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Posts from — October 2011

Invite: Curry Stone Design Prize Ceremony

In just over a weeks time I’ll be heading back to the US to collect the Curry Stone Design Prize on behalf of FrontlineSMS. This is an exciting (and interesting) award for us for a number of reasons. You can read more of my thoughts on that here, and check out our official prize page here.

The Prize Ceremony is being held at the Harvard Graduate School of Design on 7th November, and it’s open invitation. If you’re interested in coming along drop the organisers an email. Details below.

October 27, 2011   8 Comments

Advice for social innovators at heart

For the past two years I’ve been incredibly fortunate to work with some of the most inspirational, talented social innovators (aka Pop!Tech Social Innovation Fellows). This year, good friend Erik Hersman and I returned to Camden, Maine to work with the 2011 Class. Sharing our own experiences of 2008 – when we were both Fellows – and lessons we’ve learnt on our journey is a large part of why we’re here.

Here’s a brief summary of twelve of the key lessons I shared with the Fellows before the retreat wrapped up earlier today.

  1. Don’t be in a hurry. Grow your organisation on your own terms.
  2. Don’t assume you need money to grow. Do what you can before you reach out to external funders.
  3. Volunteers and Interns may not be the silver bullet to your human resource issues.
  4. Pursue and maximise every opportunity to promote your work.
  5. Remember that your website, for most people, is the primary window to you and your idea.
  6. Know when to say “no”. Manage expectations.
  7. Avoid being dragged down by the politics of the industry you’re in. Save your energy for more important things.
  8. Learn to do what you can’t afford to pay other people to do.
  9. Be open with the values that drive you.
  10. Collaborate if it’s in the best interests of solving your problem, even if it’s not in your best interests.
  11. Make full use of your networks, and remember that the benefits of being in them may not always be immediate.
  12. Remember the bigger picture.
Further/related reading:

October 18, 2011   85 Comments

ICT4D postcards

“Luxury Travel Stories is about the idea of connecting the world via ‘stories’ in postcard format. A photo with accompanying text no more than what would fit on the back of a postcard”.

Last month I was invited to contribute a postcard to the Luxury Travel Stories project, and chose the photo – and text – below. You can view the post, and those from other contributors, here. The whole site is based on the idea of “connecting the world via ‘stories’ in postcard format. A photo with accompanying text no more than what would fit on the back of a postcard”. Like “Dear Photograph” (which I blogged about here), it’s a simple but compelling idea.

It was 2004, and I was working on a project which took me to the intersection of technology and international development. Much to many people’s surprise, mobile phones were beginning to make their way into parts of rural Africa, including areas like that in the photo. This is Bushbuckridge – an area which straddles Kruger National Park in South Africa. These women spend most of their days queueing for water, and we pulled up one morning when I took this shot. I use it a lot in my work. It highlights the challenges we face in the development community, and challenges me to think hard about the role of technology – if any – in improving people’s lives.

One of the things I’ve always maintained is that we often know little about the background and motivation of people working in our field, and how they came to work in it. So, in part as a way to rectify this I thought it would be great to put together a slideshow of ICT4D-related postcards to share online.

If you’d like to take part I’ll need the following:

1. A photo (high resolution if possible) – one you’ve taken, please. All it needs to qualify is to have a technology theme – radio, mobile phone, computer, solar lamp and so on.
2. Details of where it was taken and the year (if you remember).
3. A short description of what it is, and why it means something to you. Keep it short – think back of a postcard! We want personal stories – how you connect with the picture – not just a description of what it is.
4. A link to your website, blog or Twitter handle (or all three) so I can point people back to you and your work.

You can email all of this to postcards@kiwanja.net

Once I have enough I’ll pull everything together and drop it into Slideshare. If enough people contribute it might be fun to map the photos, and stories, on Ushahidi.

Looking forward to seeing where this goes…

October 14, 2011   36 Comments

The inspiration at the heart of innovation

I couldn’t figure out last night, when I woke at 2am, why Twitter was over capacity. A few minutes later I got the answer. Steve Jobs had passed away. A quick visit to the BBC website confirmed the news. Ashton Kutcher (of all people) seemed to sum the mood up well:

Steve Jobs gave an address to students at Stanford University in June 2005. These seven quotes are the highlights for me, and give us a glimpse of the man – what drove him, what made him tick, his passion for what he did, and how he saw his place in the world.

