Making a new ending

Exactly two-and-a-half years ago I sat on the Unreasonable at Sea ship, docked in Ho Chi Minh City, planning next steps in a life and career that’s taken me from programming Commodore PET computers, running primate sanctuaries and developing messaging tools to mentoring tech startups and students on a ship with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. If it’s all about the journey, then I think I’ve passed on that one.

Ken-Desmond-Tutu-Panel-Marc

Despite all of that, as time passes the destination inevitably becomes just as important. After 25 years working in technology – 22 years of those in conservation and international development – I’ve been rewarded with some amazing friendships, many wonderful experiences and more than my fair share of (unexpected) awards and recognition. But now feels like the right time to once again see what might be next.

My last attempt to find it was halted by some great opportunities to work with a bunch of other people on their projects, and to publish “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator”. In between the paid work I’ve continued the trend of doing a bunch of talks and guest writing, and helping mentor students and early stage socially-focused technology startups, usually in my own time. I’ve been fortunate to be able to do that.

When it comes to change I could, of course, continue as I have done for the past twenty-odd years and see where my journey takes me. But that now feels a little too risky, not to mention the uncertainty of having to cobble together a salary year-on-year (even though I’ve done pretty well at it for well over a decade). 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.

Henry-Maddie-Ollie-Ice-Cream-2015

kiwanja.net now has passengers

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 twelve years, largely based on my experiences over the previous decade or so. Looking back, I probably wouldn’t change a thing.

But now it feels like time to make better use of 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 onset of autumn to find out.

What might I offer that ‘somewhere else’?

  • Over twenty years experience working in emerging markets, mostly across Africa
  • Twenty-five years experience in the IT sector
  • Twelve 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
  • Mentoring
  • 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
  • (Click here for full bio and list of achievements)

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
  • And colleagues who also believe in what they do

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
  • You’re looking for an Entrepreneur in Residence
  • 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 (anyone want to make a film about technology and social innovation?). So anything and anywhere are on the table right now.

new-beginning-quoteFor the time being I’m taking a three month sabbatical to bring my iOS and Android coding skills up to speed and to build out a couple of app ideas I’ve had bubbling under for a while. I’ll also work on my new book, and work on Means of Exchange, a project I’m incredibly excited about (what’s happening in Greece right now makes it as important as ever). 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 so 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.

Global development R&D: Maintaining a balance

My first brush with technology-for-development, almost twenty years ago, wasn’t on the potential of the Internet, or how mobile phones were going to change, well, everything. To be honest, neither were really on the development radar in any meaningful way back then. It’s almost funny to imagine a time when that was the case.

No, my first contact with what was to become a career in ICT4D started off with an essay on the failure of plough and cook stove projects across Africa. I was struck by the beauty of simple, locally appropriate solutions and amazed at how development experts just didn’t seem (or want) to get it. Many of their failed initiatives seemed more like a reaction against them – that, as experts, they were expected to come out with something the opposite of simple, primitive, practical. This they did, but very little of it ever worked.

smallisbeautifulIt was around this time that I also came across the work of E. F. Schumacher and his brilliant 1973 book, Small is Beautiful. The lessons in his book apply just as much today in a world dominated by digital technologies – a world he would never have imagined back then. World Watch magazine interviewed me a few years ago on why his appropriate technology ethos was just as relevant today. It’s well worth a read.

Our obsession with the latest shiny technology hasn’t gone away, either. History repeats itself and, despite being armed with a range of tools and solutions that work, experts still appear to rebel against them because they’re digitally too simple, primitive or practical. And, again, many of their alternative ‘innovative’ solutions simply don’t work.

Sure, there needs to be a degree of emphasis on new tools, new solutions, new ways of tackling old problems. This – the R&D side of the development machine – is essential but it needs to be kept in balance. The average R&D spend among top UK companies in a recent survey was 5%. No company in its right mind would spend most of its money on research and development and ignore its bread and butter, namely its current products and services, and current customers.

