“Citizen movements are compelling reforms that were unimaginable only a short time ago. Solutions to today’s challenges involve a complex mix of actors that include governments, nonprofits, foundations, civil society and the business sector in major new ways” – Rockefeller Foundation
This year, the Rockefeller Foundation will be one hundred years old. As part of the celebrations, the Foundation recently launched the Next Century Innovators Awards which seeks to identify the top 100 innovations likely to solve some of the more pressing challenges of the next century. We’re excited to announce that Means of Exchange has made the list. You can read the project profile on the Rockefeller website here, or below.
What is the innovation and how does it address a pressing problem?
We live in a time of great economic uncertainty. Millions of people around the world have lost jobs, homes, businesses, independence and purpose as a result of the current financial crisis, not to mention the many crises that came before it. Millions more face growing uncertainty. The defining feature of a century of globalization is an economic system few of us understand, and even fewer of us have any control over. Over the years the incentives and ability of communities to build resilient local economies has been gradually eroded, leaving us more vulnerable to global shocks.
At the same time, communities, often in the hardest-hit places, have begun independently developing initiatives to strengthen the capacity of local systems to meet local needs. Bartering exchanges, time-banking and buy-local movements exist in increasing numbers, yet they are by-and-large failing to result in systemic change.
Means of Exchange ties together these disparate initiatives, and shares stories of how local communities are fighting back. It looks at how a combination of everyday technologies and human ingenuity can democratize opportunities for economic self-sufficiency and promote a return to local resource use. Its online community brings people together, helps encourage new thinking, builds and scales the use of new tools, and takes a fresh look at the public messaging behind local economic empowerment schemes to make them more inclusive, simple, relevant, fun and engaging.
What existing practices inspired the innovation and how does it represent something new?
Local barter exchanges, time banks and local currencies are nothing new. Most have been around for years, and there are countless success stories out there if you look hard enough. The majority of these pockets of success have remained small in scale, and many only work because a small number of dedicated local activists work hard to keep them going. What’s more, the people that take part are often the ones who are already converted to the cause, or older members of a community already sympathetic to the local agenda.
Means of Exchange sets out to understand why so many existing initiatives fail to replicate and scale, building the community needed to bring in “new blood,” and bringing in the skills required to leverage digital tools that allow for meaningful scale. The online community will highlight approaches it sees working, and tease out the factors that make them succeed. It will look at how social media and mobile technologies might strengthen these activities, explore gamification techniques, and consult experts to understand how activities should be branded and marketed for mass appeal. And at the end, all of the tools, websites and resources developed by Means of Exchange will be openly shared on the website, encouraging further adoption and sharing.
Bringing this community together addresses a critical gap in the majority of current initiatives, giving Means of Exchange the potential to transform a set of isolated activities into an effective and organized movement.
Please describe the social impact to date, as well as potential impact in the future.
During the Summer Olympics in London, Means of Exchange launched its first ‘tool’ – CashMobbers.net – promoting a new and innovative way for people to support local business. Cash mobs are typically organized over social media, encouraging people to meet others at a predetermined local business at a predetermined time, where they all agree to spend a small amount of money.
In just a couple of hours during the launch event at a bookshop in Hackney, London, several dozen people showed up and helped the store hit its highest day of sales for a year. The buzz created by social media drove people to attend, partly out of excitement, partly out of curiosity, partly out of a desire to see something positive happen on their main shopping street. The event was picked up by the Financial Times, Daily Telegraph, Huffington Post and other international media. Since then, regular cash mobs have started taking place across London and other parts of the UK as the idea spreads.
These are the kinds of ideas Means of Exchange seeks to help develop, promote and spread. Whether it’s supporting a local business, buying local goods, helping a neighbor or swapping unwanted goods, it’s crucial that the activities which drive and promote better sharing, support and co-operation are fun, bring in new people, make good use of new technology and serve to educate and inspire the wider community to action.
