Social innovation and the art of reinvention

Big companies are on the move.

Within the next few weeks Microsoft will officially launch Windows 8. Their flagship operating system has undergone a complete redesign on a scale not seen since Windows 95. Myspace are going through a vigorous rebranding exercise ahead of a major relaunch. And Nokia are feeling the pain as they work through a huge shift in their approach to the smart phone market. Three different organisations. Three different challenges. One thing in common.

Windows 8 is Microsoft‘s response to the growing threat of the smartphone and tablet, two high-growth markets where they’re not yet major players.

Myspace are attempting a fight back for fourth time as their value and online membership continue to lose ground on the Facebook’s of this world.

And Nokia, like many device manufacturers, got totally caught out by the iPhone which did, in fact, change everything. As market leaders they had furthest to fall. The rest is history.

Three companies, three challenges, all responses to external market pressures. In a sense, you might argue that the ultimate destiny of these companies is no longer in their hands. Out of the three, Microsoft are best placed in that they’re responding at a time they’re still relatively dominant. It’s the opposite for Myspace and Nokia, who in reality are on the slide and attempting to fight back from much weaker positions. If either gets their new strategy wrong, it could be curtains.

Today, Apple are riding high and can do no wrong. But they’d be the first to admit that they’re in a precarious position – they, after all, have it all to lose. Despite the rhetoric, we’re yet to see a true iPhone killer, but there will be one. And Apple need to make sure it’s them who build it. Apple, in a sense, have to kill their own product if they’re to succeed in an increasingly competitive future.

This kind of “inward reinvention” is not so common in the ICT4D world. Solutions come and go, pilot projects come and go, some organisations even come and go. The vast majority of the changes we see are driven by one single external factor – technological innovation. Think of all the new projects and organisations that have come about as a result of the growth of smart phones in emerging markets. And think of all the new ones that will exist when tablet computers, or 4G, become ubiquitous.

Once they’re up-and-running, few ICT4D-focused organisations undergo radical changes in their approaches or technologies, instead focusing on incremental upgrades to policies and technologies. Some of those are voluntary, but many are forced by new entrants into the market, new technologies, or some kind of paradigm shift. It’s those that strike first – adapting their approaches and offerings before change is forced upon them – that will survive in an increasingly competitive world. And, yes – developing solutions to the world’s social and environmental ills is a competitive industry.

Although technology-focused non-profits don’t face the same problems as their commercial counterparts, this doesn’t mean they shouldn’t regularly rethink their strategy, their brand, their leadership or their technology solutions. If they’re to succeed in the longer term they need to be the ones in the driving seat, not the ones simply responding to external pressures or developments. ICT4D as a sector is still relatively new in the grand scheme of things, and as things hot up – as they will – increasing numbers of organisations will end up calling it a day. Fortune will favour the brave.

Many find themselves under pressure in a few key areas:

Increasing competition for funding. The number of technology-focused social enterprises is rising at a higher rate than available funding, putting a squeeze on donors. Social enterprises responding with hybrid models – allowing them to raise investment as well as donations – will stand a better chance in this brave new world, as will those who master the emerging crowd funding phenomenon.

The democratisation of development. As I wrote in a recent BBC Future article, the spread of the Internet and mobile phones means there are likely more people working on solving social and environmental problems in the world today than ever before in human history. There’s a lot of competition out there, and a lot is coming from garden sheds, bedrooms and kitchen tables.

The rise of local innovation hubs. For quite some time there’s been general agreement that the best people to solve developing world problems are people in the developing world. I’ve always maintained that the greater the distance between a problem and the problem solver, the less likely the chance of success. The rise of local innovation hubs around the world – Africa in particular – means that not only is that distance shrinking, it’s nurturing entirely new industries in developing countries.

An increasing focus on emerging markets from large companies. Non-profits have historically only had to compete with other non-profits, but that’s no longer the case. Designing (mobile) applications for the next billion, or the bottom of the pyramid, or the other 90% – whatever you choose to call it – is big business. IBM’s announcement earlier this month that their next research centre will be based in Nairobi – their first in Africa – is further proof. According to IBM, “We want to help train Africans to innovate in Africa. The best minds there should be working on big national problems and African problems”. Google, Microsoft, Nokia, Hewlett Packard and Samsung – among others – have set up shop there, too.

In a couple of months time I’ll be celebrating my tenth year in mobiles-for-development. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have been there from almost the beginning, and I’ve seen first-hand the growth of the discipline and the impact of the technology on communities across Africa. The next ten years will present a whole new set of challenges for our sector, and if many ICT4D-focused organisations are going to survive they’re going to need to work very hard – and be very brave – to stay one step ahead of the game.

Something Myspace, Nokia (and Blackberry, come to think of it) – with all their resources – failed to do.

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