Where technology meets anthropology, conservation and development
Random header image... Refresh for more!

Category — Entrepreneurship

Field of dreams

Two years ago this summer, long-time friend Erik Hersman and I took a stroll through this grass meadow in St. Ives, a small market town in Cambridgeshire where I work from a small office above a supermarket. Erik was on holiday, but that didn’t stop us taking a long walk discussing life, family and work. Erik had a few ideas on the boil, and I was entering a new phase after stepping back from day-to-day operations at FrontlineSMS a couple of months earlier.

I walk a lot, and often use the time to think, strategise and develop my ideas. The walk with Erik that day wasn’t particularly unusual, but something rather rare and unusual has happened since.

During our conversation, I told Erik I was thinking of publishing a book on social innovation – something I’d always wanted to do but lacked the seed of what I thought was a solid enough idea. That summer, a short article I’d penned – Genius Happens When You Plan Something Else – had appeared in the print edition of Wired magazine in the UK. The article looked at the concept of reluctant innovation, but was only 600 words long. I felt there was much more of a story to tell, and discussed the idea of turning the article into a full book. Erik was, of course, invited to contribute a chapter on his own life and work.

Once I’d decided to go for it, the next fifteen months were frantic. There were times the book looked like it wouldn’t come off. The first Kickstarter campaign was a spectacular failure. The second was better thought out and successful. That campaign was topped up by the Curry Stone Foundation, and a little personal funding on top took the book past a key financial hurdle. Along the way I managed to find a publisher, secure a foreword from Archbishop Desmond Tutu and collect two dozen high profile endorsements. Everything finally fell into place and in November 2013 “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator” hit the shelves, hitting top spot in Amazon’s ‘Development Studies’ chart a few months later. A number of colleges and universities in the US and UK have also picked up on the book, using it as part of their social innovation courses.

Self-publishing is tough, and a massive learning curve, but it’s been well worth it. “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator” always felt like a book that needed to exist. Thanks to that walk in the meadow, today it does.

If my book was to be difficult, Erik’s idea was on another planet. Today you’ll know the vague little black box we discussed as BRCK. The conversation was fascinating on a number of levels, and I loved the idea of a Kenyan outfit fixing an African problem that others either didn’t know about, or didn’t care about. But while we were both serial software developers, neither of us had built hardware before (although we had talked about designing and building a FrontlineSMS/Ushahidi GSM modem a couple of years earlier during one of our stints at PopTech). That summer I was about to throw myself into the murky world of publishing. Erik was on the verge of doing the same in the hardware industry. I didn’t envy him.

Two years on, and the BRCK is a reality thanks to a Kickstarter campaign that blew their total out of the water, followed up by a further $1.2 million in venture funding. (Erik was always determined to make this a business, not another non-profit venture. We’ve had many conversations about the need for a more solid business approach to the kinds of ‘development’ problems BRCK was built to solve). It’s not been easy for the team, and I’ve been fortunate to see early prototypes and have numerous behind-the-scenes conversations on the challenges of not only building hardware, but doing it from East Africa.

That said, the BRCK team have been very open about the process and they’ve regularly blogged updates when things have been going well, and not so well. “Problems, Perseverance, and Patience” gives great insight, as does this post by Erik himself which will take you through the whole BRCK story. No mention of the meadow there, though.

We constantly hear that ideas are cheap, and that it’s all about execution. To an extent, that’s true. What was unusual about that summer walk in the meadow – our field of dreams – wasn’t so much two friends sharing ideas, but two friends with a dream they both saw through. In both our worlds, BRCK and “The Rise” both felt like things that needed to exist.

Thankfully, today, they do.

July 27, 2014   4 Comments

Innovation out of necessity is alive and well

(This article first appeared on the Virgin website as part of their special feature on innovation and disruption. The original post can be read here).

While much of the West debates the pros, cons, merits and current state of technological innovation, innovators in the developing world just get on with it. And they’ve never been so busy. Innovation out of necessity is alive and well, and on the rise, according to Ashoka Fellow, Ken Banks.

For many of us, innovation is the iPhone, iPad or pretty much anything that comes from today’s high-tech production line. It’s the latest phone, laptop, smart watch or passenger aircraft, and it’s designed to make things easier, quicker, more convenient and, in some cases, just more fun. We rarely question why we feel we need the latest and greatest, why we change our phones every year, or even what the drivers might be for all these high-tech innovations. Who, for example, decided the world needed an iPad-powered coffee machine?

Much of the innovation we see in the developing world, whether the innovators behind them come from there or not, is done out of necessity. They solve very real problems, many of which happen to be faced on a daily basis by many of the poorest and most vulnerable people on the planet. Innovation here isn’t about fast, shiny or modern, it’s about solving very real problems. And many of those problems aren’t going away any time soon.

Entrepreneurs in the West may well be losing the will to innovate, although I’d suggest it’s more about ability and a conducive environment than will. Many face difficulties with funding, highly competitive markets and patent wars, all of which make for challenging times. But this is far from the case throughout much of Africa, where I’ve focused most of my efforts for the past 20 years. Many innovations here are born by the side of the road, or in rural villages without any funding at all. Furthermore, market opportunities abound and patents are the last things on people’s minds. Compared to the West, African markets are still something of a Wild West in innovation terms, and this is precisely why there’s so much focus there.

