The end of a golden age of discovery?

Exactly six years ago this week I was in Washington DC to collect the Pizzigati Prize for Software in the Public Interest, and award given each year to an individual who has created or led an effort to create an open source software product of significant value to the non-profit sector and movements for social change. While the Prize came in a golden spell for me and my work, I wonder if that golden age of discovery in our wider sector – which I was privileged to be a part of – is now over?

When Livingstone, Stanley and Speke set out on their voyages of adventure across Africa, their objective was not only discovery but to show the impossible was possible – that you could penetrate into the heart of Africa – the ‘Dark Continent’ – and live to tell the tale. Although later discoveries and adventures still roused public and press interest (and awards and recognition for the individuals involved) for many that early raw, frontier period was gone, never to return.

Bushbuckridge, South Africa (2003). A frontier of mobile exploration. Photo: Ken Banks

When I look back through the 15-year history of kiwanja.net, much of the first few years felt like a period of raw expectation and raw exploration. It was a bit of a Wild West. Nobody really knew what would work, how it might work, or who it might benefit. Most people weren’t even aware of the early signs of what was to famously become the ‘mobile revolution’. Back then, innovation wasn’t a word thrown around casually, you could have put everyone working in mobile-for-development into a local cinema, and there wasn’t such a thing as best practice. For me and many of those around me, it felt like those early days for Livingstone, Stanley and Speke. It felt like we were making trails that others might follow, but we didn’t know where they would lead, if anywhere, and what we might learn.

My early work, without any doubt, felt like it came in a golden age. It felt like we were forging a path – one centred around the use of SMS in conservation and development – where no-one else had been before. Like those early Africa explorers, interest and fascination among the public and press was high. And because of it, the project grew and awards and recognition came. Over a six year period multiple fellowships, awards and prizes arrived, along with considerable amounts of funding for FrontlineSMS which, for a while, seemed to be everywhere. You could try anything, safely in the knowledge that it was unlikely anyone else had tried it before.

In the true spirit of adventure, in 2010 I had the huge privilege of being named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. At the time it felt like a very bold move by the Selection Committee. Almost all of the other Emerging Explorers were either climbing, diving, scaling, digging or building, and what I do hardly fits into your typical adventurer job description. But as I think about it today, as I write this post, in a way it does. As mobile technology continued its global advance, figuring out ways of applying the technology in socially and environmentally meaningful ways was a kind of 21st century exploring. Since 2010 a number of other friends and colleagues have gone on to be named Emerging Explorers whilst working in the technology sector, continuing a trend at National Geographic of reframing exploration in a digital age.

Today – as I reflect on this, the later stages of my career – my time is increasingly spent helping others cut their own route, and sharing stories of those who succeed. Today we have more tools than ever at our disposal to help solve the social and environmental problems around us – perhaps too many – but despite this the golden age feels over. Our field has become professionalised, and with it we have lost a lot of the magic.

In reality, all that has really changed is that frontiers have shifted. Maybe I just prefer the one I lived through all those years ago.

Announcing our Four-Part Manifesto for Change

For almost fifteen years kiwanja.net has been home for our hopes, dreams and frustrations on all things technology, social innovation, and international conservation and development. During that time we’ve widely travelled, spoken, published, built, consulted, mentored and despaired. It’s been an incredible journey that started in early 2003 on the fringes of Kruger National Park, and we’ve had plenty of opportunities to see what does and what doesn’t work along the way. Crucially, we’ve stayed small and independent over that time, allowing us to remain honest and challenging when and where we need to be.


Where it all began. Early mobile phone research in Bushbuckridge, South Africa. Photo: Ken Banks

One of our earlier, seminal posts from 2009 – “Time to eat our own dog food?” – challenged the sector to not waste the opportunity that mobile phones gave us, asking:

Is the future of social mobile an empowered few, or an empowered many? Mobile tools in the hands of the masses presents great opportunity for NGO-led social change, but is that the future we’re creating?

Sadly, much of the same argument outlined in that post can be applied today, placing something of a question mark over what progress we’ve made. We know, for example, that many projects still rarely optimise for their beneficiaries and the environments in which they operate, and despite what they often claim, many set out as solutions looking for a problem. Too many initiatives still lead with technology, and fail to scale into sustainable programs – in part because donors are constantly under pressure to disburse funds to new and ‘innovative’ projects, rarely giving older projects time to mature.

There is still no minimum standard for funding development projects, either. As a result, money struggles to find it’s way to the projects most likely to succeed, and a vicious cycle ensues. Worse still, despite talk of local capacity building and ownership, the vast majority of programs are still conceptualised, executed and funded by outsiders and parachuted in.

