The innovation conundrum

When I started out trying to understand the complexities of international development well over 15 years ago, one thing struck me. The trick, I was often told, to increase chances of funding was to apply a liberal sprinkling of the words gender, scalable or sustainable into any project proposal. Donors apparently liked those words, however they were used.

I’m beginning to wonder if the same thing is happening today with the word innovation.

For organisations seeking to deploy technologies to put right social wrongs, innovation is the hottest date in town. If the solutions themselves are not described as “innovative” then often the organisations behind them are. Innovation hubs have sprung up across the developed and the developing world, seeking to create the perfect environment for innovation. There are books galore extolling the virtues of innovation in three, four or five steps, or how we might foster cultures of innovation. If only it were that easy.

Over the past few days I’ve read three separate articles, all of which touch on different aspects of the innovation phenomenon. They’re interesting on their own, and collectively, as examples of the various debates currently taking place. As with all things “development” (which is the hat I wear as I write this) there’s as much discussion about what things mean as there is real-world activity.

Harvard Business Review

On the Harvard Business Review blog, good friend Bright Simons focuses on the cost of innovation, and argues that low-GDP countries and smaller businesses are in danger of falling into an “innovation poverty trap” while their richer counterparts ride off into the distance. Cost may indeed be a barrier, but it would be wrong to assume that if we provided every resource you could possibly wish for that people would suddenly become innovative. Money doesn’t make you innovative, although for innovative individuals and companies it arguably helps. Some bigger companies have fallen from their perch at the height of their success, crucially at a time when they had peak resources available to innovate, including money. Take Nokia as a more recent example. (For more on why big companies fail, see the excellent “Innovators Dilemma” by Clayton Christensen).

Stanford Social Innovation Review

In the Fall 2012 volume of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Christian Seelos and Johanna Mair argue that innovation should not be the holy grail, and that instead “it is time to move from innovation as an ideology to innovation as a process”. In particular, they argue that a relentless focus on innovation as an outcome can undermine an organisation’s appetite for experimentation. This is particularly true when that experimentation may have a high chance of failure:

Although productive innovation does not always translate into desired outcomes or impact, systematic learning and building of a knowledge base about what works and what does not constitutes an important indicator for an organisation’s ability to innovate

Failing to recognise this carries a number of risks:

Glorifying innovation as the solution to social and environmental needs and problems has led to well-intended efforts to increase the population of social innovators and entrepreneurs. This certainly has its merits but it has come with a detriment to investments in established social sector organisations that operate at scale and that create value mainly through incremental improvements

The rampant rate of innovation in the commercial sector has provided risk and opportunity in equal measure for the non-profit world. The ICT4D toolbox is a lot bigger than it was two or three years ago, but as I like to point out in my numerous talks on appropriate technology, many of these new tools don’t yet work in the places where the need is greatest. Donors sometimes fuel the frenzy by their willingness to fund the next big thing, leaving us with ‘innovative’ projects such as “iPads for Africa” (this is one I made up a couple of years ago, but it may now exist in some form). Although these projects may look great in the glossy pages of an annual report, and sound incredibly disruptive, they look less compelling on the ground (where they largely fail).

Organisational Capacity to Innovate

The Rockefeller Foundation recently launched organizational capacity to innovate, a new website based on the findings of “Learning from Experimentation: Sustaining Innovation to Achieve Impact” (available as a PDF here). They focus on the importance of seeing social innovation as an outcome rather than a tool, and an ongoing process rather than a single moment of inspiration. Two organisations are used as case studies in the report – our very own FrontlineSMS, and Circle of Blue – both seen as good examples of building capacity for continuous innovation through experimentation. The report is particularly interesting because it covers organisational innovation as much as technological innovation. As I’ve written before, organisations themselves need to innovate (business models, organisational structures, funding, leadership, messaging, and so on).

Creative Advantage list over a dozen definitions of “innovation” on their website, and therein lies the problem. We need to be careful we don’t overuse the term to the point of it becoming meaningless, and that when we do we’re clear about what kind of innovation we’re talking about.