Innovation out of necessity has given Kenya, for example, a world-leading position in mobile payments. On a continent where hundreds of millions of people lacked bank accounts, mobile phones provided the answer. An estimated 40% of Kenya’s GDP now works its way through Safaricom’s M-PESA system. It’s an innovation success story, and it’s provided a platform for many other innovators to offer everything from pay-as-you-go solar lighting to villagers to automated payment platforms for microfinance organisations. The further (anticipated) opening up of systems like M-PESA will spur even more innovation in the future. This is just the beginning.

When faced with very real problems that in many cases cost lives, innovators in the developing world kick into a different gear. With little funding or resources, it’s innovation in this ‘long tail’ that is most interesting – a place where people innovate out of necessity, not luxury, and as a matter of survival or ethics, not profit or markets. Health is a classic example of these drivers at work.

Six out of the 10 chapters in my recent book, “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator”, cover health. The issues these innovators address include data collection, genetic disorders, communications between community health workers, patents, access to medicines, and solar energy as a lighting solution for maternity wards. The range of examples shows how broad and complex an issue health is, as well as the sheer scale of the need for its improvement across much of the developing world.

Many others are better placed to comment on whether entrepreneurs in the West are losing the will to innovate. Whatever the outcome of that debate, thankfully this isn’t the case in the places that matter – the places where far too many people still die from perfectly treatable diseases, or fail to reach their potential because of a lack of access to the most basic of education.

To paraphrase former Liverpool football manager, Bill Shankly, in the developing world innovation isn’t just a matter of life or death. It’s more
important than that.

May 6, 2014   1 Comment

Social innovation: Celebrating the unpolished

“I finished my first book seventy-six years ago. I offered it to every publisher on the English-speaking earth I had ever heard of. Their refusals were unanimous, and it did not get into print until, fifty years later, publishers would publish anything that had my name on it”
George Bernard Shaw (1856 – 1950)

Late last year The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator hit the shelves. It was my first taste of publishing, and if I’m honest it really started off as something of an experiment. It wasn’t until Archbishop Desmond Tutu agreed to get involved, the Curry Stone Foundation provided much-needed financial support, and my publisher pushed me to take it up a level, did I begin to let it take over my life. And for about three months that’s precisely what it did.

For most of us, publishing our first book is the epitome of thinking on our feet. Everything was new, and I had to take on every role imaginable. Publishing brings with it all the challenges of bigger, bolder projects – funding, timing, collaboration, design, messaging and outreach – all in one neat little package. Scale, for a change, is an easy one – it’s simply how many books you sell. If you’re keen for a taste of what life as an entrepreneur is like, publish a book.

Since its release, The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator has bounced around the Amazon charts, peaking on one occasion at the #1 spot in the “Development Studies” category. Bookshops around the UK began to stock it, including Waterstones. For a while it was also on the coveted “Best new releases” shelf in my local Heffers store. Nothing beats walking into a bookshop and seeing your own book sandwiched between the likes of Malcolm Gladwell and Seth Godin.

Getting the book out there is one thing. A big thing, in fact. But then comes the public reaction. While some authors aren’t too bothered, it was important to me. The general public were among my key audience, as were students and colleges/universities. The book, after all, seeks to democratise social innovation. So it was hugely gratifying to find this review posted on Amazon one morning:

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”

The book was also written in such a way to avoid ‘sell-by date syndrome’. The stories of the ten innovators, and their solutions, will never age, and neither will their advice. And this was important, because I knew the book was unlikely to set the world on fire when it launched, and that it would most likely slowly find its way into colleges and universities where it could be that book of “the raw, the uncertain, and the unformed portion of reality” that younger people seek. Santa Clara University in the USA, and Goldsmiths College in London, are among a growing number seeing this value and adopting the book. It’s going to take time, but it’s happening.

Another thing I’ve learnt is to not listen to experts. Except perhaps, when they tell you not to do something – then you’ll know that you should. During a conversation with a US book agent late last year, I was told by the expert he consulted – ‘someone who knew about these things’ – that:

I’d want to work with him to substantially transform the book from a set of stories into something more analytical and practical in terms of really going about starting one of these organisations, and that would take some real time. But even then I’m not confident about the book because there have been many published already that tell stories as good as those he’s got, as well as some that are a good deal more substantial in terms of the hands-on advice

It’s something of a revelation to me that the book I published is the polar opposite of the book I was told I should publish. If I had sought advice earlier, and taken it, my book would have been no different to the hundreds of others on the shelves. It would have focused on theory, cold analysis, expert opinion, five year plans, process, how to measure stuff and the odd third party case study. I’d never publish a book like that, not only because it’s not how I work, but also because I don’t think it in any way advances the cause. Sometimes self-publishing has its benefits – you can do anything you want, however you want. Kevin Starr nailed it when he shared his thoughts on the book recently:

These real – occasionally raw – stories do more to capture the life of the committed social entrepreneur than anything else I’ve read. Inspiring, yes, but even better, it works as a real world case-based manual for how to create change for the better

The book tries to buck the trend of ‘social innovation as a discipline’, in other words as something you need to study or learn before you can do anything. Its purpose is to create belief in talented young people with a vision to do good that meaningful change is possible, even without skills and resources. It’s not about who’s smartest – it’s about who cares the most, and who’s willing to go all the way to make that change happen.

