ICT4D students: The world is your classroom

It seems courses in business and innovation are getting a hard time these days. First, Peter Jones, a 49-year-old serial entrepreneur in the UK, said he believed that hands-on experience was far more valuable to potential business leaders than several years studying theory in a lecture theatre. Then we had the likes of Peter Thiel, Scott Cook and Elon Musk telling us they believed business school graduates were hurting, rather than helping, innovation.

If we’re overstating the role of education in entrepreneurship and innovation, are we doing the same with social innovation and ICT4D?

Most people working in technology-for-development seem to agree the field isn’t in the best of health, with a whole range of problems persisting since the birth of the discipline decades ago. We have a constant stream of books telling us how we’re failing, without anything really changing. The technology toolkit expands and shifts, sure, but the difficulties we have in applying and implementing it stays the same. Is the way we’re ‘teaching people to do ICT4D’ part of the problem?

Empathy is a key step in the education process, but one we often skip (image via edsi.org.uk)

Empathy is a key step in the education process, but one we often skip (image via edsi.org.uk)

In The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator, I shared my concerns with what I saw as the institutionalisation of social change (which includes the broader global development and technology-for-development fields). The essence of the book began to develop during my time at Stanford University where I became increasingly exposed to social entrepreneurship, social innovation and design thinking as academic disciplines. I found myself meeting increasing numbers of smart young people looking to colleges and universities to equip them with the skills they felt they needed to ‘go out and change the world’.

I was a bit taken aback. You didn’t need qualifications to change the world, did you? Often I’d dig deeper and ask what they wanted to do when they graduated. Answers such as ‘I want to be a social entrepreneur’ perplexed me. Few people I know in the messy, often frustrating world of social entrepreneurship ever set out with the explicit aim of becoming one. Rather, they stumbled across a problem, a wrong or a market inefficiency which bothered them to such an extent that they decided to dedicate much – if not all – of their lives to putting it right. It was rarely, if ever, part of a wider plan.

Many of the students I met were unlikely to experience that problem, wrong, injustice or market inefficiency within the walls of their college or university. And, worse, many had never even stepped foot in the villages and communities they were aspiring to help. I agree that teaching the mechanics of social innovation or ICT4D may be helpful, yes, but only if matched with passion, and a cause, to which people can apply it, and genuine experience and empathy with – and for – the people you wish to help.

What I was witnessing at Stanford, and almost everywhere I have been since, was the increasing institutionalisation of social entrepreneurship and social innovation. This is unhelpful on many fronts, not to mention that it could easily be seen as a barrier by many motivated young people unable to take a course. Worse still, it implied that social change was a well- thought out process, when in reality it isn’t.

Bushbuckridge. Photo: Ken Banks

In ICT4D we’re so fixed on the technology – the ICT bit – that we often forget the ‘D’ – that minor inconvenience we call ‘development’. Fewer and fewer people seem to be making the effort to teach or learn the D, and this is a huge problem. It’s almost arrogant, and certainly disrespectful, to imply you can help people far far away you have never spoken to, and whose country, let alone village, you have never been to.

The first thing we should be teaching ICT4D students is development – the state of the world, how we got there, and what it means for the billions of people who for no fault of their own are on the receiving end of a life in poverty. Sure, getting on a plane and actually going somewhere for a few months (longer ideally) is difficult. But that’s no excuse for not doing it. For people who can’t, there are likely many problems in their own communities they could turn their attention to.

If we’re to fix ICT4D then the best place to start is by properly educating the ICT4D practitioners of tomorrow. If we don’t then little will change, and change is what we need.

The “Tweet. Recycle. Repeat” of ICT4D

During a rare, quiet, bored few minutes last week I looked through a few early blog posts from some of the longer standing members of the ICT4D community. Between around 2012 and now, many of the same statements, proclamations and questions have come up time and time and time again. The same tweets with the same outcome – usually nothing. Many have regularly appeared on my blog over the past seven or eight years, too, without making the slightest bit of difference.

I recently wrote about the need to stop just meeting up and repeating ourselves in the ICT4D echo chamber, which is what has been happening. But suffice to say it continues, and likely will, for as long as the discipline survives. The most obvious impact of all this activity are tweets and retweets of surprise every time something is said, even if it has been said for the past five years. If we’re looking to keep ourselves in a job and not fix anything, this isn’t a bad strategy, I suppose.

Here’s just a few of the things we’ve been saying over and over again for years.