Further reading
Since drafting this post, the Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like blog has published a more critical, tongue-in-cheek critique of the development community’s emerging obsession with innovation. You can read their “#182 Innovation Tourette’s” post here.

Back to the Future: Seventeen things you might not know about FrontlineSMS

This post was first published on the FrontlineSMS website last October to celebrate six years since the software’s launch. This week the FrontlineSMS team – which now spans three continents – are preparing for the release of the latest version. Launch events are being held in the US, UK and Kenya. Further details are available here.

With this, and our transition announcement a couple of weeks ago, it felt like a good time to reflect on the early days of the software. Thanks to the great support of our online community, users, staff, donors, bloggers and the media, FrontlineSMS today is well known throughout the wider ICT4D world. But it wasn’t always that way. Here’s that post in full.

In late October 2005, an early beta – “proof-of-concept” – version of FrontlineSMS was released to the world. It took just ten months for the idea to shape itself into the early stages of what you see today. In this, the second and last of our sixth birthday celebration posts (you can read the first here), we dig deep into our email archives and reveal some of the more interesting early – and perhaps surprising – moments of the project.

The idea for FrontlineSMS was conceived in early 2005 with the help of several field trips to South Africa and Mozambique, a bottle of beer and “Match of the Day”. All is revealed in this fun, short National Geographic video made in 2010:

The very first email which specifically references FrontlineSMS was sent on 6th March, 2005 at 0853 to register the domain name.

Prior to that the working title was “Project SMS”. The first email to reference “Project SMS” was sent on Wednesday 26th January, 2005 at 12:02. In it, the entire concept was described in just 963 words with an initial estimated budget of just £2,000 ($3,000).

Factoring in equipment and other costs, personal gifts totaling £10,000 were secured on 16th March, 2005 from two former Vodafone directors.

“The potential for FrontlineSMS is very exciting, and I am very much looking forward to working on the project. The potential impact for conservation and development is considerable.” – Email from me to one of the supporters, 3rd May, 2005.

Preparation for the project officially got underway with the purchase of equipment totaling £1,476.09 on 22nd May, 2005:

One month later the timeline for the project was laid out. FrontlineSMS was delivered bang on schedule. From an email on 22nd June, 2005:

“I will begin working on the specification over the next couple of weeks, and will then get stuck into the initial programming phase during August. I have allocated that whole month to FrontlineSMS. As per the original timeline, July will be preparation, and August to September development time, so by October we should have something to trial.”

August 2005: The Beta version of FrontlineSMS was developed on this kitchen table in Finland. In the absence of any other images, the forest view from the window was used as the main banner for the first FrontlineSMS website later that month.

News of FrontlineSMS was first revealed to the media in an interview with the Charity Times [PDF] in August, 2005. Software development was briefly paused on 26th August so that the first FrontlineSMS website could be hastily put together ahead of the article’s release.

“I have very high hopes that FrontlineSMS is really going to open the door to SMS technology to the wider NGO community” – Email to World Wildlife Fund, who were interested in trailing the software. 2nd September, 2005.

On 29th September, 2005 FrontlineSMS was presented for the first time at an internal event at Fauna & Flora International in Cambridge, UK:

On 5th October, 2005, to celebrate its imminent launch, FrontlineSMS buys up 200 pixels on the Million Dollar Homepage, a site which has since gone down in Internet folklore. (Read more on this here).

Email, 6th October, 2005: “Google now gives us around 80 results when searching for FrontlineSMS”. Today the number is well over 100,000.

Email to supporters, 31st October, 2005: “The FrontlineSMS texting system is now ready for trial”. These nine words signaled our official launch exactly six years ago today.

Email dated 14th November, 2005 from the MacArthur Foundation: “The MacArthur Foundation’s Technology Grants Committee is always looking for innovative applications of technology for the NGO sector. I’d love to have a chat with you about your application if you have the time”. Two years later MacArthur would become the first donor to make an investment in FrontlineSMS with a $200,000 grant. This funded a major rewrite and a new website in 2008.