Nor is it just a detailed analysis or unpicking of the ‘market opportunity or problem’, either, that students need – that perhaps comes later. Instead, what much of the book tries to give them is the inside line on what and how the entrepreneur was feeling when they encountered a life-changing problem. How it made them feel at a deeper level, and in turn how that passion and commitment drove them to dedicate much (if not all) of their time to solving it, and how it got them through huge obstacles and barriers. There are plenty of books that don’t do this, that don’t give the raw, unedited, deeply personal accounts of how these people and projects got started. Social innovators are rarely the hero figures we make them out to be, and people need to be able to resonate with their stories at every level.

And resonating is what they seem to be doing. From the emails and tweets I’ve received over the past three months, many people have found themselves deeply moved by some of the stories. Some have even cried on trains. Five year plans rarely do that.

Further details, including a list of endorsements and chapter contributions, and how to buy, are available from the official book website. You can also download a sample PDF which includes the cover, full foreword, introduction and endorsements, and the first two pages of each chapter, here.

February 21, 2014   No Comments

Reluctant innovators are go!

It’s been a busy few months as our new book – “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator” – has been taking shape. We’ve been finalising chapter contributions, working on the introduction, sorting out cover and chapter designs, doing last minute copy-editing, building a new website, keeping Kickstarter supporters up-to-date, and pulling in book endorsements. We got 24 of those in the end, all glowing and hugely supportive. You’ll find all of them on the inside cover of the book, or on the website (click here for a full PDF version).

All that said, everything has been delivered on time, with the new website set live on the eve of the book launch. And everything has been well worth the effort. The books look incredible.

“The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator” is aimed at a general audience, although we’re hoping it will particularly appeal to younger people interested in social innovation and social entrepreneurship, and schools, colleges and universities teaching the subject. It fills a much-needed gap in the market, one which is currently dominated by books which – often at no fault of their own – give the impression that meaningful change is only possible if you’re an MBA, or a geek, or have money or influence, or a carefully laid out five-year master plan, or all five. Let’s be honest – you don’t need qualifications to change the world.

By highlighting the stories of ten ordinary yet remarkable individuals, and the impact their work is collectively having on hundreds of millions of people around the world, “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator” shows us that anything is possible, planning isn’t everything, and that anyone anywhere can change their world for the better.

To coincide with the book launch we’ve given a limited number of interviews, with articles going out via PopTech, National Geographic, TechPresident and the Unreasonable Group. Feel free to click on any of the images below to read them.

Finally, why not check out the book website, and if you like what you see feel free to share details with your own networks. We believe this book has an important story to tell, and would love you to help us tell it.

November 21, 2013   No Comments

Charting The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who come alive”Howard Thurman (1899 – 1981)

When David Rowan, editor of Wired Magazine, invited me to write a short article for “Ideas Bank” last spring, it gave me a great opportunity to share something I’d been witnessing on an increasing scale since my days at Stanford University in 2007. The article had to be short – 600 words – and because of that I only invited a couple of friends to contribute their stories. But the seed of an idea was born, as was the concept of ‘reluctant innovation’. It was that seed which, one year on, would turn into a book set for launch in a couple of months time.

You can read the original Wired piece that inspired it here.

The new book features the likes of Medic Mobile, WE CARE Solar, Ushahidi, PlanetRead and DataDyne, and comes with a Foreword from Archbishop Desmond Tutu. “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator” highlights the personal stories of ten social innovators from around the world – ten social innovators – ordinary people – who randomly stumbled across problems, injustices and wrongs and, armed with little more than determination and belief, decided not to turn their backs but to dedicate their lives to solving them.

Take Brij Kothari, for instance. Watching yet another Spanish movie in his friend’s apartment to avoid writing up his doctoral dissertation, Brij makes a throwaway comment about subtitles, which plants the seed of an idea and spawns a literacy initiative that has had, in Bill Clinton’s words, “a staggering impact on people’s lives”.

Worried about the political turmoil in Kenya, and concerned at the lack of information that is forthcoming from his adoptive country, Erik Hersman mobilises his own five-strong army to conceive, create and launch a web-based facility that revolutionises how breaking news is disseminated worldwide.

Parachuted into the middle of sub-Saharan Africa with a brief to collect public health data, and confronted with a laborious, environmentally wasteful paper-based system, paediatrician Joel Selanikio finds the perfect outlet for the skills he acquired as a Wall Street computer consultant.

Intending to ground himself in the realities of global health during his internship in rural Malawi, Josh Nesbit discovers that it is hard to sit on the sidelines and soon finds himself proposing a solution to overcome the difficulty of connecting patients, community health workers and hospitals.

After watching local doctors and midwives struggle to treat critically ill pregnant women in near-total darkness on a Nigerian maternity ward, where an untimely power cut can mean the difference between life and death, obstetrician Laura Stachel delivers a solar-based solution that enhances survival prospects.

