. Do you understand the problem? Have you seen, experienced or witnessed the problem? Why are you the one fixing it?
  2. Does anything else exist that might solve the problem? Have you searched for existing solutions?
  3. Could anything that you found be adapted to solve the problem?
  4. Have you spoken to anyone working on the same problem? Is collaboration possible? If not, why not?
  5. Is your solution economically, technically and culturally appropriate?

Implementation questions

  1. Have you carried out base research to understand the scale of the problem before you start?
  2. Will you be working with locally-based people and organisations to carry out your implementation? If not, why not?
  3. Are you making full use of the skills and experience of these local partners? How?

Evaluation and post-implementation questions

  1. How do you plan to measure your impact? How will you know if your project was a success or not?
  2. Do you plan to scale up or scale out that impact? If not, why not? If yes, how?
  3. What is your business/sustainability model?

Transparency questions

  1. Are you willing to have your summary project proposal, and any future summary progress reports, posted on the Donors Charter website for the benefit of transparency and more open sharing?

None of these questions are difficult, none are particularly technical, and it’s perfectly reasonable to expect anyone starting a new project to be able to answer them. These are, in my view, the kinds of questions everyone should be working through because, well, they’re common sense. Anyone who hasn’t thought any of this through really needs to go away and think, plan or research a little more. And if it comes to it, yes – drop their idea.

There’s a dual benefit to all of this. Firstly, it would force implementers to consider key issues before reaching out for support, resulting in a reinforcement of best practice. Secondly, it will help the donors themselves by focusing their resources and dollars on projects which are better thought-out and less likely to fail.

Shortly after announcing the Charter last August I was pointed to another site – billed as ‘the same thing’ – which had just been launched a few weeks earlier. This site was billed as the “Principles for Digital Development” and it too had a list of things people needed to consider while designing their project. Unlike my Charter, which was scribbled in the back of a notepad during a train journey home, the Principles were the result of an extensive amount of work by a range of ICT4D players and partners including The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, USAID, UNICEF, The World Bank, SIDA, Omidiyar Foundation, The State Department, WHO, HRP, UNHCR, WFP, UNFPA, UNDP, Global Pulse, UNWomen and OCHA.

After reviewing the Principles (you can download a PDF of them here) I quickly decided that they weren’t ‘the same thing’, although they were undoubtedly useful. Despite that, they came up again in a comment posted by Wayan Vota, who pointed people back to the Principles in what became the mother-of-all-discussions on the Charter in my Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) article. I decided it might be useful to seek some clarity because I still didn’t agree that they were the same, and asked him:

1. Who are the principal audience? Is this to remind solutions developers what they should be doing? Or for donors to sense check proposals?

2. Are they going to be enforced in any way? If not, what’s different about this than all the other sets of ‘best practice’ we’ve seen over the past decade?

3. Who’s ‘signed up’ to the Principles, and what does ‘signing up’ actually mean?

4. I’m curious who else was consulted beyond the giants of the development community listed on the site? There seems to be a lack of any grassroots voice, or any of the smaller organisations who probably have a lot to share from their experiences.

Surprisingly I didn’t get a reply, although other friends at USAID did inform me they planned on writing a response to the SSIR piece. So, while I wait to hear their thoughts, here are four of mine on why the Charter and Principles are not ‘the same’.

Firstly, in many places the Principles are quite technical, and anyone other than a software developer, design thinker or ICT4D professional may struggle to understand them. For example, “Design solutions that learn from and enhance existing workflows and plan for organizational adaptation” isn’t useful if you’re a grassroots innovator trying to fix a local problem. The Charter is deliberately non-technical, aimed at everyone, everywhere.

Secondly, the Charter simply asks questions to help ensure projects consider the wide range of issues they may need to address. The Principles makes direct suggestions on how projects should be designed and run.

Thirdly, and perhaps more dangerously, the Principles apply a broad-brush approach to ICT4D project development. “Employ this”, “Apply that”, “Demonstrate this” and “Demonstrate that”.

Fourthly, the Principles steer projects in a specific direction with their recommendations, which is again dangerous. For example, “Design for scale” should only apply if the project wants scale. What if it doesn’t need to scale? “Develop software to be open source by default” implies that closed source is less effective. If we look at the evidence, is that really the case?

If the Principles are aimed at the very organisations that took part in their development – many of them the heavyweights of the ICT4D world – then that’s fine. They’ll have the knowledge, money and resources to make sense of them and deploy them in their work, and it sounds like many of them now do. That’s great news if it works for them.

