Global development R&D: Maintaining a balance

My first brush with technology-for-development, almost twenty years ago, wasn’t on the potential of the Internet, or how mobile phones were going to change, well, everything. To be honest, neither were really on the development radar in any meaningful way back then. It’s almost funny to imagine a time when that was the case.

No, my first contact with what was to become a career in ICT4D started off with an essay on the failure of plough and cook stove projects across Africa. I was struck by the beauty of simple, locally appropriate solutions and amazed at how development experts just didn’t seem (or want) to get it. Many of their failed initiatives seemed more like a reaction against them – that, as experts, they were expected to come out with something the opposite of simple, primitive, practical. This they did, but very little of it ever worked.

smallisbeautifulIt was around this time that I also came across the work of E. F. Schumacher and his brilliant 1973 book, Small is Beautiful. The lessons in his book apply just as much today in a world dominated by digital technologies – a world he would never have imagined back then. World Watch magazine interviewed me a few years ago on why his appropriate technology ethos was just as relevant today. It’s well worth a read.

Our obsession with the latest shiny technology hasn’t gone away, either. History repeats itself and, despite being armed with a range of tools and solutions that work, experts still appear to rebel against them because they’re digitally too simple, primitive or practical. And, again, many of their alternative ‘innovative’ solutions simply don’t work.

Sure, there needs to be a degree of emphasis on new tools, new solutions, new ways of tackling old problems. This – the R&D side of the development machine – is essential but it needs to be kept in balance. The average R&D spend among top UK companies in a recent survey was 5%. No company in its right mind would spend most of its money on research and development and ignore its bread and butter, namely its current products and services, and current customers.

95-5-Rule

How about the global development sector make a commitment to spend, say, 5% of its funding on blue sky, high tech, high risk forward-looking ideas, and commit the rest to funding the really simple, primitive, appropriate solutions we already have that are proven to work? 5% of global development spending is still a few billion dollars, more than enough to invest in the next big thing.

And how about it pool these funds and create a single Global Development R&D Fund? A better coordinated approach might result in better outcomes, and it could better manage its external communications. The amount available would compare quite favourably with R&D spends of the bigger tech companies (source: Atlas)

Tech-Co-RandD-Spend

Right now, with an increasing big data, drones and wearables obsession (among others), you get the sense that global development R&D lacks coordination and spends too much of its time, energy, focus and resources on high-risk ideas. While it toys around with the next big thing people are going to bed hungry, dying of treatable diseases, at school with no pens or books, or drinking polluted water. All of these things can be put right with the technologies we possess today, but they’re not. I’ve never understood why. We should only allow ourselves the luxury of looking to the future once we’ve fixed the solvable problems of the present.

While the development community needs to naturally look ahead, it also needs to remember the people suffering today, those who might not be around to reap the benefits of any cool drone, big data or wearable solution of the future. Every life matters, after all. You get a sense that in the development space, R&D spending is way out of control as it feeds its obsession with cool, shiny and innovative.

So let’s keep that R&D budget in check, be more open with how much is being spent on speculative new ideas which may go nowhere, and make sure we don’t forget our bread and butter – our current (working) products and services, and our current customers – the poor, marginalised and vulnerable out there who, through no fault of their own, desperately need our help. Today.

Every three seconds

Every three seconds, someone in the world dies from hunger or extreme poverty.

In a society where materialism reigns, what is the real secret to happiness? Award-winning filmmaker Daniel Karslake (For the Bible Tells Me So) tells the unforgettable stories of five regular folks – a boy, a college student, a thirty-something and two seniors – whose lives went from ordinary to extraordinary based on one simple decision: to engage. Each chose action over apathy, and in the process, each one has had a significant and lasting impact on two of the most challenging, yet solvable, issues of our time: hunger and extreme poverty.

About two years ago, Daniel reached out and invited me to take part in the making of his film. We sat for a morning in a London office and talked technology, social innovation and people who were making a difference in the world. One of those people, Josh Nesbit, is featured heavily in the film. Josh and I met back in 2008 during my time at Stanford University, and he’s gone on to help build Medic Mobile. It was an honour to sit with Daniel and share my thoughts on an ever-expanding field.

In addition to Josh, the film also features the work of Charlie Simpson, a seven-year old supporting UNICEF UK’s work in Haiti; Lisa Shannon, who’s advocating for women’s rights in Congo; Ingrid Munro whose work is providing a ladder out of poverty in Kenya; and Gloria Henderson who is focused on ending hunger in America. You can read more about their work, and how to engage, on the film website here.

You can see a short trailer of the film above, or visit the film website for further details and how to watch or order. There’s a further promotional video here:

Every Three Seconds is a film about doing well by doing good – about changing the world and changing your own life in the process.

Watch it.

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?