Observing how well the autistic son of a close friend responds to the therapeutic effects of a Chinese massage technique that she has advocated using, Louisa Silva is convinced that the treatment has the potential to benefit thousands of others, but she needs to prove it.

Haunted by the memory of being separated from her older sister during a childhood spent in foster care, and horrified that other siblings are continuing to suffer the same fate, Lynn Price resolves to devise a way to bring such people back together.

An unexpected conversation over dinner leads Priti Radhakrishnan to build an innovative new organisation with a mission to fight for the rights of people denied access to life saving medicines.

Until a visit to the dermatologist turns her world upside down, Sharon Terry has never heard of pseudanthoma elasticum (PXE), but when she discovers that research into the disease afflicting her children is hidebound by scientific protocol, she sets about changing the system with characteristic zeal.

Encounters and conversations with leftover people occupying leftover spaces and using leftover materials, at home and abroad, led architecture professor Wes Janz to view them as urban pioneers, not victims, and teach him a valuable lesson: think small and listen to those at the sharp end.

The book is aimed at a general audience, although I’m hoping it will particularly appeal to younger people interested in social innovation and social entrepreneurship, and schools, colleges and universities teaching the subject. It fills what I believe is a much-needed gap in the market, one which is currently dominated by books which – often at no fault of their own – give the impression that meaningful change is only possible if you’re an MBA, or a geek, or have money or influence, or a carefully laid out five-year master plan, or all five. Let’s be honest – you don’t need qualifications to change the world.

By highlighting the stories of ten ordinary yet remarkable individuals, and the impact their work is collectively having on hundreds of millions of people around the world, “Rise of the Reluctant Innovator” will show us that anything is possible, planning isn’t everything, and that anyone anywhere can change their world for the better.

We have a holding page up at reluctantinnovation.com and you can follow us on Twitter @ReluctantsBook. The book, and new website, will launch on 20th November.

“If we can help anyone on their journey, then we should. Whether that be giving advice or a positive critique on an idea, helping raise awareness through blog posts, giving tips on fundraising, making introductions to other projects and people with the same interests, or offering to be a future soundboard as their ideas grow and develop. These are all things I didn’t have when I started out, and using them productively now that I do is one of the biggest contributions I believe I can – and should – make to the future growth of our discipline. Our legacy shouldn’t be measured in the projects or tools we create, but in the people we serve and inspire”

Enabling the Inspiration Generation, December 2009

September 11, 2013   1 Comment

Spirituality, being human, and how to change the world.

“Despite all of the ghastliness in the world, human beings are made for goodness. The ones that are held in high regard are not militarily powerful, nor even economically prosperous. They have a commitment to try and make the world a better place”Archbishop Desmond Tutu

I’ve been home for about three weeks since leaving the Unreasonable at Sea ship in India. I spent just over a month helping mentor eleven technology startups which, if that was all I’d done, would have been a fantastic experience. What really stood out for me, though, was the interaction with the hundreds of students aboard, and a stronger sense than ever of how important it is that we encourage, engage, support and mentor the next generation of planetary problem solvers (something I’ve written about before). As if that wasn’t enough, the trip gave me the chance to re-immerse myself in the kinds of environments that were responsible for starting me on my own journey back in 1993. Witnessing suffering and hardship, and countless young children denied a childhood in India, Myanmar and Vietnam, reminds me that there’s still much work to be done.

Spirituality plays a large part in what drives me, and I’ve tried to capture some of this before. It’s not just a subject I find incredibly interesting, but one which puts humanity and purpose back at the centre of development (something which has become increasingly cold and institutionalised). I’ve never thought of helping people as a career. For me it was a way of life, a deeper purpose. So it was a huge honour to be invited to sit on a panel with Archbishop Desmond Tutu to talk about “how we change the world” aboard the MV Explorer. A big thanks to Tori Hogan (who was also on the panel) for inviting me to take part.

I’ve had something of a crazy time over the past few years, finding myself in all sorts of places I felt I had no right to be (National Geographic and No. 10 Downing Street, for example). Having the chance to chat with the Archbishop on a number of occasions during my time aboard the ship is another highlight, and the one hour discussion in front of a packed auditorium was the icing on the cake.

This video is also available (in larger format) on the main kiwanja website, and via Semester at Sea (hosts of the Unreasonable at Sea programme). It can also be downloaded on Vimeo.

Here’s to making the world a better place. For all of us.

April 2, 2013   1 Comment

An inconvenient truth?

Exactly ten years ago this month I was preparing for my first ever piece of work in mobile, two years of work which would lead to the development of an innovative conservation service in 2003 – wildlive! – and the release of one of the earliest reports [PDF] on the application of mobile technology in conservation and development in 2004. A lot has happened since then, not least an explosion in interest, buzz, excitement – and, yes, hype – and a sense that mobile can be the saviour of, well, everything. Back then you’d likely be able to fit everyone working in mobile-for-development (m4d) into a small cafe. Today you’d need at least a football stadium. m4d – and it’s big brother, ICT4D – have become big business.