But for the people and projects I’ve spent the best part of my 20+ year career working with – largely grassroots non-profits, and local social actors and innovators – they’re not much use at all. Even if they could unpick some of the development speak, they’d struggle to act on many of them. One of the biggest problems, as I’ve seen it over the past few years, is the increasing institutionalisation of international development. In 2015 it’s going to get worse, not better.

I believe now, more than ever, that we need to be more inclusive in our work, and although the Donors Charter – unlike the Principles – has very little chance of being adopted by donors anywhere, it is at least aimed at the ‘everyday innovators’ who will – quite rightly in my view – end up being the future of the technology-for-development sector.

January 20, 2015   1 Comment

Like writing? Social innovation? Technology? Read on.

If you’re interested in technology – in particular the human face of technology in international development – have excellent writing and research skills, and want to develop our presence on the National Geographic website, then we might have the perfect opportunity for you.

For a number of years, kiwanja.net has worked hard to take the ‘mobile message’ to the masses, sharing human stories of how technology is improving lives around the world and sharing them in an accessible format with the general public. Digital Diversity with National Geographic is our flagship effort, and to date we have posted dozens of stories on how different technologies, from mobile phones to solar power, are improving the lives of people everywhere. The series is very popular and has strong support from the National Geographic staff who regularly tweet and share the stories with their millions of followers.

The series has recently been managed by a number of volunteers, a couple of which have since gone on to take up full time roles with international development organisations. The series is high profile, and a great springboard for anyone looking to develop a career in communications and/or development.

Here’s what we’re looking for if you’d like to be among our next cohort of guest writers:

  • Someone with a passion for international conservation and development
  • With an interest in how technology – high-tech and low-tech – is being used to improve lives around the world
  • Excellent writing and interviewing skills (all online)
  • Happy to research and dig out new ideas and stories
  • A nose for a good story
  • Able to work independently
  • Available for three or four hours, twice a month
  • Able to commit for six months minimum

We’re also planning a side project which will create an interactive, digital map on the National Geographic site where we’ll map and summarise the projects featured in the series. The successful applicant will help create and populate the map, which we’ll build in partnership with the National Geographic team.

If this sounds like something you’d like to get involved in, please let us know a little about you – including interests and experience – and why you think you’re the right person for the role. Samples of previous writing or online work would be helpful.

Send all of this to volunteer@kiwanja.net and we’ll get back to you later this month. Deadline for applicants is Friday 28th November, 2014.

Thanks!

November 4, 2014   No Comments

Every three seconds

Every three seconds, someone in the world dies from hunger or extreme poverty.

In a society where materialism reigns, what is the real secret to happiness? Award-winning filmmaker Daniel Karslake (For the Bible Tells Me So) tells the unforgettable stories of five regular folks – a boy, a college student, a thirty-something and two seniors – whose lives went from ordinary to extraordinary based on one simple decision: to engage. Each chose action over apathy, and in the process, each one has had a significant and lasting impact on two of the most challenging, yet solvable, issues of our time: hunger and extreme poverty.

About two years ago, Daniel reached out and invited me to take part in the making of his film. We sat for a morning in a London office and talked technology, social innovation and people who were making a difference in the world. One of those people, Josh Nesbit, is featured heavily in the film. Josh and I met back in 2008 during my time at Stanford University, and he’s gone on to help build Medic Mobile. It was an honour to sit with Daniel and share my thoughts on an ever-expanding field.

In addition to Josh, the film also features the work of Charlie Simpson, a seven-year old supporting UNICEF UK’s work in Haiti; Lisa Shannon, who’s advocating for women’s rights in Congo; Ingrid Munro whose work is providing a ladder out of poverty in Kenya; and Gloria Henderson who is focused on ending hunger in America. You can read more about their work, and how to engage, on the film website here.

You can see a short trailer of the film above, or visit the film website for further details and how to watch or order. There’s a further promotional video here:

Every Three Seconds is a film about doing well by doing good – about changing the world and changing your own life in the process.

Watch it.

October 30, 2014   No Comments

How “Designing with the end user” undermines ICT4D best practice

After years of near-invisible end users, it’s promising to see the beginnings of ‘end-user recognition’ in much of ICT4D‘s emerging best practice. It looks like we’ve made a big stride forward, but we’re not where we need to be yet, despite making all the right noises. To a great extent, we’re still saying one thing and doing another.