April 30, 2013 No Comments
“Despite all of the ghastliness in the world, human beings are made for goodness. The ones that are held in high regard are not militarily powerful, nor even economically prosperous. They have a commitment to try and make the world a better place” – Archbishop Desmond Tutu
I’ve been home for about three weeks since leaving the Unreasonable at Sea ship in India. I spent just over a month helping mentor eleven technology startups which, if that was all I’d done, would have been a fantastic experience. What really stood out for me, though, was the interaction with the hundreds of students aboard, and a stronger sense than ever of how important it is that we encourage, engage, support and mentor the next generation of planetary problem solvers (something I’ve written about before). As if that wasn’t enough, the trip gave me the chance to re-immerse myself in the kinds of environments that were responsible for starting me on my own journey back in 1993. Witnessing suffering and hardship, and countless young children denied a childhood in India, Myanmar and Vietnam, reminds me that there’s still much work to be done.
Spirituality plays a large part in what drives me, and I’ve tried to capture some of this before. It’s not just a subject I find incredibly interesting, but one which puts humanity and purpose back at the centre of development (something which has become increasingly cold and institutionalised). I’ve never thought of helping people as a career. For me it was a way of life, a deeper purpose. So it was a huge honour to be invited to sit on a panel with Archbishop Desmond Tutu to talk about “how we change the world” aboard the MV Explorer. A big thanks to Tori Hogan (who was also on the panel) for inviting me to take part.
I’ve had something of a crazy time over the past few years, finding myself in all sorts of places I felt I had no right to be (National Geographic and No. 10 Downing Street, for example). Having the chance to chat with the Archbishop on a number of occasions during my time aboard the ship is another highlight, and the one hour discussion in front of a packed auditorium was the icing on the cake.
Here’s to making the world a better place. For all of us.
April 2, 2013 1 Comment
“Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new end” - Maria Robinson
Things happen for a reason, and I’ve had my fair share of things ‘happen’ to me over the years. It’s been one heck of a journey. I’m now into my twenty-first year in international development, and eleventh in mobile-for-development. I’ve lived with, worked with and met many incredible people along the way. And I’ve seen first-hand how telecommunications have transformed the lives of communities across the developing world.
I’ve had my fair share of ups and downs. It’s fair to say I was drifting in 2005 when FrontlineSMS came along. If the software has helped save anyone in the developing world then it’s fair to say it saved me, too.
Despite the twenty-year journey, some of the bigger life-changing moments have happened over the last two. The loss of our mother was a big blow, and the one person who had supported and encouraged me to follow my dreams for so long was no longer there. I’ve had a son, Henry – who my mother never got to meet – who has changed the way I see the world in ways nothing else has. And on a professional level I’ve stepped back from FrontlineSMS after making an honest assessment that it could do better in fresh hands. It’s been an absolute honour to have worked on that project.
I write this from a ship docked in Ho Chi Minh City. I’m in the middle of perhaps one of the craziest things I’ve done for a while. Described as a radical experiment in global entrepreneurship, Unreasonable at Sea is made up of “20 Mentors. 100 days. 1 ship. 13 countries. 11 ventures. 1 belief that entrepreneurship will change the world”. I joined the ship in Hong Kong, and depart when we get to India. It’s one month to help and mentor eleven socially-focussed ventures, and to share what I’ve learnt over the past twenty years with both them and many of the students also on board.
I’ve also had plenty of time, for the first time, to reflect – not just on what I’ve done, but more importantly on where I’m headed.
Of course, I could continue as I have done for the past twenty years and see where my journey ultimately takes me. But that feels too uncertain, not to mention the challenges of raising money for a salary year-on-year. I now have responsibilities, and a journey which has largely been just about me is now about others, too. I’m no longer travelling alone.
I often highlight in my many talks that back in the beginning my ideal job didn’t exist, so I had to create it. My passion for technology, anthropology, conservation and development are enshrined in everything I’ve done with kiwanja.net for the past ten years, largely based on my experiences over the previous ten. Looking back, I probably wouldn’t change a thing. Now I feel it may be time to make better use what I’ve learnt, and take it forward somewhere else. I’m not entirely sure what or where that ‘somewhere else’ might be, but I have until the end of 2013 to find out.
What might I offer that ‘somewhere else’?
- Twenty years experience working in emerging markets, mostly across Africa
- Twenty-five years experience in the IT sector
- Ten years at the forefront of mobile-for-development (m4d)
- A wide variety of multi-industry and non-profit contacts
- Deep understanding of innovation and (social) entrepreneurship
- A track record of speaking at international conferences
- A track record in blogging and writing for websites, books and magazines
- A solid understanding of appropriate technologies
- A track record in the successful development and rollout of FrontlineSMS
- Various competition judging and Advisory roles
- An inherent belief that technology, designed and implemented appropriately and sensitively, can have a profoundly positive impact in the world
- Ridiculous amounts of enthusiasm and a ‘can do’ attitude
- (Full bio and list of achievements here)
What does the ideal opportunity look like?
