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Category — Musings

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

Reflections on two days in a ‘media silo’

I’m sitting in the old German parliament building listening to a plenary discussion on activism. It’s my second day at the Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum, and I’m in Bonn to help mentor Ashoka Fellows as part of their Globalizer programme, to speak on an Ashoka panel on social entrepreneurship, and to take part in a Vodafone Institute for Society and Communications discussion on how mobile technology is changing society.

Photo: Ken Banks

It’s been a busy three days, and I’ve had to regularly remind myself that I’m at a media-focused event.

We’ve had discussions on the future of journalism, new business models for the media, big media vs. social media, how to communicate in disasters, community building, social entrepreneurship, the Arab Spring, mobile connectivity, technology in Africa, democracy building, governance, digital security and privacy, surveillance, big data and how to engage youth in development. While media has been a thread running through much of the agenda, the conference has spent the majority of its time dealing with broader development issues.

I can’t help but wonder if the tendency to run events by sector, which has historically been the case, means we fail to make the most of the opportunity. I know many people working in health, agriculture, human rights and social innovation – and many others – who would have benefitted greatly had they been here. But it’s unlike any would have thought it worthwhile given the headline of the event. After thinking I’d find little to spark my interest, it turns out there were more relevant panels and sessions than I could have ever hoped to take part in.

In another event a few years ago, Tim Smit encouraged us to attend at least one conference a year on a topic that had no obvious relevance to us or our work. Although it’s probably too much of an ask for most people, the point he was making was that we could learn a lot from other disciplines, but we rarely take the time to jump silos. Health experts go to health conferences and agriculture experts go to agriculture conferences, and so on. To make it worse, people who use mobiles in each of those go to separate events entirely – mHealth and mAgri. Despite speakers at almost every event we go to criticising silos and encouraging us to break them down whenever we can, the current system persists. It’s far easier to say it and get a few tweets than to actually get something done.

Instead, could we build events around specific challenges? The discussion here yesterday on business models was fascinating, and much that was said would have been of relevance to the wider social sector. Yet the majority of people listening – and all of them on the panel – were from the media. Why not hold an event on business models and invite everyone. Who’s to say that a health project can’t learn something from one working in agriculture, or human rights?

If we’re serious about breaking down silos then we could start by holding fewer sector-specific events, and running more on issues and challenges – and other common themes running through the ‘for good’ sector. Who knows, at the end of the two days delegates may even leave with genuine solutions to their problems, and action plans to take forward.

In other words, making the move from talk to action. Now, wouldn’t that be something? In the meantime, if you’re interested in cross-cultural issues in international development, ignore the word ‘media’ and come to Bonn next year.

July 1, 2014   No Comments

Tribute to a friend

It’s quite fitting, really, that I find myself sitting in the most unlikely place – the foyer of a five star hotel in Saudi Arabia – randomly reading a tribute to a man who was instrumental in helping get me where I am today.

You won’t find anything online about Frederick Richard Vivian Howard Cooper, not even news of his passing late last year. Freddie was an intensely private man. His phone number was ex-directory, and he never gave anyone his contact details. For the vast majority of the time I knew him it was his social club down the road from the housing estate where I grew up in Jersey that gave me the point of contact I needed. After the “Learning Centre” shut down in 2000, that point of contact was lost, and we only managed to reconnect on a couple of further occasions before his passing.

The last time we spoke I’d just got news of my fellowship at Stanford, and we shared a coffee in St. Helier and reminisced about his club, and the early computer-aided-learning (CAL) programs I’d written for him on the Commodore PET computer he used in his teaching.

I was about fourteen when he first let me loose on it, and it sparked the beginnings of my IT career. Freddie even wrote my first ever reference, in 1982, when I nearly dipped out of school early to pursue that career. Without his help I would never have learnt to code, and would never have gained the early experience which later helped me secure employment running mainframe computers for a number of banks in the Island. He gave me an amazing opportunity, and I took it.

When I think about everything that’s happened to me since, and think about where I am today, Freddie Cooper was the early catalyst. He was an outstanding individual who gave many children on my housing estate guidance, friendship and advice over many years. He helped me gain experience on computers at a time when it was barely being taught in schools, and at a time when very few people could have afforded one of their own. Had it not been for him I would not have been able to code the first prototype version of FrontlineSMS almost twenty-five years later. All of the users of that software today – and the people benefitting from that use – have Freddie to thank, too. It seemed only fitting to credit the significant role he played in my recent book, “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator“.

One regret is that I didn’t get that one final chance to meet him and talk about all the exciting things happening today, and to thank him – and joke – one last time. He’d have been particularly proud of the work we’re doing with National Geographic. But taking credit was never Freddie’s style. If he’d wanted it, and wanted to be constantly reminded of what he’d done for the many people he’d helped, then he wouldn’t have kept himself to himself and wouldn’t have made it so difficult to track him down.

My career has been blessed by having met many wonderful people who’ve given me opportunities I could never have dreamed of. I took them all. Freddie Cooper set the ball rolling – and set the tone – over thirty years ago. And it’s because of this that I believe so strongly that we should help everyone along on their own journey whenever and wherever we can.

As Tim Smit reminded me not so long ago:

Thanks, Freddie. For everything. May you rest in peace.

June 1, 2014   No 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

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   No Comments

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

I’m all for discussion and debate, and I’ve taken part in my fair share over the past eleven years. But I’m now beginning to wonder if, after all this time, everything we could have said has been said. The fact we’re still talking about the same handful of challenges and issues implies that very little, if anything, has changed where it matters – on the ground. Have we really made so little progress?

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but it wasn’t until the recent Guardian Activate conference that the scale of the problem finally drove home.