The international development sector, which includes the ICT4D community, is famously uncoordinated. That’s no surprise to many of the people who work in it. You would hope that, at least if the wrong things were being done they’d be being done in a coordinated way, but that’s rarely the case. Haiti is a great case in point, where “a confused aid effort‘ has only added to the difficulties. You’d be right to ask why so many people continue to live in tents nearly five years after the earthquake.

Very recently, the Narrative Project – which I blogged about here – included a call for “a co-ordinated development sector”. It also made the point that independence and self-reliance, i.e. people in the developing world solving their own problems, should be key development objectives. And that people need to believe they can make a difference. This is good to hear, but they’re empty words if ‘best’ practice continues to undermine it.

You could argue that “designing with the user” is a sensible approach – it’s certainly better than designing without them – but is it taking us closer to an end-game of “people in the developing world solving their own problems”? It may if you’re working with them to build a tool or platform which they, and other communities elsewhere, can then take and subsequently deploy on their own terms to solve whatever problem they see fit, in whatever way they decide, without the ‘solution’ provider needing to be involved.

To me, “Design with the user” makes more sense to a local solutions developer, who can simply jump on a bus to go and work with them. But it doesn’t for the overseas solutions developer, for example the student group designing an ICT4D intervention as part of their design thinking course. Local empowerment can only genuinely happen if it’s local people helping local people. So what we need to do is work towards a place where that can happen. “Allowing the user to design” is that place.

The truth of the matter is that far too many ICT4D projects are still initiated from the outside. When I initially launched FrontlineSMS in 2005, the platform was squarely designed to allow local people to conceive, design and run their own projects. The only outside help they needed was for someone to provide something that allowed them to do that. It really isn’t rocket science.

Yet, despite its successes, it still seems to be a model, and an approach, in the minority.

I worry that people who read, study and follow the “Design with the end user” mantra might feel more than ever that they’re doing the right thing, but they’ll simply be reinforcing the outside-in, top down approach without realising it. “Design with the end user” is a step in the right direction, but it’s not the end of the journey, and we shouldn’t kid ourselves that it is.

September 21, 2014   4 Comments

International development: A problem of image, or a problem of substance?

The world has problems. Big problems. They need big answers, ambitious projects and innovative solutions. And that costs money. Lots of it. Three trillion dollars over the past sixty years, if the research is to be believed. Fixing stuff is big business.

With these kinds of resources, what could go wrong? The problem is, many development initiatives have gone wrong, and continue to. Somewhere along the line development has lost it’s way. For many people it is so lost that it’s now become part of the problem.

While donors and other more senior professional development practitioners might disagree, many of the people I know who work in the various guises of ‘development’ admit that – on the whole – it’s not working, that resources are mis-focused, and that the majority of international aid initiatives are not fit for purpose. That’s not to question the motives of those who work to make the world a better place, it’s just that often they choose the wrong vehicle in which to do it. As Bill Easterly says:

The fondness for the Big Goal and the Big Plan is strikingly widespread. It’s part of the second tragedy that so much goodwill and hard work by rich people who care about the poor goes through channels that are ineffective

There’s no shortage of debate, of course. Many academics spend most of their waking hours disecting and analysing the big data on big aid, only to come up with different conclusions. The more practical among us choose to just get on with it, and choose to do it outside the system. Rather than taking jobs in large development structures, we go about it on our own terms. This is the approach featured in my recent book, “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator“.

There’s no better example of big development than the Millenium Development Goals which, at the time of writing are about 450 days away from ‘maturing’. Progress has been sketchy. Given that it can sometimes take years to collect and analyse the kind of data needed to measure them, it may be some time beyond the 2015 deadline before we know how many were met. And then we’ll never really know whether it was development policies, or simple economic growth, that was responsible. As with most things development, few things are that clear cut. If they’re met it might not be clear who to thank, and if we fail we’ll not know who to blame, either.

That all said, it’s far easier for critics who sit on the sidelines and say how rubbish it all is. It’s much harder coming up with actual answers, and harder still acting on them. I, for one, have always tried to balance my criticism of the technology-for development (ICT4D) sector with suggestions, ideas and thoughts on how we might improve our effectiveness. Just last week I announced my Donors Charter, an attempt to bring some harmony to how technology-for-development projects get funded.

Going by a recent article in the Huffington Post, many donors are becoming increasingly concerned about how aid – and their work – is perceived outside the sector. That concern has lead to the birth of the Narrative Project, whose goal is “to reverse the decline of public support for our work” and to counteract “fatigue” among rank-and-file supporters of these charities, many of whom increasingly view aid as “a good idea, done badly”.