- It has a mission I can believe in
- It gives me freedom to think
- And freedom to write
- And freedom to be creative
- And opportunities to share and learn
Where might there be a fit?
- You’re a charitable foundation looking for someone to drive your technology-themed grant giving
- You’re a large technology company needing someone to manage your CSR programme
- You’re a design company working on developing or implementing technologies or services for emerging markets
- You’re an education establishment in need of someone who’s spent a lot of time getting stuck in on the ground, with a strong interest and understanding of technology and development
- You’re a startup in need of a helping hand to get your technology or service off-the-ground
- Or you may just like what I’ve been doing over the years and have the resources to support kiwanja.net so it can carry on doing it, and build on it. I continue to do a lot for free.
There are no doubt many other options. I’ve always quite fancied politics, too. Or a career in documentary film making. So anything and anywhere are on the table right now.
For the time being I’ve got 2013 planned out and will continue to write, speak, mentor, travel (a little) and work on Means of Exchange, a project I’m incredibly excited about – and committed to – for the long term. I’m in no hurry for the page to turn, and think the right next step is out there somewhere. It just might take a few months or more to find it.
If you have any ideas, would like to chat, or know anyone else who might be interested in talking feel free to share this post with them, or drop me a line. I’d love to hear from you.
February 16, 2013 1 Comment
Two years ago Nokia had a global smartphone market share of around 29%. That number has fallen to around 3% today, despite the smartphone market more than doubling over the same period. Nokia’s CEO, Stephen Elop, bet the family silver on a Windows-based strategy and gave it two years to pay off. Well, two years have passed and sales of 4.4 million Lumia’s have disappointed analysts and markets, and likely him.
But it’s not all bad news. In the same period Nokia sold almost 80 million ‘dumb phones’, down on the previous year but clearly a market where they remain strong. What are the chances Nokia will drop it’s Windows strategy and put everything into lower-end devices for emerging markets? The Asha is doing pretty well there, and may be it’s saviour. Telecom TV have a great analysis of Nokia’s options – “Is Asha the future for Nokia?” – which you can read here.
Big tech companies have made embarrasing U-turns before. In 2011 Hewlett Packard announced it was going to sell its PC and tablet manufacturing units only to change it’s mind later. And last summer Apple decided its withdrawal from the EPEAT environmental ratings scheme was probably not all that clever and decided it wasn’t going to leave after all.
Nokia look like two businesses at the moment. At the high end of the mobile market they’re clearly struggling with little to cheer about. At the low to medium end they’re in a totally different position. Overall, Nokia are struggling, and it’s sad to see. If they’re to survive they may need to be brave. Perhaps a U-turn is what they need. And if they decide they need one, they won’t have been alone.
January 29, 2013 1 Comment
m-Pesa? m-PESA? mPESA? MPESA? mpesa? Putting the actual spelling to one side for a moment, there can be few more talked about yet least understood mobile services than M-PESA (yes, that’s how you’re supposed to spell it. I think). Misunderstanding, misinformation and, in some cases urban myths abound – everything from its roots and implementation to the percentage of Kenyan GDP now passing through the service. Despite this, M-PESA has come to dominate discussions in the ICT4D and m4d communities (despite arguably not being a development tool at all. But that’s another debate).
M-PESA has become so dominant, in fact, that we’re now at the stage that in increasing numbers of meetings, workshops and conferences I attend, any talk of it is banned.
M-PESA is an undeniable Kenyan success story, but not for the reasons many people think. The technology component of M-PESA was developed far away in Cambridge, England (my home town) with UK Government and Vodafone money. M-PESA is not a Kenyan or African innovation if you measure it in technology terms. But technology is often the easy bit, and what does make M-PESA a Kenyan success story is its implementation. Key ingredients like graft, determination, luck, naivety and a receptive population starved of any meaningful access to bank accounts or financial services created a perfect storm for the launch of the service. A storm, let’s remember, which is yet to hit other countries with the same intensity, many of whom have struggled to adopt M-PESA or related platforms as successfully. So far, anyway.