Not that I needed more proof of mobile’s status at development’s top table, earlier this week I attended Vodafone’s “Mobile for Good” Summit in London. It was a high-profile affair, and an extremely upbeat one at that. I left with mixed feelings about where m4d is headed.

My five takeaways after a day of talks, debates and demonstrations were:

1. Everyone is still excited by the potential of mobile
2. The same projects surface over and over again as proof mobile works
3. Mobile is still largely seen as a solution, not a tool

4. It’s up to the developed world to get mobile working for the poor
5. The top-down mindset is alive and well

Suffice to say, all of these conclusions troubled me as I sat on the train home.

I’ve been thinking for some time about the future of m4d, and how far we’ve got over the past ten years or so. I’ve written frequently about the opportunities mobile technology offers the development community, and my fears that we may end up missing a golden opportunity (see Time to eat our own dog food?” from March 2009). I’ve long been a champion of platforms, and understanding how we might build tools for problem owners to take and deploy on their own terms. Yes, we should provide local entrepreneurs and grassroots non-profits with tools – and where appropriate and requested, expertise – but we shouldn’t develop solutions to problems we don’t understand, we shouldn’t take ownership of a problem that isn’t ours and we certainly shouldn’t build things thousands of miles away and then jump on a plane in search of a home for them.

But this is still, on the whole, what seems to be happening. And this, I’m beginning to believe, is rapidly becoming ICT4D’s “inconvenient truth”.

A fulfilled future for ICT4D (of which m4d is an increasingly dominant part) is not the one I see playing out today. It’s future is not in the hands of western corporates or international NGOs meeting in high-profile gatherings, and it’s not in our education establishments who keep busy training computer scientists and business graduates in the West to fix the problems of ‘others’. The whole development agenda is shifting, and my prediction for the future sees a major disconnect between what ‘we’ think needs to be done, and what those closest to the problems think needs to be done. Call it “disruptive development“, if you like. As I told the Guardian in an interview earlier this month:

The rise of homegrown solutions to development problems will be most crucial in future. That means African software developers increasingly designing and developing solutions to African problems, many of which have previously been tackled by outsiders. This, I think, will be the biggest change in how development is ’done’

I’m not the only person to be saying this. Many good friends working at the intersection of African development and technology have been doing the same for some time. The real change, and the big difference, is that it’s finally happening. A message which was previously given in hope, a message that was previously given out of an inherent belief that there was a better, more respectful and appropriate way of doing things, is now becoming reality. ICT4D is changing, and the balance of power is changing with it.

FrontlineSMS has always spoken to an approach I’ve long believed in, one where users are empowered to develop solutions to their own problems if they so wish. There are many reasons why FrontlineSMS continues to work – the decision of the new Management Team to shift software development to Nairobi is one of the more recent ones. But fundamentally it’s about what the platform does (and doesn’t do) that really resonates with innovators, entrepreneurs, non-profits and problem owners across the developing world. As the Guardian put it in the recent article, “As open-source technology for mobile platforms, innovations like FrontlineSMS are essentially a blank canvas for grassroots organisations to apply to any local context”.

That local context is becoming increasingly vibrant as university students across Africa graduate with Computer Science and Business Management degrees; as innovation hubs spring up across the continent meeting a growing, insatiable demand for places to meet, work and network with like-minded problem solvers and entrepreneurs; and as investors launch funds that show they’re starting to take young African tech startups seriously.

This activity hasn’t escaped big business. Google, IBM, Microsoft, Nokia, Hewlett Packard and Samsung have been opening offices across the continent, snapping up much of the talent in the process (ironically often at the expense – and despair – of locally-based NGOs). But while technology businesses take note and develop local capacity that enables them to develop more appropriate local solutions, the broader development ‘community’ seem trapped in an older mindset of technology transfer.

Technology transfer, of course, is big business – there’s no shortage of donor money out there for projects that seek to implement the latest and greatest proven Western innovations in a development context, and there are countless tens of thousands of jobs that keep the whole machine running. A lot has to change if the development community is to face up to all its new realities, yet it’s looking more likely that the destiny of the discipline lies in the hands of the very people it originally set out to help.

So, if the future of ICT4D is not university students, NGOs or business graduates devising solutions in labs and hubs thousands of miles away from their intended users, what is it?

Well, how about something a little more like this?

It seems rather obvious to put a local technology entrepreneur on a bus and have him chat to a rural farmer, but imagine what might be possible if this approach became the “new ICT4D”, not that the entrepreneur or the farmer would see it as that, or ‘development’ at all. You can see more of the fascinating TV series which linked local technologists to local problems on the TVE website. There’s a lot that’s right with this approach, particularly if you consider what would usually happen (hint: it involves planes).

I’m not usually one for making predictions but it is that time of year, after all, and it is my ten year anniversary in mobile. So here’s a biggie.

Development is changing, powered by accessible and affordable liberating technologies and an emerging army of determined, local talent. A local talent that is gradually acquiring the skills, resources and support it needs to take back ownership of many of its problems – problems it never took original ownership of because those very skills and resources were not available.