Reading between the lines it might appear that many of the donors involved believe that aid is fundamentally “a good idea, done well” and that the problem is simply one of PR. Let’s hope this isn’t the case. While aid definitely does have a PR problem, there’s also plenty wrong with how it’s executed – and we can only hope that those present at the meetings accept that, and have committed to addressing it, too.

The Narrative Project does include a call for “a co-ordinated development sector”, and donors hold many of the cards (as I argue with the Donors Charter). It also makes the point that independence and self-reliance, i.e. people in the developing world solving their own problems, should be key development objectives. And that people need to believe they can make a difference. None of this is new, but it’s refreshing to see it being discussed at such a high level.

One huge red flag, however, are the parties to the work. The UN Foundation, Bond, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, ONE, Oxfam, Comic Relief and others. All large international players. Let’s hope that somewhere along the way they consulted smaller organisations, local organisations, local innovators, small projects and low-level grantees. We all know what happens when you talk in silos. And this looks like an international donor silo to me.

Like many colleagues and friends, I’ve grown increasingly despondent with the international development sector, and have only managed to stay positive thanks to my early decision to ‘go it alone’. Aid does do good, but it could do so much better if it got it’s house in order. And that’s the frustrating thing for me. In a career spanning 21 years, many of the bigger institutional problems persist, with no-one seemingly having the energy, the influence or the political will to fix any of it.

In my ICT4D world, there are some very simple (and I’d argue, obvious) things, for example.

  1. Focus more on enabling environments – genuine empowerment opportunities for those who own, or who are closest to, the problem.
  2. Seriously get behind, and support, projects that we know are working, or know have the best approach. Stop always looking for the next big thing.
  3. Have at least a few innovators on staff. Don’t head up innovation teams with people who have never built anything.
  4. Adopt best practice, along the lines of the Donors Charter.
  5. Give local innovators a voice.

The world needs a strong international development sector, particularly when it’s called to deliver emergency aid in times of greatest need. But beyond that it needs to work for the people it seeks to help, not in the interests of itself. It needs to be bold, be brave, and do things that might not always be in its best interests.

And it needs an exit strategy. Without one, how is anyone expected to have confidence that they’re doing the right thing, the right way?

September 8, 2014   1 Comment

Rethinking livelihoods.

This post appeared on the PopTech blog and has been republished with permission. You can read the original post here.

This post is co-authored by PopTech president Leetha Filderman, and Ken Banks, founder of kiwanja.net and FrontlineSMS. Together they are co-facilitators of the 2014 Bellagio/PopTech Fellows program. 

We are pleased to announce the 2014 class of Bellagio/PopTech Fellows, a diverse group of designers, social innovators, technologists and writers with expertise in technology, global health, poverty alleviation, environmental sustainability and informal sector economics.


Sean Blagsvedt, Alexice Tô-Camier, Dominic Muren, Robtel Neajai Pailey, Solomon Prakash

This year’s program is focused on rethinking livelihoods. Now more than ever, the world’s population is contending with a multitude of challenges: demographic shifts, environmental stressors, unrestrained financial capital flow, shifting political landscapes, emerging technologies, and changing economic growth patterns and labor markets – all of which are shaping the notion of what livelihoods look like today and may look like in the future.

For two weeks this August the Bellagio/PopTech Fellows will convene at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center in Italy. We will collaboratively work to define the notion of livelihood in the 21st century, while simultaneously exploring the challenges, opportunities and complex interdependencies that will impact sustainable livelihood achievement in the coming decades.

Our goal is to initiate a conversation designed to inform and inspire global, national and local efforts to improve livelihoods. Conversations will be complemented and challenged by an incredible group of catalysts, which bring a diverse and unique set of insights to the table.

Areas of exploration will include an examination of the central tenets of livelihoods strategy, the interplay between livelihood productivity at national and individual level, and the opportunities offered by the often-opposing formal and informal sectors. We’ll look at the positive and negative impacts of technology on livelihoods, and how both global security (and insecurity) and the geopolitical landscape impact sustainable development goals. It would be impossible to have this kind of discussion without recognition of the environmental challenges facing the planet, so we’ll be looking at how climate change and other threats could impact livelihoods development now and into the future.


