m4d: The fun is over. Time to get tough?

I’m all for discussion and debate, and I’ve taken part in my fair share over the past eleven years. But I’m now beginning to wonder if, after all this time, everything we could have said has been said. The fact we’re still talking about the same handful of challenges and issues implies that very little, if anything, has changed where it matters – on the ground. Have we really made so little progress?

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but it wasn’t until the recent Guardian Activate conference that the scale of the problem finally drove home.

It’s worth mentioning that I wasn’t at the event this year, but I did follow from a distance. To be honest, sometimes it’s better to listen and reflect from the outside, and as my train hurtled towards London it became increasingly obvious that much of the early conversation followed a similar pattern to many of the other technology-for-good conferences I’d attended over the years.

If, about a decade ago, we’d listed all of the questions, unknowns, problems and challenges faced by the ICT4D community, it would probably have looked something like this:

  • How do we replicate and scale?
  • How do we measure impact?
  • How do we stop the reinventing of wheels?
  • How do we avoid being ‘technology-lead’?
  • How do we break out of our silos?
  • What is our business/sustainability model?
  • Is open source a help or a hindrance?
  • How do we maximise the opportunity mobile brings?

If we made the same list today, it would probably look something like this:

  • How do we replicate and scale?
  • How do we measure impact?
  • How do we stop the reinventing of wheels?
  • How do we avoid being ‘technology-lead’?
  • How do we break out of our silos?
  • What is our business/sustainability model?
  • Is open source a help or a hindrance?
  • How do we make sense of the countless pilots taking place?

The only difference is the last one. We’ve gone from not really knowing what to do with mobile phones to a position of everyone everywhere trying to solve something with them, whether or not they’re the right tool for the job. It’s still a problem, but arguably a more serious one.

These questions – and many others like them – might keep academics in work, but they’re serious issues for practitioners, too. Project owners and tools developers are rarely clear on their positions on open source, or scale, or their interpretation of ‘appropriate technology’. Among other things this leads to confusion and unnecessary competition (yes, the non-profit world is competitive). I attempted to put a stop to some of this in a post called “Our “social mobile” line in the sand” way back in May 2009, without success. I wonder if the time is right for someone to try again?

None of us surely want to sit in yet another conference, gathering or workshop and hear the same things over and over again, but that’s often what we do. And more often than not we pay good money for the privilege. Messages I personally don’t want to hear again include:

“We need to stop talking in silos”
“Projects need to build for scale from the outset”
“We need to stop reinventing wheels”
“We need more collaboration”
“We need to become sustainable”
“We need to embrace failure”
“Mobile technology has huge potential”

Can’t the m4d community come together and fix some of this? Create a code of conduct, a directory of terms and meanings, a set of best practice? With the billions of dollars funding mobile projects the world over, can’t we siphon a little off and create an overarching set of guidelines that projects and donors adhere to? Almost everything we see out there has been funded by someone, so if only the donors seriously tried to grapple with the problem – and got strict with what they funded – we’d almost certainly make serious progress.

Some of this stuff isn’t difficult. Take the problem of silos. Most of the events where this comes up are silos themselves. How can someone stand up at a mobile health conference packed with only people who use mobile phones and only for health, and say we should stop talking in silos? How about a mobile health practitioner attending an agriculture conference, instead? Or one focussing on human rights? Don’t tell me mobile health projects can’t learn something from non-mobile agriculture? If, as we constantly hear, innovation and opportunity happen in unexpected places, we need to put ourselves in them a little more, as Tim Smit suggested at the Emerge Conference in 2010.

Perhaps as a sign of things to come, mentions of mPesa are increasingly banned at meetings I attend. If we have to use the same example of a successful mobile money project over and over again, doesn’t that say something about the state of mobile money?

I was recently asked what progress I thought we’d made since I wrote “Technology’s new chance to make a difference” for the Guardian in January 2012. In the areas of best practice, adopting more appropriate technology and mainstreaming ICT4D, sadly I had to admit very little. As I wrote three years earlier:

I spent the best part of my university years critiquing the efforts of those who went before me. Countless others have done the same. Looking to the future, how favourably will the students and academics of tomorrow reflect on our efforts? If the next thirty years aren’t to read like the last then we need to re-think our approach, and re-think it now

The development sector is hardly awash with success. The m4d community have a great chance to buck the trend. The big question is, will we?

Further reading
An inconvenient truth?