95-5-Rule

How about the global development sector make a commitment to spend, say, 5% of its funding on blue sky, high tech, high risk forward-looking ideas, and commit the rest to funding the really simple, primitive, appropriate solutions we already have that are proven to work? 5% of global development spending is still a few billion dollars, more than enough to invest in the next big thing.

And how about it pool these funds and create a single Global Development R&D Fund? A better coordinated approach might result in better outcomes, and it could better manage its external communications. The amount available would compare quite favourably with R&D spends of the bigger tech companies (source: Atlas)

Tech-Co-RandD-Spend

Right now, with an increasing big data, drones and wearables obsession (among others), you get the sense that global development R&D lacks coordination and spends too much of its time, energy, focus and resources on high-risk ideas. While it toys around with the next big thing people are going to bed hungry, dying of treatable diseases, at school with no pens or books, or drinking polluted water. All of these things can be put right with the technologies we possess today, but they’re not. I’ve never understood why. We should only allow ourselves the luxury of looking to the future once we’ve fixed the solvable problems of the present.

While the development community needs to naturally look ahead, it also needs to remember the people suffering today, those who might not be around to reap the benefits of any cool drone, big data or wearable solution of the future. Every life matters, after all. You get a sense that in the development space, R&D spending is way out of control as it feeds its obsession with cool, shiny and innovative.

So let’s keep that R&D budget in check, be more open with how much is being spent on speculative new ideas which may go nowhere, and make sure we don’t forget our bread and butter – our current (working) products and services, and our current customers – the poor, marginalised and vulnerable out there who, through no fault of their own, desperately need our help. Today.

Is ‘fixing development’ the real Grand Challenge for Development?

“Don’t let complexity stop you. Be activists. Take on the big inequities. It will be one of the great experiences of your lives” – Bill Gates, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation


I’ve got an idea for a great new project if anyone out there is looking for one.

But we warned – it won’t be easy. It won’t even be sexy. And it won’t involve huge amounts of travel to exciting new places peddling the latest high-tech development solutions to impoverished, needy communities.

But if you took it on it could have a bigger impact than all the other project ideas you may have put together. And we’re all after impact, right?

So, what’s this project idea, then?

Well, the global development community has made it its life work to identify, unravel and solve some of the biggest problems facing humanity. How well it does at this varies wildly organisation by organisation. There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and some approaches seem to work better than others. But on the whole, it’s widely accepted that it’s not doing well enough despite the vast amounts of money it continues to demand (and spend).

developmentquote

One solution? Well, how about the global development community turning some of its famous design-thinking, problem solving skills on itself? ‘Fixing the global development system’ becomes the project, in other words – rather than global health, agriculture, human rights, etc. Fix the system and  all those things – and more – benefit. The king of all knock-on effects.

During a recent email exchange I was asked how a forthcoming workshop could produce something tangible. White papers, reports, soundbites or yet another ‘community of practice’ didn’t quite cut it. Almost every other event produces one or more of those, and very little improves as a result.

At the end of our email exchange we ended up with this ‘four-step process to change':

1. Identify structural problems in global development
2. Propose solutions
3. Identify key decision makers/actors to get on board
4. Get them to sign up and commit to (2)

So, this is how it would work with my recent Donors Charter, for example:

1. Donors are funding too many poorly thought-out, planned or researched projects
2. Create a check-list for all potential projects to work through before applying for funding
3. For it to work, the majority of donors need to be on board
4. Mobilise donors and encourage them to sign up, and commit to, the Charter

After years of critique, failure and frustration in global development, (1) and (2) are known knowns. It’s (3) and (4) that we’re largely missing – acceptance from key players that change is needed, and then a willingness and commitment (in writing) to make that change. Enforcement, in other words. This could really work but it would be tough, requiring behaviour change on a massive scale. The grandest of all grand challenges for development, perhaps?

fixingdevelopment

We seem to spend all of our time and resources focusing on other people’s problems, which on the surface might seem like the right thing to do. But for the global development movement to be most effective, it needs to have its own house in order first.

So, here’s my proposal. How about a “Grand Challenge for Development for Development”? Or an OpenIDEO Challenge for Development?

Any takers?