The very idea for M-PESA is also disputed. Despite the technology being developed in the UK, some believe that it was indeed a Kenyan who had the original idea. This “Is M-Pesa really Kenyan or British?” post on humanipo goes into a little further detail. You could argue that none of this really matters, of course. Another debate.
On top of all that, barely a week goes by when my Twitter stream isn’t hit with a claim that 10%, 25% or even 50% of Kenya’s GDP passes through M-PESA. The number – whatever it is – is astonishing. The one I’ve quoted more recently is “50% by the end of 2013″ – heard at a conference in Amsterdam last autumn. I have no idea whether it’s right or not, but going by the percentage range in the tweets very few other people are either.
If, like me, you think it’s time to debunk some of these myths and inaccuracies and get the inside story of how M-PESA came about, then we’re in luck.
A couple of weeks ago Chris Locke, Managing Director of the GSMA Development Fund, gave me a copy of a book I didn’t know existed. “Money, Real Quick: Kenya’s Disruptive Mobile Money Innovation” is a great read if you’re one of the few people new to M-PESA, or you’re one of the majority who thought you knew it. The book covers everything from the seed of the idea, the importance of the human network of M-PESA agents (often forgotten in the technology-dominated discussion), what mobile money means to Kenya’s finance and banking industry, it’s impact, and what the future may look like. The book also touches on innovation more broadly, and how M-PESA speaks of the new-found appetite for innovation in the country.
I’m not sure if this book did come out in 2012 as Amazon claims, but regardless it’s incredibly useful if you think, after six years, it’s time to meet the real M-PESA. If you do you can find it on Amazon here.
January 22, 2013 8 Comments
Today, precisely because the world is so increasingly out of balance, the sustainability regime is being quietly challenged, not from without, but from within. Among a growing number of scientists, social innovators, community leaders, nongovernmental organisations, philanthropies, governments and corporations, a new dialogue is emerging around a new idea, resilience: How to help vulnerable people, organisations and systems persist, perhaps even thrive, amid unforeseeable disruptions. Where sustainability aims to put the world back into balance, resilience looks for ways to manage in an imbalanced world.
Having spent a large part of my career working in and around environmentalism and conservation (see an earlier post on lessons learnt in primate conservation), a reality-check of ‘sustainability’ is something I’ve had on my mind for a while. With its arch enemy – population growth – driving ever-upward, I’ve often wondered whether we’re just stalling for time or delaying the inevitable. The problem with this school of thought, of course, is that it’s considered by many to be defeatist, particularly by those in the actual business of conservation and environmental protection.
Technology allows us to stretch the limits of what’s possible – grow significantly more food per acre, or live in climates we were never meant to live in – all activities which make us feel comfortable about the world and the places we live within it. Much of this technology has become invisible. We no longer think about the innovations that allow us to grow more, or healthier, food. Or those that get electricity to our homes, or the satellites that help get cars and planes from A to B. It’s only when we don’t have access to these things that we suddenly realise how exposed and dependent we are on them. Surviving technological meltdown is the subject of a wide number of books, including the aptly-titled “When Technology Fails” by Matthew Stein.
The environmental movement (which is to all intents and purposes linked to sustainability) is around forty years old. Its birth is widely linked to the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring“, her seminal book which argued against the increasing use of pesticides in farming. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t hugely popular within the ranks of the chemical industry, but it did spur the birth of grassroots environmentalism which in turn lead to the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). If pesticide use continued, Carson argued, Springs of the future would be void of bird life, amongst others (hence the title).
In another of my favourite books, “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed“, Jared Diamond graphically illustrates what happens to communities and civilisations which live beyond their means. We can learn a lot from history, but today not enough of us are listening. Our world population of over seven billion is already two to three times higher than what’s sustainable and, according to the World Population Balance website, recent studies have shown that the Earth’s resources are enough to sustain only about two billion people at most European’s current standard of living. In short, we’re in trouble.
During a recent talk at Pop!Tech I highlighted two things that I thought needed to change. First, we need to get people to listen and take interest, but not in the way the wider non-profit movement has historically tried to get us to (i.e. guilt-based education). Second, we need to rethink our relationships with local business, local resources, and each other. You can watch that ten minute talk below, and find out more of what we’ll be up to on the soon-to-launch Means of Exchange website.
