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1995. 2005. 2015. Two decades of code

Precisely ten years ago this morning I sat down at a kitchen table in Finland and started coding. Armed with a Visual Basic.net manual, a laptop and GSM modem, a couple of SIMs and a Nokia 6100 and cable – and plenty of coffee – I delved into the world of Windows programming for the very first time.

I’d already done a fair amount of professional software development over the years, designing and building a membership/fundraising system for Jersey Zoo, and a range of accounting and amortisation systems for a legal firm, but that was ten years earlier in the mid-1990’s when QuickBASIC was my weapon of choice. Ten years had passed, and I’d never written anything event-driven before. I was on a steep learning curve, but was motivated.

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I’d already figured out earlier that year that I could drive a mobile phone by sending it a series of Hayes commands through a cable – that was my epiphany moment, so-to-speak – so my task that summer was to try and build a nice user interface around it. It sounds almost crazy now to think that a lot of this was new, but back then very few people were building messaging platforms, and even fewer building messaging platforms aimed at grassroots non-profits in the developing world. After two years working across South Africa and Mozambique it had already become blatantly clear to me that there was a growing need there that nobody seemed willing, or able, to meet.

One of the big advantages I had back in 2005 was that it was easy to hide away and be left alone to focus on a project like this. Anyone with no team, no money and a big project idea knows all too well how important it is to be able to get away and focus. Thanks to the luxury of being unknown in the ICT4D world I was able to hide well enough to write a working prototype of FrontlineSMS in just five weeks.

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Designing the ContactManager form

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Coding ContactManager

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The finished, compiled article

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The first FrontlineSMS website, built in a day. The field banner was the view outside

Fast forward to today, I once again sit hidden away taking on a new coding challenge (my decades of code seem to take me from 1995 to 2005 to 2015, which may or may not be significant). In a similar vein to my attempts to tackle Windows programming in 2005 – which didn’t turn out too badly, I guess – today I’ve started work on my first iOS app. With a long list of ideas it’ll hopefully be the first of a few. Not surprisingly, they are pretty-much all based on improving how we interact and engage with the people, causes and world around us. I’m close to securing angel investment for the first app, which is another first. And it has a solid business model, which is another.

Interestingly, my brushes with code seem to have taken me through each of the key platforms of the past twenty years – MS-DOS, Microsoft Windows and, now, iOS. And, like 2005, I find myself with a window of opportunity to hide away and code as I continue my summer sabbatical. Watch this space for more.

Gazing into development’s crystal ball

It’s a sector that famously likes to look and plan ahead. So what does the development professional of today think it takes to be a professional development worker of tomorrow?

In partnership with the USAID Global Development Lab and PSI, Devex recently conducted a survey of development professionals to see what tools, skills and approaches they think the next-generation of development professionals will need to thrive ten years from now. Last week they published a report of these findings. And it’s enlightening on a number of levels. From the report:

“The results paint the picture of a well-rounded, flexible professional who takes a holistic view of development work. Just as likely to be a venture capitalist or high-tech whiz as your traditional aid worker, the future development professional will need to be agile, collaborative and constantly learning new skills.”

A few elements of the report particularly stood out for me. For a start, the fact that only 10% of respondents felt that disrupters would play any significant role by 2025. Perhaps today’s emphasis on disruption is a passing trend, or we’re just over-estimating its significance? Or perhaps development professionals are blind to what’s going on out in the real world, and they choose to not recognise it?

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There was some recognition, though, that the traditional top-down approach would decline, although I’m not quite sure how the target communities will be able to meaningfully engage in the debate that replaces it. I guess the survey respondents assume that by 2025 we’ll have finally nailed those tricky little feedback loops.

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It was also interesting to see where the respondents felt most of the ‘development professionals of the future’ were going to come from. We’re already seeing a blurring of boundaries between aid and business (i.e. Facebook and Google’s approach to last mile connectivity issues), and perhaps that trend will continue. If this forecast does turn out to be true, I’d argue that they shouldn’t be called ‘development professionals’, though (in the same way we don’t call Facebook and Google’s work in Africa today aid or development).

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Last but certainly not least, this was one of the most revealing slides for me. Lack of empathy is already a huge problem as people by-pass time in the field and opt to develop solutions far away from the problems without speaking to anyone. It’s great to see empathy on the list, but it should be higher. After all, none of the other skills matter if you don’t understand the people you’re trying to help, surely?