Time to think message and motivation

Few companies succeed if they don’t take the time to understand their users. Fewer non-profit ventures succeed if they don’t either. After recently ‘moving on’ from FrontlineSMS and a ten year spell focusing exclusively on ICT4D, I’m beginning to realise that much of the wider technology-based social sector suffers from not-too-dissimilar problems. Few people, it seems, working on software-based solutions have much of an appreciation of the motives to engage, and the technical literacy, of their target audience. Whenever that’s the case, things tend not to turn out too well.

For the past few years I’ve been taking an increasing interest in economic resilience, particularly how technology could be applied to buffer local communities from global economic downturns. Ironically, since I started that research the world has entered a period of growing economic uncertainty. The causes – although fascinating – don’t so much interest me, more the response at local, grassroots level and the response from the social sector, particularly those turning to technology to provide some of the answers.

My Means of Exchange project particularly motivates me because it’s tasked with understanding what drives some local people (and not others) to resort to alternative methods of exchange, particularly during times of hardship, and explores how we might motivate the wider global community to adopt a healthier mix of exchange as a part of its daily lives – before things get bad. Money has become the dominate means of exchange in almost all of our lives, to the detriment of all the more creative, flexible methods that came before it.

In parallel with all of this is a growing interest in the sharing economy, and local and digital currencies which – if adopted widely enough – might just loosen the stranglehold of legal tender. And therein lies the problem. No matter how good the technology, solution or service, in almost all cases if it’s not adopted widely enough it’s unlikely to succeed. And one of the biggest problems many alternative exchange tools have is that they’re just not marketed or promoted well enough to reach anywhere near the tipping point they need. I talked a lot about the difficulties the local sustainability and alternative economy movements have in effectively communicating its message, and engaging their audience, in a recent ten minute talk at Pop!Tech.

Sadly, it’s an area that continues to be overlooked.

A couple of weeks ago, at the Bitcoin London Conference, BBC reporter Rory-Cellan Jones neatly highlighted the ongoing challenge:

In case you’ve not been following the discussion, Bitcoins are an independently machine-generated digital currency (i.e. not owned or managed by any country or entity) which some people believe will revolutionise global trade. Right now, the majority of people active in the Bitcoin world are programmers, developers and geeks, which is where many of these kinds of things start. The problem right now is the language of the movement is far too technical, and this is a problem. Even going to Wikipedia to get an explanation of Bitcoins would leave most of the general public scratching their heads:

Bitcoin (code: BTC) is a cryptocurrency where the creation and transfer of bitcoins is based on an open source cryptographic protocol that is independent of any central authority. Bitcoins can be transferred through a computer or smartphone without an intermediate financial institution.The concept was introduced in a 2008 paper by pseudonymous developer Satoshi Nakamoto, who called it a peer-to-peer, electronic cash system

There is already widespread misunderstanding of how new money is created, and clearly with Bitcoins – however good-an-alternative they may be – we’re not much better off. If shop keepers and the general public are to embrace such an idea and, let’s face it, they’ll have to for it to succeed, clearly some serious PR work needs to be done. (For a simple run-down of what the fuss is all about with Bitcoins, Bloomberg have a helpful feature here).

There is definitely a need for alternative means of exchange (note: plural), as I mentioned in an interview with Quartz recently. My belief is that a growing number of people worldwide have grown tired of being burned by globalisation and just want to get back to functioning within sustainable local systems. They need alternatives to cash, but just don’t realise it yet.

Because of the way our globalised world works (great when it does, rubbish when it doesn’t), hard-working people, and communities, are being destroyed by financial meltdown in distant places. Globalisation has eroded our incentives, and ability, to play well together as local communities, meaning we’re now less resilient to shocks of all kinds than we used to be

Everyone engaged in the alternative economy and local sustainability movement have already passed the ‘recognition threshold’ – recognition that the current system is broken to the detriment of people and planet everywhere, and that we need alternatives. But these people – me included – are in the minority. We might see how broken the system is, but we should never assume that it’s so obvious that everyone else ought to, too.

While we build the tools and, yes – the Bitcoins of the future – we need to seriously work on how we communicate. Conference gatherings have already become echo chambers for much of the ICT4D community. Whatever it is that makes people nod enthusiastically within the walls of alternative economy and sustainability events needs to first be simplified, and then communicated outside in an exciting, engaging way.

As my work over the years has taught me, technology is almost always the easy part. Behaviour change – that’s a totally different beast altogether.