As I admit at the start of my talk, I have more questions than answers right now. But I do know that, with the current economic climate, conditions are better than they’ve ever been to get people to rethink their relationship with money, resources and each other. These may not directly impact the environmental or sustainability agenda, but the secondary benefit of people making better use of the human, social, financial and environmental capital around them almost certainly will.
January 7, 2013 18 Comments
Exactly ten years ago this month I was preparing for my first ever piece of work in mobile, two years of work which would lead to the development of an innovative conservation service in 2003 – wildlive! – and the release of one of the earliest reports [PDF] on the application of mobile technology in conservation and development in 2004. A lot has happened since then, not least an explosion in interest, buzz, excitement – and, yes, hype – and a sense that mobile can be the saviour of, well, everything. Back then you’d likely be able to fit everyone working in mobile-for-development (m4d) into a small cafe. Today you’d need at least a football stadium. m4d – and it’s big brother, ICT4D – have become big business.
Not that I needed more proof of mobile’s status at development’s top table, earlier this week I attended Vodafone’s “Mobile for Good” Summit in London. It was a high-profile affair, and an extremely upbeat one at that. I left with mixed feelings about where m4d is headed.
My five takeaways after a day of talks, debates and demonstrations were:
1. Everyone is still excited by the potential of mobile
2. The same projects surface over and over again as proof mobile works
3. Mobile is still largely seen as a solution, not a tool
4. It’s up to the developed world to get mobile working for the poor
5. The top-down mindset is alive and well
Suffice to say, all of these conclusions troubled me as I sat on the train home.
I’ve been thinking for some time about the future of m4d, and how far we’ve got over the past ten years or so. I’ve written frequently about the opportunities mobile technology offers the development community, and my fears that we may end up missing a golden opportunity (see “Time to eat our own dog food?” from March 2009). I’ve long been a champion of platforms, and understanding how we might build tools for problem owners to take and deploy on their own terms. Yes, we should provide local entrepreneurs and grassroots non-profits with tools – and where appropriate and requested, expertise – but we shouldn’t develop solutions to problems we don’t understand, we shouldn’t take ownership of a problem that isn’t ours and we certainly shouldn’t build things thousands of miles away and then jump on a plane in search of a home for them.
But this is still, on the whole, what seems to be happening. And this, I’m beginning to believe, is rapidly becoming ICT4D’s “inconvenient truth”.
A fulfilled future for ICT4D (of which m4d is an increasingly dominant part) is not the one I see playing out today. It’s future is not in the hands of western corporates or international NGOs meeting in high-profile gatherings, and it’s not in our education establishments who keep busy training computer scientists and business graduates in the West to fix the problems of ‘others’. The whole development agenda is shifting, and my prediction for the future sees a major disconnect between what ‘we’ think needs to be done, and what those closest to the problems think needs to be done. Call it “disruptive development“, if you like. As I told the Guardian in an interview earlier this month:
The rise of homegrown solutions to development problems will be most crucial in future. That means African software developers increasingly designing and developing solutions to African problems, many of which have previously been tackled by outsiders. This, I think, will be the biggest change in how development is ’done’
I’m not the only person to be saying this. Many good friends working at the intersection of African development and technology have been doing the same for some time. The real change, and the big difference, is that it’s finally happening. A message which was previously given in hope, a message that was previously given out of an inherent belief that there was a better, more respectful and appropriate way of doing things, is now becoming reality. ICT4D is changing, and the balance of power is changing with it.
FrontlineSMS has always spoken to an approach I’ve long believed in, one where users are empowered to develop solutions to their own problems if they so wish. There are many reasons why FrontlineSMS continues to work – the decision of the new Management Team to shift software development to Nairobi is one of the more recent ones. But fundamentally it’s about what the platform does (and doesn’t do) that really resonates with innovators, entrepreneurs, non-profits and problem owners across the developing world. As the Guardian put it in the recent article, “As open-source technology for mobile platforms, innovations like FrontlineSMS are essentially a blank canvas for grassroots organisations to apply to any local context”.
That local context is becoming increasingly vibrant as university students across Africa graduate with Computer Science and Business Management degrees; as innovation hubs spring up across the continent meeting a growing, insatiable demand for places to meet, work and network with like-minded problem solvers and entrepreneurs; and as investors launch funds that show they’re starting to take young African tech startups seriously.