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Okay, so no more pilots. Let’s put an end to ‘pilotitus’. Other than talking, what are we going to do about it, precisely? And how can we enforce it?

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Okay, after decades of trying we have done some stuff right. So how do we identify the stuff that works and genuinely support that? Other than talking, what are we going to do about it, precisely? And how can we enforce it?

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Yup. The world doesn’t need any more data collection tools or SMS gateways. So how do we put an end to this constant replication and reinvention? Other than talking, what are we going to do about it, precisely? And how can we enforce it?

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In many cases it’s still unclear who should pay to do monitoring and evaluation. Donors seem to think grantees should do it, and grantees only seem prepared to do it if the donor has given money for it. Other than talking, how are we going to fix this, precisely? And how can we enforce it?

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Hallelujah. After years of ignoring the end user we’re now entering an age (in ICT4D and global conservation and development, more broadly) where we think it’s a good idea to be consulting our end user. But it still doesn’t happen as much as it should. What are we going to do about it, precisely? And how can we enforce it?

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Everyone loves talking about appropriate technologies, but then they go off and build iPad apps for African farmers. We need to lead with the problem and the people, not the technology. But other than saying this, what are we going to do about it, precisely? And how can we enforce it?

When it comes to talking, blogging and tweeting ‘best practice’, I’m as guilty as the next person. We all do it, and we all rightly believe in what we’re saying. But talk is cheap if we do something very different on the ground (or do nothing at all). And after 12 years working in ICT4D/m4d I seem to keep seeing the same questions and issues raised over and over again. I’m sure I’m right when I say we all want to do the best we can for the people we serve. If we’re under performing then that’s something we all should naturally want to address.

Of course it’s pretty easy to rant about how bad things are, but that’s little use if you don’t offer any solutions. I’ve been trying to do more of that lately, publishing a book – The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator – to challenge conventional wisdom around how social innovation happens and should be done. I also launched the Donors Charter which seemed to stir up all sorts of trouble, breaking the SSIR commenting system in the process. Check out the Stanford Social Innovation Review post if you’ve got a couple of hours spare.

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The Charter, in short, proposed (quite logically in my mind) that if donors largely control what gets funded, all they needed to do was ask potential grantees a few simple questions before they handed over their money. We could then put a stop to some of the repetitive bad practice that we see. Donors all sign up to the Charter, and enforce it among themselves.

Of course, whether anything like this gets adopted is out of my control. But at least it’s a possible solution, not a rant.

Passions often get fired up in these kinds of debate, and it’s wonderful to see so much of it around ICT4D and m4d, particularly on how we can move the disciplines forward. But if the people and organisations with teeth in the non-profit sector aren’t in the room, and don’t act, then nothing will ever change. Perhaps everyone is too comfortable with how things are, and perhaps people don’t really want change.

Or perhaps we’re only comfortable with disruption as long as it doesn’t happen to us. Tweet that.

Talking ICT4D

Back in 2009 I carried out something of an experiment. Me and Erik Hersman attended ICT4D in Doha. For both of us it was our first time at a ‘professional’ tech-for-development gathering. After hearing and writing so much about the disconnect between academia and practitioners in ICT4D, I wanted to see if it existed – and in what form – for myself.

I wasn’t disappointed. After just one day it became blatantly clear that the majority of people were attending to share their research, and latest paper, and to tick boxes. The audience were the other speakers. It was a very self-serving event, to say the least.

In the corridor outside the main hall sat – among others – Erik, Brenda, Patrick and I. We weren’t reading papers (or our blog posts) to each other, but trying to find ways of getting FrontlineSMS, Ushahidi and Freedom Fone to play nicely together. Clearly, the needs of the practitioners there were very different to everyone else, namely the academics, observers, ICT4D professionals and other recognised ‘experts’.

In six years, little seems to have changed. When I look today at the frequent and regular ICT4D conferences, gatherings and meetups – most of them entrenched in Western corridors – I continue to wonder. Who are the audience? What is the purpose? Objective? Impact? Is it the same people who attend – and speak at – most of these events?

My hunch is that, like in Doha, practitioners out there are having very different conversations than the ‘professional’ tech-for-development players. The needs of the two camps continue to be very different. I meet few social entrepreneurs or social innovators obsessing relentlessly about big data or drones. That seems to be a luxury for others.

Thankfully, increasing amounts of the more interesting stuff in ICT4D is beginning to happen outside the official development system. Give it a few years and most of it will be. Maybe there ought to be a few more conferences about that.