Members of the 2013 class of Bellagio/PopTech Fellows presenting at PopTech 2013

Following their immersion at the Bellagio Center, the Bellagio/PopTech Fellows will reunite in Camden, Maine at PopTech 2014: Rebellion, where they will present their work and explore opportunities for collaboration with the global PopTech network.

About the Bellagio/PopTech Fellows program:
In 2012, PopTech and the Rockefeller Foundation created a joint Fellows program that brings together small, interdisciplinary groups for a two-week immersion program at the Foundation’s renowned Bellagio Center in Lake Como, Italy. Learn more about the inaugural class.

The Bellagio/PopTech Fellows program is designed to be a unique incubator of unconventional collaboration around critical topics relevant to the lives of poor and vulnerable populations, and also serves as a laboratory to study the nature of collaboration itself as a profound tool for creative problem solving and solution development.

August 17, 2014   1 Comment

Time for a Donor Funding Charter?

Innovation isn’t about green bean bags and whacky idea sessions. It is a long term business development strategy
Lucy Gower

Behind almost every good social entrepreneur you’ll find a donor. These donors come in all shapes and sizes – family members, friends, companies, CSR departments and sponsors are the most typical, increasingly followed by the crowd funders among us. While plenty of great things get funded, pretty crazy stuff does, too. Zack Danger Brown just raised $55,000 on Kickstarter to make a potato salad, for example.

More often than not, the really big bucks come from government and philanthropic foundations. The UK’s Department for International Development will hand out £10.765 billion this financial year, funding all manner of projects that help those in greatest need. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the biggest private foundation in the world, gave $3.6 billion last year. The world has plenty of problems – big problems – and these budgets reflect that. Donors get to choose which ones they fix, too. The Rockefeller Foundation, for example, currently focuses on resilient cities, digital jobs in Africa, food security, gender equality and universal health coverage, among a few others.

Donors also pay attention to what other donors do, and to what and who they fund. They love, for example, the idea of matched funding where two or more will put in an equal share of funds for a project. It spreads the risk, and gives them all comfort that they’ve not made a silly decision. If the project is good enough for someone else’s money, it’s good enough for theirs. Getting funded by one of the bigger foundations often makes it easier to get money from the others – a sort of shared due diligence, if you like.

Despite all the money and resources – and attempts to apply them to all manner of projects and initiatives – problems remain. During my “Rise of the Reluctant Innovator” book talks, I draw on some of the bigger challenges and failures of international development. Yes, a lot of good work has been done, but I often wonder if we’re getting value for money. Over the past 60 years, we’ve sure spent a huge amount of it.

Plenty of things have been tried, and continue to be tried. Much of the failure is put down to the people and projects (who in turn often blame the target communities), but in many cases responsibility also needs to fall on the people who backed them. Under pressure to support ‘innovative’ (often crazy) ideas, and often under pressure to spend their large budgets, Programme Officers often resort to funding projects they shouldn’t be going anywhere near.

What we end up with is a sector full of replication, small-scale (failed) pilots, secrecy and near-zero levels of collaboration. This negatively impacts not only other poorly-planned initiatives, but it also complicates things for the better ones. On top of all that, it confuses the end user who is expected to make sense of all 75 mobile data collection tools that end up on offer. The policy of funding many in the hope that the odd one shines through – the so-called “let a thousand flowers bloom” scenario – belongs to an earlier era. Today, we know enough about what works and what doesn’t to be far more targeted in what is funded and supported.

Given the vast majority of projects would never get started without some form of funding, donors are the ideal position to put this right. So here’s my proposal.

All major philanthropic foundations – and, where appropriate, government development/aid agencies – sign up to a Funding Charter which encourages much greater scrutiny of the technology projects they’re considering funding. This Charter will be available online, offering considerably more transparency for projects looking for money.

In the first instance, project owners will need to answer the following questions before their grant application is considered:

Preliminary questions

  1. Do you understand the problem? Have you seen, experienced or witnessed the problem? Why are you the one fixing it?
  2. Does anything else exist that might solve the problem? Have you searched for existing solutions?
  3. Could anything that you found be adapted to solve the problem?
  4. Have you spoken to anyone working on the same problem? Is collaboration possible? If not, why not?
  5. Is your solution economically, technically and culturally appropriate?

Implementation questions

  1. Have you carried out base research to understand the scale of the problem before you start?
  2. Will you be working with locally-based people and organisations to carry out your implementation? If not, why not?
  3. Are you making full use of the skills and experience of these local partners? How?