Well, now they are. The ICT4D community – education establishments, donors and technologists among them – need to collectively recognise that it needs to ajdust to this new reality, and work with technologists, entrepreneurs and grassroots non-profits across the developing world to accelerate what has become an inevitable shift. Or it can continue as it is, and become increasingly irrelevant. “Innovate or die” doesn’t just apply to the technologies plied by the ICT4D community. It applies to the ICT4D community itself.

[This post was edited down and republished in the Stanford Social Innovation Review in January 2013 here].

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

December 12, 2012   130 Comments

Ideas vs. execution: A personal history

“An idea that is developed and put into action is more important than an idea that exists only as an idea” -
Hindu Siddharta, Founder of Buddhism (563-483 B.C)

Like many people I meet on my travels, I’m never short of ideas. Short of good ones, perhaps, but never plain old ideas. As everyone knows, though, ideas alone are rarely enough. Equally as important (if not more so) is execution – taking those ideas and putting them into action. Like the majority of people, the majority of mine have remained just that – ideas – and sifting through some old note pads recently brought home how many I’d had over the past few years and done nothing with.

On the plus side it turns out many of my ideas weren’t mine alone, and most have since become reality for other people, i.e. those who did take that extra step and put them into action. This post is largely testament to what I didn’t do, and what others did. It’s also quite reflective as I approach ten years working in mobile, and ten years of “going it alone”. There have been plenty of big changes lately – fatherhood, the loss of our Motherhanding over the baton at FrontlineSMS, a new project – all of which have driven something of a rethink, or reinvention, or rebirth, for me and my work.

Idea #1: Incubation Centre
Date: March 2008
Status: Not executed

There always seemed to be some new Centre or other going up during my two years at Stanford, and I wondered how great it would be to have one dedicated to appropriate technologies, and I briefly blogged about it in March 2008. Of course, Stanford wouldn’t have been the best place for this given the cost, so the idea slowly evolved from my crude mock-up (above) to something a little more eco-friendly based in rural Cambridgeshire. I’d still love to pursue this idea, but given the growing number of innovation hubs appearing around the world, maybe the chance has gone.

Idea #2: Means of Exchange
Date: June 2012
Status: Executed (and in progress)

I only tend to work on things which seriously interest or bother me, and for a number of years this has been one of them. Means of Exchange is a new project focusing on methods of economic self-sufficiency. It’s looking at how emerging, everyday technologies can be used to democratise opportunities for economic self-sufficiency, rebuild local communities and promote a return to local resource use. Our dependency on – and relationship with – a broken world economic system is unhealthy, and has lead to a loss of community and a drift away from the consumption of locally produced goods and services. By reconnecting people with local resources, and each other, we can build a degree of resilience to protect ourselves from future shocks.

Idea #3: Mobile Sensing
Date: June 2005
Status: Not executed

On 8th June 2005, the idea for a Mobile Environmental Monitoring Device was born. MEMD would:

“… gather environmental information as people move through their landscapes. Indicators such as temperature, air quality, CO2 levels and air pressure would be recorded along with a fix on each location. For the first time individuals will be able to monitor their own exposure to local, relevant environmental hazards”

Manufacturers such as Nokia began pushing their own concepts a couple of years later, and today mobile sensing with mobile devices is nothing new. I originally blogged about MEMD – another idea whose time has passed – in more detail here.

Idea #4: SMS Competition
Date: September 2007
Status: Executed

This is one idea which was executed, in September 2007 to be precise. Its purpose was to encourage NGOs to think about how they might apply text messaging to their social change work, and the prize for coming up with something innovative was a laptop, phones, modems and cash – everything they’d need to put their idea into practice, in fact. We have been planning to run an adapted version again, but with so many mobile and ICT4D competitions around these days, we’re hesitant. NGOs have more important work to do than spend all their time trying to win things. More on nGOmobile here.

Idea #5: Mobile Payments
Date: September 2003
Status: Not executed

On 1st September, 2003 – during a field trip to South Africa and Mozambique – I put together a diagram showing how someone might pay for a newspaper using their mobile phone. Mobile payments are nothing new today, but back then very little was happening. If I’d ever wanted to be rich, this might have been the idea I should have stuck with, not that I’d ever have been able to make it happen. Further details on a blog post here.

Idea #6: Field communications hub
Date
: October 2005
Status
: Executed

FrontlineSMS is one thing I did develop and stick with, although it was touch and go on more than one occasion. A seed of an idea during a series of trips to Kruger National Park in 2003/2004, FrontlineSMS became the first text messaging hub aimed at grassroots non-profits when it was released in October 2005. For the full story, check out this article - “And Then Came The Nigerian Elections” – from the Spring/Fall 2007 edition of the Stanford Journal of African Studies [PDF].

So, what lessons could I draw from what’s happened with my ‘Top Six Ideas’? Well, FrontlineSMS has been a fascinating journey, and sticking with that has clearly been the right thing to do. If I’d have tried to see out all of my ideas then I may well have let it slip, and ended up doing a lot of things fairly well rather than one thing very well. As my near-ten years in mobile have taught me – over and above anything else - focus is key. Swami Vivekananda, an Indian spiritual leader, sums this up better than I ever could. Take note:

“Take up one idea. Make that one idea your life – think of it, dream of it, live on that idea. Let the brain, muscles, nerves, every part of your body, be full of that idea, and just leave every other idea alone. This is the way to success, that is way great spiritual giants are produced”.