14th November, 2005: 160 Characters are the first mobile-focused news site to announce the release of FrontlineSMS.

15th November, 2005: We receive an email enquiry from Kubatana, a Zimbabwean civil society organisation. Days later FrontlineSMS had its first official implementation. Kubatana still use FrontlineSMS today.

Today, with fifteen staff over three continents, users in over 80 countries across 20 different non-profit sectors, and over 25,000 downloads, the rest – as they say – is history…  \o/

Innovation: Beyond technology.

Last week we made one of the most important announcements in the near-seven year history of FrontlineSMS. As I hinted in my “Rolling Stones School of Management Innovation” post last December, I only felt able to take the project to a certain level and that it required different people with a different set of skills to move it to the next. Last week, with that internal transition complete, we announced that I’d be stepping aside to concentrate on other things, and FrontlineSMS would move forward in fresh hands.

Laura Walker Hudson and Sean Martin McDonald will now drive the project forward as CEO’s of our US Foundation and UK Community Interest Company respectively. You can read their thoughts on the transition, and what they have planned, in their follow-up post here.

Many wonderful messages of support flooded in in the form of Tweets, direct messages, blog comments, emails and – of course – text message. The transition announcement was amazingly well received and the response overwhelmingly positive. Many people commented that the move was “incredibly brave” and “must have been difficult” but as I mentioned in the announcement, I felt it was neither. As I said then, I’ve always maintained that it’s just as important to be aware of your limitations as your strengths, and stepping aside in these circumstances is the clearest indication I can give that I do.

There haven’t been many transitions like this in the m4d or ICT4D worlds that I know of, and if that’s the case it reinforces our commitment to not only be innovative with technology but innovative organisationally, and to also always act in the best interests of the project rather than ourselves. FrontlineSMS, as with many other ICT4D projects, is bigger than one person. I’m excited to see where FrontlineSMS goes from here, and I’ll follow and support it in my new capacity as Chairman of the Board with the same commitment and enthusiasm as I did from my one bedroom flat in Cambridge, or VW Camper at Stanford.

Alongside the congratulatory messages a few people wished me luck and said they hoped to still see me on the innovation, technology, mobile or African scene. Well, they will. I’m not retiring, just handing over the reins at FrontlineSMS. I’ll continue to write, blog and speak about technology, innovation and social change, and maintain a focus on Africa as I’ve done for the past twenty years.

What’s next

As for what’s next, I’m excited that over the past few months I’ve been increasingly drawn into the wider world of innovation and entrepreneurship beyond my technology roots – speaking the other week at the Ashoka/Ben & Jerry’s “Join Our Core” event, for example, and next month spending time with BMW executives in Munich.

My writing has also started to gain traction beyond the news sites and journals which dominate our discipline, with a short guest piece in Wired Magazine last month. I’m also planning my first book which will focus on “reluctant innovation“, due out later this year. And I’m doing an increasing amount of mentoring with organisations such as Pop!Tech, National Geographic and the Unreasonable Institute, something that aligns perfectly with my long-standing commitment to “give back”.

Project-wise I have a long list of new ideas I’ll be working on. One is just a few weeks away from being ready, so I’ll save the official announcement for then. But in the spirit of my efforts with FrontlineSMS, the overarching focus of my work will continue to centre around how we best apply modern technology for social benefit, both in the developed and developing world. If anything, it’s the additional focus on the developed world which represents the biggest shift in my thinking.

In an effort to stay innovative and relevant, large companies are often encouraged to reinvent themselves. There’s no reason why this shouldn’t apply to individuals, too. The ICT4D sector has shifted focus considerably since I started out all those years ago. When the time is right, there’s no reason why some of the people in it shouldn’t do the same, either.

Further reading
ClearlySo featured our transition on their blog. You can read their excellent commentary here.