Steve Jobs. 1955 – 2011.

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life”

“I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life”

“Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle”

“When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something”

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart”

“Death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away”

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary”

October 6, 2011   22 Comments

Rethinking socially responsible design in a mobile world

“The Curry Stone Design Prize was created to champion designers as a force for social change. Now in its fourth year, the Prize recognizes innovators who address critical issues involving clean air, food and water, shelter, health care, energy, education, social justice or peace”.

Yesterday was an exciting day for us as we announced FrontlineSMS had won the prestigious 2011 Curry Stone Design Prize. This award follows closely on the heels of the 2011 Pizzigati Prize, an honourable mention at the Buckminster Fuller Challenge and our National Geographic “Explorer” Award last summer. It goes without saying these are exciting times not just for FrontlineSMS but for our growing user base and the rapidly expanding team behind it. When I think back to the roots of our work in the spring of 2005, FrontlineSMS almost comes across as “the little piece of software that dared to dream big”.

With the exception of the Pizzigati Prize – which specifically focuses on open source software for public good – our other recent awards are particularly revealing. Last summer we began something of a trend by being awarded things which weren’t traditionally won by socially-focused mobile technology organisations.

Being named a 2010 National Geographic Emerging Explorer is a case in point, and last summer while I was in Washington DC collecting the prize I wrote down my thoughts in a blog post:

On reflection, it was a very bold move by the Selection Committee. Almost all of the other Emerging Explorers are either climbing, diving, scaling, digging or building, and what I do hardly fits into your typical adventurer job description. But in a way it does. As mobile technology continues its global advance, figuring out ways of applying the technology in socially and environmentally meaningful ways is a kind of 21st century exploring. The public reaction to the Award has been incredible, and once people see the connection they tend to think differently about tools like FrontlineSMS and their place in the world.

More recently we’ve begun receiving recognition from more traditional socially-responsible design organisations – Buckminster Fuller and Clifford Curry/Delight Stone. If you ask the man or woman on the street what “socially responsible design” meant to them, most would associate it with physical design – the building or construction of things, more-to-the-point. Water containers, purifiers, prefabricated buildings, emergency shelters, storage containers and so on. Design is so much easier to recognise, explain and appreciate if you can see it. Software is a different beast altogether, and that’s what makes our Curry Stone Design Prize most interesting. As the prize website itself puts it:

Design has always been concerned with built environment and the place of people within it, but too often has limited its effective reach to narrow segments of society. The Curry Stone Design Prize is intended to support the expansion of the reach of designers to a wider segment of humanity around the globe, making talents of leading designers available to broader sections of society.

Over the past few years FrontlineSMS has become so much more than just a piece of software. Our core values are hard-coded into how the software works, how it’s deployed, the things it can do, how users connect, and the way it allows all this to happen. We’ve worked hard to build a tool which anyone can take and, without us needing to get involved, applied to any problem anywhere. How this is done is entirely up to the user, and it’s this flexibility that sits at the core of the platform. It’s also arguably at the heart of it’s success:

We trust our users – rely on them, in fact – to be imaginative and innovative with the platform. If they succeed, we succeed. If they fail, we fail. We’re all very much in this together. We focus on the people and not the technology because it’s people who own the problems, and by default they’re often the ones best-placed to solve them. When you lead with people, technology is relegated to the position of being a tool. Our approach to empowering our users isn’t rocket science. As I’ve written many times before, it’s usually quite subtle, but it works:

My belief is that users don’t want access to tools – they want to be given the tools. There’s a subtle but significant difference. They want to have their own system, something which works with them to solve their problem. They want to see it, to have it there with them, not in some “cloud“. This may sound petty – people wanting something of their own – but I believe that this is one way that works.

What recognition from the likes of the Curry Stone Design Prize tells us is that socially responsible design can be increasingly applied to the solutions, people and ecosystems built around lines of code – but only if those solutions are user-focused, sensitive to their needs, deploy appropriate technologies and allow communities to influence how these tools are applied to the problems they own.

Further reading
FrontlineSMS is featured in the upcoming book “Design Like You Give a Damn 2: Building Change From The Ground Up”, available now on pre-order from Amazon.

October 5, 2011   19 Comments