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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?

6 comments

1 m4d: The fun is over. Time to get tough? | Global Health Hub: news and blogosphere aggregator { 07.29.13 at 6:39 pm }

[...] See the article here: m4d: The fun is over. Time to get tough? [...]

2 An inconvenient truth? | Build it Kenny, and they will come... { 07.30.13 at 2:58 pm }

[...] Further reading m4d: The fun is over. Time to get tough? [...]

3 m4d: The fun is over. Time to get tough? | Mobi... { 07.30.13 at 11:35 pm }

[...] 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 ha…  [...]

4 Artas { 08.08.13 at 10:02 am }

I second your opinion Ken. When it comes to solutions, however, I think that relying on Govt, donors and big organizations to drive the change and turn mobile technology into usable solutions is a forlorn hope. Call me a crooked capitalist (or closet libertarian), but I think that first of all we need entrepreneurs implementing successful projects and figuring nuts-and-bolts of running a problem-focused business without relying on grants and handouts.

Once they manage that, everything else will fall in place, e.g. Government, donors, and big organization will study to death the tricks they used and try to adopt them internally. But before that, it’s all just a talking shop with free lunches and nice per diems :)

5 kiwanja { 08.08.13 at 11:11 am }

@Artas – Thanks for the comment! I don’t think we should rely on “big solutions providers” to find the answers to these problems. Take a look at my recent “Inconvenient truth” post (linked at the end of this post) for my thoughts on where the answers will likely come from.

6 Neelley Hicks { 08.21.13 at 2:52 pm }

My hope is that The United Methodist Church can address this list and work side by side with churches globally to use these new technologies wisely and to really make life better. Thanks for provoking my thoughts around this!

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