And to top it all, as a sector we still lack a shared vision of the future we all should be working towards. All of this adds up to a cycle of underperformance, perpetuated by the fact that feedback loops between donors, practitioners, policy makers, academia, civil society and program beneficiaries remain at best weak.

We can, and should, be better than this.

One thing I’m particularly proud of is that we’ve offered solutions when we’ve identified problems over the years. It’s far too easy to rant about how rubbish everything is, and it goes without saying it’s much harder, yet undoubtedly more productive, to offer ways forward. Over the past few years in particular, many of those bigger ideas have sufficiently matured to allow us to today launch our new Four-Part Manifesto for Change.

This new Manifesto focuses on four areas in particular that we feel need positive disruption in our field.

PAINTING A SHARED, FUTURE VISION
Working closely with innovators and entrepreneurs from the places where the problems exist, we propose the creation of a new policy paper that helps us achieve a future where local innovators and local innovations drive the development agenda. You can download a summary PDF of that proposal here.

A NEW CODE OF CONDUCT FOR DONORS
We believe that donors are in an ideal position to stem the flow of poorly thought-out or inadequately planned technology-for-development projects and propose the adoption of a Charter to put things right. You can read about that here.

SERIOUSLY GET BEHIND OUR TOP TALENT
Offering long-term support to some of our top talent would increase the chances of them – and us – having a positive global impact. We focus too much on projects and not the people who drive them. You can read our thoughts on a new Global Fellowship Programme here.

TIME TO ANSWER THE BIG QUESTION
Do international development projects designed and managed at grassroots level perform better than those managed from the outside? The debate rages, so we propose a development challenge to help us find the answer. You can read more about how that might work here.

To reach our full potential, and to alleviate as much suffering on the planet as possible, we need to be bold, embrace appropriate innovation and be open to disruption in our own sector, not just others. We need to face up to our problems, failures and inefficiencies, and be brave in seeking new solutions when things go wrong. Our Manifesto offers four new solutions to four of those long-standing problems.

We hope this might be the start of a wider, bolder conversation where we begin putting into action projects and programmes that put the needs of the people we seek to help before those of ourselves or our organisations – however uncomfortable that may be.

You can read more on our Manifesto at hackingdevelopment.org

Time for a ‘slow innovation’ movement?

brooks-shawshank

Dear fellas. I can’t believe how fast things move on the outside. I saw an automobile once when I was a kid, but now they’re everywhere. The world went and got itself in a big damn hurry
Brooks – quoted in the Shawshank Redemption

Today everyone seems to be in such a rush. From the time it takes to fly across the Atlantic to the time it takes Google to pull together your search results, speed is everything. Products are increasingly rushed to market, investors are increasingly impatient for exit and the social innovation community – that’s us – are increasingly impatient for scale. We have innovation accelerators left, right and centre and if we fail, well, we need to do that fast as well. When did we get in such a big hurry?

When I speak at conferences I often highlight the disconnect between funding cycles and the time it takes for a technology solution to firstly get a little traction, and then get to some kind of scale (depending on your definition of scale). Typically, how long does it take an innovation to take hold? One year? Two years? Three years? Five years? If we’re honest we don’t know. All we do know is that we usually lose patience (or interest) after a couple of years or so.

I often speak of my own experience with FrontlineSMS, which took about three years to really get going, and – if I’d taken funding and committed to deadlines and deliverables early on – how it would likely have not made it that long. As a product, maybe it just needed three years to bed in, to take hold in the imagination of its users, for news to filter down. If that’s the case then speeding up the process through an accelerator of some kind would have been counterproductive, and perhaps also lead to an early demise. Sometimes things just take time.

It begs the question: How many potentially great products have died prematurely because they weren’t given the time? Or because they were rushed? What proportion of projects do accelerators kill compared to those they genuinely accelerate?

As with many things in the social innovation and international development sectors (including innovation challenges), we don’t have the evidence either way. Just as small is often cited as beautiful, perhaps we need to recognise that sometimes slow might be sensible?

slow-movement

Accelerators almost certainly have their place as one of a number of tools and approaches, but we seem to be painting everything with the same brush. Acceleration might not be best for everyone and everything. Maybe speed only really matters if:

  • You’ve quit your day job and need to start earning money fast
  • You’ve banked some money to prove your idea – and the clock is ticking
  • You’re working to some arbitrary deadline – a competition closing date, or a school term, or a funding deadline
  • You’re working in the midst of an unfolding crisis and your solution was needed yesterday
  • You’re worried that a ‘competitor’ is going to beat you to market
  • You’re impatient

In the social innovation and international development worlds we seem to have fallen into our fair share of self-made traps. Assuming scale is everything is one of them. So is believing that open source is best for everything – without question. And that innovation challenges hold the key to unlocking all our great ideas.

Maybe questioning why we’re always in such a damn hurry should be another.