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So, what was missing? Well, I’d loved to have seen a breakdown of responses from aid workers in the developing world vs. aid workers from the developed world. I’m sure some of the attitudes would have been quite conflicting and, in turn, revealing. And I’d love to see a similar survey carried out among aid recipients – their thoughts, concerns and hopes for the sector – something that will be increasingly important if they do, quite rightly, begin to have more say in how ‘their’ aid is spent and administered.

You can download your own copy of the survey findings here.

Why planning isn’t everything: Embracing serendipity, chance and luck in the pursuit of social change

Each year, hundreds – if not thousands – of engaged students walk through the doors of schools, colleges and universities around the world eager to learn the art of social change. But is this the best approach? Does turning social entrepreneurship into an academic discipline give out the right message?

Classes in social innovation, social entrepreneurship and design thinking have become increasingly popular in recent years. On the one hand, this might be seen as a good thing. After all, the world needs as many smart, engaged citizens as it can get, particularly when you consider the multitude of challenges we face as a planet. But does a career in social change really begin in the classroom, or out in the real world? How much social change is planned, and how much accidental? And which approach tends to lead to the most meaningful, lasting or impactful solutions? These questions, which have occupied my mind for some time, are the ones I tackled in my recent book, “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator”.

In our desperation to explain and control the world around us we put things in boxes, label them up and then study them to death. We look for the ‘secret sauce’ in successful ideas while trying to break down the characters and personalities of the people behind them. Finding the next Steve Jobs becomes an obsession. Books on social innovation abound, as if making the world a better place was a ten-step process which, if followed vigorously, will guarantee us meaningful change. I’m sure I’m not alone, but my experience of social innovation isn’t anything like this. Instead, I see serendipity, luck and chance play a bigger part than we dare admit. Of course that said, it’s what people do with their chance encounter that matters, not the chance discovery itself, as Scott Berkun reminds us in his best-selling book, The Myths of Innovation.

In The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator, all ten people featured took their chance. And what makes their stories even more interesting is that, in most cases, they weren’t even looking for anything to solve. The thing that ended up taking over their lives found them.

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Brij interacting with viewers in Gulbai Tekra Slum, Ahmedabad. Photo: Jaydeep Bhatt. (c) PlanetRead

Brij Kothari, for example, who conceived the idea behind a subtitling tool while eating pizza, which is today helping hundreds of millions of Indian children. Joel Selanikio whose frustration at a lack of reliable health information drove him to develop a mobile data collection tool. Laura Stachel, who developed solar-powered suitcases for maternity wards after seeing mothers and babies die in the dark on Nigerian wards. Or Sharon Terry, who took on a genetic disease after a shock diagnosis that her children were sufferers.

In something of a break from conventional wisdom, in the majority (but not all) of these cases the innovators were far from qualified to take on the challenge. In a sense, they did things in reverse by encountering a problem which troubled them, and then picked up the skills they needed to rectify it as they went. This is a very different approach to the one taught in the classroom, which sees engaged young millennials taught the art of pitching, business modelling and design thinking before they’re unleashed on the world in search of a problem.

Value for money?

It’s also a very different approach to the one carried out by the international development community which has, over the past six decades, burnt its way through over $3 trillion in its efforts to rid the world of its social and environmental ills (causing a few of its own along the way, I’d hasten to add). The sector has effectively institutionalised development, professionalising it and making it almost inaccessible to ordinary people, including the kind of talent featured in the book.

Of course, it would be hard to justify spending any amount of money in the hope that you’d get lucky, or get that chance encounter with an innovative solution or idea. So what can we do to increase our chances of it happening?

A few tips from the book:

  1. Be curious and inquisitive. Ask questions. Take nothing for granted.
  2. Take time to understand the world. It’s complicated.
  3. Leave your comfort zone. Spend time with the people you’re trying to help.
  4. Don’t assume you can fix anything. Sit, listen, observe.
  5. Be patient. Remember this is a life-long journey, not a three month project.

Finally, work on something that gets you out of bed in the morning (and that will continue to do so for years to come). Make it something that switches you on, that fuels your passion. This is probably most crucial. Howard Thurman was spot on. “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who come alive”.