This activity hasn’t escaped big business. Google, IBM, Microsoft, Nokia, Hewlett Packard and Samsung have been opening offices across the continent, snapping up much of the talent in the process (ironically often at the expense – and despair – of locally-based NGOs). But while technology businesses take note and develop local capacity that enables them to develop more appropriate local solutions, the broader development ‘community’ seem trapped in an older mindset of technology transfer.
Technology transfer, of course, is big business – there’s no shortage of donor money out there for projects that seek to implement the latest and greatest proven Western innovations in a development context, and there are countless tens of thousands of jobs that keep the whole machine running. A lot has to change if the development community is to face up to all its new realities, yet it’s looking more likely that the destiny of the discipline lies in the hands of the very people it originally set out to help.
So, if the future of ICT4D is not university students, NGOs or business graduates devising solutions in labs and hubs thousands of miles away from their intended users, what is it?
Well, how about something a little more like this?
It seems rather obvious to put a local technology entrepreneur on a bus and have him chat to a rural farmer, but imagine what might be possible if this approach became the “new ICT4D”, not that the entrepreneur or the farmer would see it as that, or ‘development’ at all. You can see more of the fascinating TV series which linked local technologists to local problems on the TVE website. There’s a lot that’s right with this approach, particularly if you consider what would usually happen (hint: it involves planes).
I’m not usually one for making predictions but it is that time of year, after all, and it is my ten year anniversary in mobile. So here’s a biggie.
Development is changing, powered by accessible and affordable liberating technologies and an emerging army of determined, local talent. A local talent that is gradually acquiring the skills, resources and support it needs to take back ownership of many of its problems – problems it never took original ownership of because those very skills and resources were not available.
Well, now they are. The ICT4D community – education establishments, donors and technologists among them – need to collectively recognise that it needs to ajdust to this new reality, and work with technologists, entrepreneurs and grassroots non-profits across the developing world to accelerate what has become an inevitable shift. Or it can continue as it is, and become increasingly irrelevant. “Innovate or die” doesn’t just apply to the technologies plied by the ICT4D community. It applies to the ICT4D community itself.
[This post was edited down and republished in the Stanford Social Innovation Review in January 2013 here].
December 12, 2012 128 Comments
Until recently, getting your hands on good mobile data was something of a challenge unless you had a couple of thousand dollars to throw at a market research company. Things suddenly got a lot better over the summer with the launch of the GSMA’s Mobile and Development Intelligence website (covered on my blog here). Now, Ericsson have picked up the baton and published one of the most comprehensive mobile/information society reports for some time.
The Ericsson Mobility Report provides up-to-date information on a range of indicators including mobile subscriptions, mobile penetration, breakdowns of adoption by technology, breakdown of traffic (voice vs. data) – with predicted growth for the next five years – and population coverage. There’s also interesting insights on speed, video and apps. To help visualise the data there are well over a dozen images and graphs throughout the report.
Ericsson have performed in-depth data traffic measurements since the early days of mobile broadband from a large base of live networks covering all regions of the world, and this rich source of information provided much of the data for the new report.
November 26, 2012 75 Comments
When I started out trying to understand the complexities of international development well over 15 years ago, one thing struck me. The trick, I was often told, to increase chances of funding was to apply a liberal sprinkling of the words gender, scalable or sustainable into any project proposal. Donors apparently liked those words, however they were used.
I’m beginning to wonder if the same thing is happening today with the word innovation.
For organisations seeking to deploy technologies to put right social wrongs, innovation is the hottest date in town. If the solutions themselves are not described as “innovative” then often the organisations behind them are. Innovation hubs have sprung up across the developed and the developing world, seeking to create the perfect environment for innovation. There are books galore extolling the virtues of innovation in three, four or five steps, or how we might foster cultures of innovation. If only it were that easy.
Over the past few days I’ve read three separate articles, all of which touch on different aspects of the innovation phenomenon. They’re interesting on their own, and collectively, as examples of the various debates currently taking place. As with all things “development” (which is the hat I wear as I write this) there’s as much discussion about what things mean as there is real-world activity.
