Publishing and the art of iteration

Eighteen months ago, “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator” hit the shelves. The product of a combination of donations, crowdfunding, ten inspiring innovators, an editor with too much time on his hands, and an engaged publisher, the book was always something of an experiment. Tales of people innovating ‘outside the system’ – people with little by way of resources or money, and often without qualification or permission – just getting on with fixing social ills that deeply bothered them seemed like stories the world needed to hear.

Today, it looks like I may have underestimated the number of people who wanted to hear them.

Professional book reviews are hard to get, particularly when you self publish. But the couple we got were great (here’s one). Amazon reviews were even better – standing today at 43 and counting, and all five star reviews bar a couple. It even topped Amazon’s “Development Studies” charts for a while. All of this, of course, in addition to the couple-of-dozen fantastic post-publication endorsements we got.

Interestingly, universities and colleges around the world quickly started picking up on the book as it found its way into numerous social innovation and ICT4D classes. For me, this has been the biggest positive for the book. One typical response appeared on Amazon:

Stories for every college campus

Ken Banks has collected a volume of stories here that need to be told on every college campus. College campuses are at this moment unique seedbeds of opportunity. Populated with “Millennial Searchers” who, in increasing numbers, tell us they define life success in terms of meaning, purpose, and making a difference, and shaped by the larger movements of social entrepreneurship and sustainability, college curricula have begun shifting towards educating students to become agents for change.

What our change agents need above all right now is not more information, but stories – stories that the move them from paralysis and despair in the face of social disintegration and ecological loss to actions shaped by courage, humor, and hope. These stories do this. And because they inject so much of the raw, the uncertain, and the unformed portion of reality into their tales they are stories on which students will clamber for in the face of the challenges of their generation.

These stories speak eloquently about power – the power of connections, the power in confronting power structures for the sake of the marginal, the power of serendipity, the power of the human spirit to overcome immense challenges and work towards transformation and justice. In doing so, they function as a calling to that part of ourselves that will recreate and restore human and natural communities, that bears witness to our capacity for both good and ill, and that remembers the full range of ingenuity and wisdom we possess individually and as a species.

Wendy Petersen Boring, co-editor, “Teaching Sustainability: Perspectives from the Humanities and Social Sciences”

Over the past few months it’s become increasingly clear that I ought to make more of the book. So I started speaking to an international publisher, and am delighted to share news that I’ve now been offered a full publishing deal to release a new, revised and re-worked “Rise of the Reluctant Innovator” early next year (though the title will need to change to something a little more search-engine-friendly, apparently).

Over the summer I’ll be working with the existing chapter contributors, and some new ones, putting a little more structure around each of their stories. The essence of the book will remain the same, but we’ll make it more useful to students of social entrepreneurship and social innovation. We’ve already learnt that our approach is a little unique, and that it stands out from other books which are often dominated by theory and stuffy concepts. Ever since I started inviting FrontlineSMS users to write about their work and experiences using the software way back in 2005, I’ve been increasingly convinced that people are primarily motivated and inspired by raw stories of innovation.

Watch this space for news and updates over the coming months. In the meantime, you can check out the current book offering here.

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.

Global Development: Investors in People?

We hear it all the time. Investors invest in people, not products or ideas. Marty Zwilling, a veteran start-up mentor, describes people as the great competitive advantage. I wonder what the non-profit world might learn from people like him?

The vast majority, if not all, non-profit foundations and donors are project-focused. In contrast to many angel and traditional investors, they’re primarily interested in the products and ideas. It doesn’t matter too much who has them, as the hundreds of online development competitions and challenges testify. These investments in products and ideas, however helpful and generous they may be, almost always miss one key thing – investment in the person.

I’ve long been an admirer of the MacArthur Foundation. They were first out of the traps when FrontlineSMS began to get serious traction in 2007, and became its first donor later that summer. And yes, they invested in the product. For others not so lucky to get funding from them, MacArthur are better known for their Fellows Program, or “MacArthur Genius grants”.

Each year, the Foundation names around twenty-five Fellows who receive a no-strings-attached gift of $625,000 paid over five years. Crucially, the Fellowship is not a reward for past accomplishment, but an investment in a person’s originality, insight, and future potential. What it does, in many cases, is free up the individual financially – pays off a mortgage, covers school fees, living expenses and so on – giving the Fellow total freedom to take risks, be bold, and to pursue their dreams and future work without limitation.

In short, the purpose of the Program is to “enable recipients to exercise their own creative instincts for the benefit of human society”.

MacArthur Fellows are a broad-based bunch. In 2014 they added a physicist, a cartoonist and graphic memoirist, a lawyer, a composer, an engineer, a saxophonist and a poet among others to their cohort. It’s the breadth of the award, the many different disciplines it touches, which makes the Program so inspiring and effective. The only restriction is that all Fellows need to be residents or citizens of the United States.

I can’t help but wonder what the non-profit sector might achieve with a similar approach. Imagine if a large, private Foundation picked half-a-dozen people working in global development – people with a track record of vision, thought-leadership and execution working and living anywhere in the world – and supported them in a similar way? Imagine being able to free up some of the greatest minds – conventional and unconventional – to imagine and deliver their own vision of development into the future? Freeing them up financially would, in the same way as the MacArthur Fellowship, allow them to be bold and brave with their ideas, and in the same way “enable recipients to exercise their own creative instincts for the benefit of human society”. Isn’t benefiting human society, in essence, what the non-profit world is all about?

A Program like this could have significant impact, and the costs would be minimal in the grand scheme of things. It could unleash projects, products and ideas –  which might not have materialised otherwise – from people who have already shown they can deliver. And it would give a clear signal that people matter, and acknowledge that people drive change, not ideas.

In a blog post from 2009, I talk about the need to inspire and support the very best in our field. We’ll only tackle some of the bigger problems facing us if we do:

In the mobile world we talk a lot about project sustainability, but little about human sustainability. If we’re to have any chance of ongoing success then we need to attract the brightest young minds to the “mobile for development” field, and then give them all the support they need to keep them there.

A private Foundation, or group of Foundations, should find it easy enough to pool a few million dollars each year to develop a “Global Development Fellows Program” to support a dozen or so of the best leaders and thinkers in the field. I know from my own experience, as I transition from a relatively ‘free’ period in my professional life to one where my priorities now lie much closer to home, how much a Program like this would positively impact my ability to continue to push the boundaries in my own work.

Things may be a little too late for me, assuming I was ever considered worthy enough for such an award, but it would be my hope that it won’t be too late for others. I already see many talented people ‘selling out’, moving into the corporate world or finding a changing ‘work/life’ balance a challenge.

Global development can’t afford to keep losing people like this. If it really does want to be seen to be innovative, and really is serious about tackling some of the biggest problems facing the planet today, recognising the need to do a little more “investing in people” – and then doing it – would be the best signal yet.