October 8, 2012   22 Comments

Social innovation and the art of reinvention

Big companies are on the move.

Within the next few weeks Microsoft will officially launch Windows 8. Their flagship operating system has undergone a complete redesign on a scale not seen since Windows 95. Myspace are going through a vigorous rebranding exercise ahead of a major relaunch. And Nokia are feeling the pain as they work through a huge shift in their approach to the smart phone market. Three different organisations. Three different challenges. One thing in common.

Windows 8 is Microsoft‘s response to the growing threat of the smartphone and tablet, two high-growth markets where they’re not yet major players.

Myspace are attempting a fight back for fourth time as their value and online membership continue to lose ground on the Facebook’s of this world.

And Nokia, like many device manufacturers, got totally caught out by the iPhone which did, in fact, change everything. As market leaders they had furthest to fall. The rest is history.

Three companies, three challenges, all responses to external market pressures. In a sense, you might argue that the ultimate destiny of these companies is no longer in their hands. Out of the three, Microsoft are best placed in that they’re responding at a time they’re still relatively dominant. It’s the opposite for Myspace and Nokia, who in reality are on the slide and attempting to fight back from much weaker positions. If either gets their new strategy wrong, it could be curtains.

Today, Apple are riding high and can do no wrong. But they’d be the first to admit that they’re in a precarious position – they, after all, have it all to lose. Despite the rhetoric, we’re yet to see a true iPhone killer, but there will be one. And Apple need to make sure it’s them who build it. Apple, in a sense, have to kill their own product if they’re to succeed in an increasingly competitive future.

This kind of “inward reinvention” is not so common in the ICT4D world. Solutions come and go, pilot projects come and go, some organisations even come and go. The vast majority of the changes we see are driven by one single external factor – technological innovation. Think of all the new projects and organisations that have come about as a result of the growth of smart phones in emerging markets. And think of all the new ones that will exist when tablet computers, or 4G, become ubiquitous.

Once they’re up-and-running, few ICT4D-focused organisations undergo radical changes in their approaches or technologies, instead focusing on incremental upgrades to policies and technologies. Some of those are voluntary, but many are forced by new entrants into the market, new technologies, or some kind of paradigm shift. It’s those that strike first – adapting their approaches and offerings before change is forced upon them – that will survive in an increasingly competitive world. And, yes – developing solutions to the world’s social and environmental ills is a competitive industry.

Although technology-focused non-profits don’t face the same problems as their commercial counterparts, this doesn’t mean they shouldn’t regularly rethink their strategy, their brand, their leadership or their technology solutions. If they’re to succeed in the longer term they need to be the ones in the driving seat, not the ones simply responding to external pressures or developments. ICT4D as a sector is still relatively new in the grand scheme of things, and as things hot up – as they will – increasing numbers of organisations will end up calling it a day. Fortune will favour the brave.

Many find themselves under pressure in a few key areas:

Increasing competition for funding. The number of technology-focused social enterprises is rising at a higher rate than available funding, putting a squeeze on donors. Social enterprises responding with hybrid models – allowing them to raise investment as well as donations – will stand a better chance in this brave new world, as will those who master the emerging crowd funding phenomenon.

The democratisation of development. As I wrote in a recent BBC Future article, the spread of the Internet and mobile phones means there are likely more people working on solving social and environmental problems in the world today than ever before in human history. There’s a lot of competition out there, and a lot is coming from garden sheds, bedrooms and kitchen tables.

The rise of local innovation hubs. For quite some time there’s been general agreement that the best people to solve developing world problems are people in the developing world. I’ve always maintained that the greater the distance between a problem and the problem solver, the less likely the chance of success. The rise of local innovation hubs around the world – Africa in particular – means that not only is that distance shrinking, it’s nurturing entirely new industries in developing countries.

An increasing focus on emerging markets from large companies. Non-profits have historically only had to compete with other non-profits, but that’s no longer the case. Designing (mobile) applications for the next billion, or the bottom of the pyramid, or the other 90% – whatever you choose to call it – is big business. IBM’s announcement earlier this month that their next research centre will be based in Nairobi – their first in Africa – is further proof. According to IBM, “We want to help train Africans to innovate in Africa. The best minds there should be working on big national problems and African problems”. Google, Microsoft, Nokia, Hewlett Packard and Samsung – among others – have set up shop there, too.

In a couple of months time I’ll be celebrating my tenth year in mobiles-for-development. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have been there from almost the beginning, and I’ve seen first-hand the growth of the discipline and the impact of the technology on communities across Africa. The next ten years will present a whole new set of challenges for our sector, and if many ICT4D-focused organisations are going to survive they’re going to need to work very hard – and be very brave – to stay one step ahead of the game.

Something Myspace, Nokia (and Blackberry, come to think of it) – with all their resources – failed to do.

September 26, 2012   24 Comments

Technology and the democratisation of development

I was recently invited to contribute an article to BBC Future‘s A Matter of Life and Tech, a series which features a “range of voices from people helping to build Africa’s tech future”. In the article, I argue that technology has become a vital tool in the fight against poverty, allowing people to participate in development in ways never previously possible. The original article is not available in the UK due to licensing restrictions.