Harvard Business Review
On the Harvard Business Review blog, good friend Bright Simons focuses on the cost of innovation, and argues that low-GDP countries and smaller businesses are in danger of falling into an “innovation poverty trap” while their richer counterparts ride off into the distance. Cost may indeed be a barrier, but it would be wrong to assume that if we provided every resource you could possibly wish for that people would suddenly become innovative. Money doesn’t make you innovative, although for innovative individuals and companies it arguably helps. Some bigger companies have fallen from their perch at the height of their success, crucially at a time when they had peak resources available to innovate, including money. Take Nokia as a more recent example. (For more on why big companies fail, see the excellent “Innovators Dilemma” by Clayton Christensen).
Stanford Social Innovation Review
In the Fall 2012 volume of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Christian Seelos and Johanna Mair argue that innovation should not be the holy grail, and that instead “it is time to move from innovation as an ideology to innovation as a process”. In particular, they argue that a relentless focus on innovation as an outcome can undermine an organisation’s appetite for experimentation. This is particularly true when that experimentation may have a high chance of failure:
Although productive innovation does not always translate into desired outcomes or impact, systematic learning and building of a knowledge base about what works and what does not constitutes an important indicator for an organisation’s ability to innovate
Failing to recognise this carries a number of risks:
Glorifying innovation as the solution to social and environmental needs and problems has led to well-intended efforts to increase the population of social innovators and entrepreneurs. This certainly has its merits but it has come with a detriment to investments in established social sector organisations that operate at scale and that create value mainly through incremental improvements
The rampant rate of innovation in the commercial sector has provided risk and opportunity in equal measure for the non-profit world. The ICT4D toolbox is a lot bigger than it was two or three years ago, but as I like to point out in my numerous talks on appropriate technology, many of these new tools don’t yet work in the places where the need is greatest. Donors sometimes fuel the frenzy by their willingness to fund the next big thing, leaving us with ‘innovative’ projects such as “iPads for Africa” (this is one I made up a couple of years ago, but it may now exist in some form). Although these projects may look great in the glossy pages of an annual report, and sound incredibly disruptive, they look less compelling on the ground (where they largely fail).
Organisational Capacity to Innovate
The Rockefeller Foundation recently launched organizational capacity to innovate, a new website based on the findings of ”Learning from Experimentation: Sustaining Innovation to Achieve Impact” (available as a PDF here). They focus on the importance of seeing social innovation as an outcome rather than a tool, and an ongoing process rather than a single moment of inspiration. Two organisations are used as case studies in the report – our very own FrontlineSMS, and Circle of Blue - both seen as good examples of building capacity for continuous innovation through experimentation. The report is particularly interesting because it covers organisational innovation as much as technological innovation. As I’ve written before, organisations themselves need to innovate (business models, organisational structures, funding, leadership, messaging, and so on).
Creative Advantage list over a dozen definitions of “innovation” on their website, and therein lies the problem. We need to be careful we don’t overuse the term to the point of it becoming meaningless, and that when we do we’re clear about what kind of innovation we’re talking about.
Since drafting this post, the Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like blog has published a more critical, tongue-in-cheek critique of the development community’s emerging obsession with innovation. You can read their “#182 Innovation Tourette’s” post here.
November 25, 2012 71 Comments
Exactly ten years ago next month I started work in the fledgling mobiles-for-development sector. I was incredibly lucky to get in so early, in large part due to the incredible foresight of the corporate team at Fauna & Flora International who realised the potential of mobile in the conservation and development fields very early, and invited me on board to help figure out the technology challenges.
I’d never worked with mobile phones before, but to be fair in December 2002 very few other people had either. What did stand me in good stead was my earlier IT experience. Looking back now it all looks incredibly archaic, demonstrating – more than anything – the speed and rate of innovation in just half my lifetime.
This is the computer I learnt to program on. The Commodore PET had a whopping 32K of RAM, no hard drive (just a cassette deck to save programs to tape), and a massive 40 character screen width. Learning how to hack this as a teenager eventually launched a career in IT (with a bunch of travel and a university education in between).
In the mid-1980′s, as my professional IT career began, I took charge of this beauty at Hambros Bank in Jersey. This Burroughs B1900 mainframe had 2Mb of RAM and ran all of the bank’s systems. It had six exchangeable drives and a command console to drive everything. These were the fun days of computing when everything was big, everything seemed to breathe, and machines had soul.
I doubt I’ll look back at my iPhone or MacBook Air with the same feeling of nostalgia and romance. But let’s save that for another post, perhaps when I celebrate my twentieth anniversary in mobile…
November 6, 2012 5 Comments