Evaluation and post-implementation questions

  1. How do you plan to measure your impact? How will you know if your project was a success or not?
  2. Do you plan to scale up or scale out that impact? If not, why not? If yes, how?
  3. What is your business/sustainability model?

Transparency questions

  1. Are you willing to have your summary project proposal, and any future summary progress reports, posted on the Donors Charter website for the benefit of transparency and more open sharing?

Not being able to answer these questions fully and reasonably needn’t be the difference between funding or no funding – donors would be allowed wildcards – but it would serve two purposes. First, it would force implementers to consider key issues before reaching out for support, resulting in a reinforcement of best practice. And second, it will help the donors themselves by focusing their resources and dollars on projects which are better thought out and less likely to fail.

The simple adoption of this kind of Charter might do more to solve many of the niggling problems we regularly write, talk, complain and moan about in the ICT4D sector. Any takers?

A more concise version of the proposal is available on the dedicated Donors Charter website.

August 4, 2014   4 Comments

Field of dreams

Two years ago this summer, long-time friend Erik Hersman and I took a stroll through this grass meadow in St. Ives, a small market town in Cambridgeshire where I work from a small office above a supermarket. Erik was on holiday, but that didn’t stop us taking a long walk discussing life, family and work. Erik had a few ideas on the boil, and I was entering a new phase after stepping back from day-to-day operations at FrontlineSMS a couple of months earlier.

I walk a lot, and often use the time to think, strategise and develop my ideas. The walk with Erik that day wasn’t particularly unusual, but something rather rare and unusual has happened since.

During our conversation, I told Erik I was thinking of publishing a book on social innovation – something I’d always wanted to do but lacked the seed of what I thought was a solid enough idea. That summer, a short article I’d penned – Genius Happens When You Plan Something Else – had appeared in the print edition of Wired magazine in the UK. The article looked at the concept of reluctant innovation, but was only 600 words long. I felt there was much more of a story to tell, and discussed the idea of turning the article into a full book. Erik was, of course, invited to contribute a chapter on his own life and work.

Once I’d decided to go for it, the next fifteen months were frantic. There were times the book looked like it wouldn’t come off. The first Kickstarter campaign was a spectacular failure. The second was better thought out and successful. That campaign was topped up by the Curry Stone Foundation, and a little personal funding on top took the book past a key financial hurdle. Along the way I managed to find a publisher, secure a foreword from Archbishop Desmond Tutu and collect two dozen high profile endorsements. Everything finally fell into place and in November 2013 “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator” hit the shelves, hitting top spot in Amazon’s ‘Development Studies’ chart a few months later. A number of colleges and universities in the US and UK have also picked up on the book, using it as part of their social innovation courses.

Self-publishing is tough, and a massive learning curve, but it’s been well worth it. “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator” always felt like a book that needed to exist. Thanks to that walk in the meadow, today it does.

If my book was to be difficult, Erik’s idea was on another planet. Today you’ll know the vague little black box we discussed as BRCK. The conversation was fascinating on a number of levels, and I loved the idea of a Kenyan outfit fixing an African problem that others either didn’t know about, or didn’t care about. But while we were both serial software developers, neither of us had built hardware before (although we had talked about designing and building a FrontlineSMS/Ushahidi GSM modem a couple of years earlier during one of our stints at PopTech). That summer I was about to throw myself into the murky world of publishing. Erik was on the verge of doing the same in the hardware industry. I didn’t envy him.

Two years on, and the BRCK is a reality thanks to a Kickstarter campaign that blew their total out of the water, followed up by a further $1.2 million in venture funding. (Erik was always determined to make this a business, not another non-profit venture. We’ve had many conversations about the need for a more solid business approach to the kinds of ‘development’ problems BRCK was built to solve). It’s not been easy for the team, and I’ve been fortunate to see early prototypes and have numerous behind-the-scenes conversations on the challenges of not only building hardware, but doing it from East Africa.

That said, the BRCK team have been very open about the process and they’ve regularly blogged updates when things have been going well, and not so well. “Problems, Perseverance, and Patience” gives great insight, as does this post by Erik himself which will take you through the whole BRCK story. No mention of the meadow there, though.

We constantly hear that ideas are cheap, and that it’s all about execution. To an extent, that’s true. What was unusual about that summer walk in the meadow – our field of dreams – wasn’t so much two friends sharing ideas, but two friends with a dream they both saw through. In both our worlds, BRCK and “The Rise” both felt like things that needed to exist.

Thankfully, today, they do.

July 27, 2014   4 Comments