Twenty years ago, if you were information technology-literate and interested in international development, your options were limited.

That’s how things were for me when, in 1993, armed with ten years programming and networking experience I began turning my attention to the developing world.

My efforts didn’t get me far. The information technology revolution we see today had barely started at home, let alone in many of the developing nations. If you weren’t an English teacher, a doctor, a policy maker, an economist or a dam builder, careers in development seemed somewhat limited.

How things have changed. Driven largely by the spread of the world wide web and the burgeoning mobile phone sector, opportunities to develop solutions to many of the world’s social and environmental problems have reached almost every bedroom and garden shed in the land.

The irony today is that arguably the greatest developmental tool we have in our hands isn’t a product of the tens of billons of developmental aid spent over the years, but a by-product of private sector investment. Putting the debate around costs and coverage to one side, the development sector has a lot to thank the mobile industry for.

In 1993 the number of mobile subscribers in Africa numbered in the hundreds of thousands. By 1998 that had crept to four million. Today there are an estimated 735 million with penetration running at around the 70% mark. Not bad in less than 20 years.

Everyday innovation

The result of this growth is that many Africans now experience their first phone call on a mobile, and their first experience of the world wide web comes on the same small screen. And it’s been that way for a while. Mobile phones are to most Africans what our laptops, tablet computers and landlines are to us, combined.

They’re also their banks. Today, as they pay bills and transfer money to friends and family with the press of a few key strokes, tens of millions of Africans will be doing something  most of us in the west  can only dream of.

But this rise in mobile phone ownership, and the slower but still significant rise in access to the internet, doesn’t just represent a significant business opportunity. A few short years ago, non-profit organisations working on the ground suddenly found themselves with a new tool in their fight against poverty.

Mobile phone ownership among the communities many of them serve presents new opportunities to increase the reach and efficiency of their work. Simply being able to send messages to coordinate meetings, or to remind people of key messages, can save hours – even days – on the road.

Community healthcare workers can also stay in better touch with the hospital when they’re back in their villages. Farmers can access advice and market information directly from their fields. Citizens can report corruption, or engage in debate. Births can be registered. Illegal logging can be recorded and reported. It’s safe to say that mobile phones have touched every sector of development in one way or another. It has become so ubiquitous that, in just a few short years, many development workers can hardly imagine life without them.

The beauty of mobile technology is that, unlike larger development efforts, it doesn’t discriminate against the smaller, grassroots organisations. As we’ve found with the countless number of FrontlineSMS users over the years, if you give people the right tools and conditions to work in they’re capable of innovating as well as anyone. Some of the most exciting technology-based development work going in Africa today is African. Barriers to entry are as low as they’ve ever been.

This “democratisation of development” isn’t just taking place in cities, towns and villages across Africa. With the internet as the distribution mechanism, and the mobile phone as the target device, anyone anywhere can today build a tool and make it available to a global audience with the minimum of funding and the minimum of effort. This is exactly how FrontlineSMS came about almost seven years ago.

‘Extreme affordability’

How to go about developing the right tools is, of course, an ongoing debate but at least the phones are in the hands of the end users, and by-and-large the delivery mechanism is in place. The next stage of the communications revolution will come in the shape of smart phones, presenting yet more opportunity. What we see happening today is exciting, but we haven’t seen anything yet.

Prestigious universities and colleges around the world now devote entire courses to technology-for-development, many wrapped up with subjects such as design and entrepreneurship. Stanford University helps “design for extreme affordability”, while MIT initiatives aim to “educate students in science and technology that will best serve the world in the 21st century”.

There are likely more people working on solving social and environmental problems in the world today than ever before in human history.

Since starting out working with mobiles almost ten years ago, I’ve seen at first hand this shift in focus. Designing mobile applications for the next billion, or the bottom of the pyramid, or the other 90% – whatever you choose to call it – is now big business. You only have to look at cites like Nairobi, where companies like Google, IBM, Microsoft, Nokia, Hewlett Packard and Samsung have set up shop.

Their mission, in many cases, is to help to get the best African minds thinking about African problems. Clearly, if this trend continues then Africans are less likely to be left behind in designing solutions for their own continent than they were before. It would be hard for anyone to argue that this is not a positive step.

At the same time as this influx of big business, there are increasing numbers of homegrown initiatives. Innovation and technology labs have been springing up over the continent for at least the last three years. According to Erik Hersman, Founder of the iHub, there are now more than 50 tech hubs, labs, incubators and accelerators in Africa, covering more than 20 countries. Mobile phones will be at the centre of the majority of solutions their tenants develop.

I’ve always maintained that one of the best things about the use of mobile phones as a development tool is that it was never planned. The development sector has shown that, historically, it’s not been overly successful at delivering on those.

Instead, anyone anywhere with an internet connection and a software development kit can help tackle some of the bigger problems of our time. What we are witnessing is the democratisation of development.

Today, you don’t need to be a doctor, teacher, economist or dam builder to make a positive impact on your – or any other – country’s development. And that can only be a good thing.

September 11, 2012   20 Comments