It’s worth mentioning that I wasn’t at the event this year, but I did follow from a distance. To be honest, sometimes it’s better to listen and reflect from the outside, and as my train hurtled towards London it became increasingly obvious that much of the early conversation followed a similar pattern to many of the other technology-for-good conferences I’d attended over the years.

If, about a decade ago, we’d listed all of the questions, unknowns, problems and challenges faced by the ICT4D community, it would probably have looked something like this:

  • How do we replicate and scale?
  • How do we measure impact?
  • How do we stop the reinventing of wheels?
  • How do we avoid being ‘technology-lead’?
  • How do we break out of our silos?
  • What is our business/sustainability model?
  • Is open source a help or a hindrance?
  • How do we maximise the opportunity mobile brings?

If we made the same list today, it would probably look something like this:

  • How do we replicate and scale?
  • How do we measure impact?
  • How do we stop the reinventing of wheels?
  • How do we avoid being ‘technology-lead’?
  • How do we break out of our silos?
  • What is our business/sustainability model?
  • Is open source a help or a hindrance?
  • How do we make sense of the countless pilots taking place?

The only difference is the last one. We’ve gone from not really knowing what to do with mobile phones to a position of everyone everywhere trying to solve something with them, whether or not they’re the right tool for the job. It’s still a problem, but arguably a more serious one.

These questions – and many others like them – might keep academics in work, but they’re serious issues for practitioners, too. Project owners and tools developers are rarely clear on their positions on open source, or scale, or their interpretation of ‘appropriate technology’. Among other things this leads to confusion and unnecessary competition (yes, the non-profit world is competitive). I attempted to put a stop to some of this in a post called “Our “social mobile” line in the sand” way back in May 2009, without success. I wonder if the time is right for someone to try again?

None of us surely want to sit in yet another conference, gathering or workshop and hear the same things over and over again, but that’s often what we do. And more often than not we pay good money for the privilege. Messages I personally don’t want to hear again include:

“We need to stop talking in silos”
“Projects need to build for scale from the outset”
“We need to stop reinventing wheels”
“We need more collaboration”
“We need to become sustainable”
“We need to embrace failure”
“Mobile technology has huge potential”

Can’t the m4d community come together and fix some of this? Create a code of conduct, a directory of terms and meanings, a set of best practice? With the billions of dollars funding mobile projects the world over, can’t we siphon a little off and create an overarching set of guidelines that projects and donors adhere to? Almost everything we see out there has been funded by someone, so if only the donors seriously tried to grapple with the problem – and got strict with what they funded – we’d almost certainly make serious progress.

Some of this stuff isn’t difficult. Take the problem of silos. Most of the events where this comes up are silos themselves. How can someone stand up at a mobile health conference packed with only people who use mobile phones and only for health, and say we should stop talking in silos? How about a mobile health practitioner attending an agriculture conference, instead? Or one focussing on human rights? Don’t tell me mobile health projects can’t learn something from non-mobile agriculture? If, as we constantly hear, innovation and opportunity happen in unexpected places, we need to put ourselves in them a little more, as Tim Smit suggested at the Emerge Conference in 2010.

Perhaps as a sign of things to come, mentions of mPesa are increasingly banned at meetings I attend. If we have to use the same example of a successful mobile money project over and over again, doesn’t that say something about the state of mobile money?

I was recently asked what progress I thought we’d made since I wrote “Technology’s new chance to make a difference” for the Guardian in January 2012. In the areas of best practice, adopting more appropriate technology and mainstreaming ICT4D, sadly I had to admit very little. As I wrote three years earlier:

I spent the best part of my university years critiquing the efforts of those who went before me. Countless others have done the same. Looking to the future, how favourably will the students and academics of tomorrow reflect on our efforts? If the next thirty years aren’t to read like the last then we need to re-think our approach, and re-think it now

The development sector is hardly awash with success. The m4d community have a great chance to buck the trend. The big question is, will we?

Further reading
An inconvenient truth?

July 29, 2013   6 Comments

Time to think message and motivation

Few companies succeed if they don’t take the time to understand their users. Fewer non-profit ventures succeed if they don’t either. After recently ‘moving on’ from FrontlineSMS and a ten year spell focusing exclusively on ICT4D, I’m beginning to realise that much of the wider technology-based social sector suffers from not-too-dissimilar problems. Few people, it seems, working on software-based solutions have much of an appreciation of the motives to engage, and the technical literacy, of their target audience. Whenever that’s the case, things tend not to turn out too well.

For the past few years I’ve been taking an increasing interest in economic resilience, particularly how technology could be applied to buffer local communities from global economic downturns. Ironically, since I started that research the world has entered a period of growing economic uncertainty. The causes – although fascinating – don’t so much interest me, more the response at local, grassroots level and the response from the social sector, particularly those turning to technology to provide some of the answers.

My Means of Exchange project particularly motivates me because it’s tasked with understanding what drives some local people (and not others) to resort to alternative methods of exchange, particularly during times of hardship, and explores how we might motivate the wider global community to adopt a healthier mix of exchange as a part of its daily lives – before things get bad. Money has become the dominate means of exchange in almost all of our lives, to the detriment of all the more creative, flexible methods that came before it.

In parallel with all of this is a growing interest in the sharing economy, and local and digital currencies which – if adopted widely enough – might just loosen the stranglehold of legal tender. And therein lies the problem. No matter how good the technology, solution or service, in almost all cases if it’s not adopted widely enough it’s unlikely to succeed. And one of the biggest problems many alternative exchange tools have is that they’re just not marketed or promoted well enough to reach anywhere near the tipping point they need. I talked a lot about the difficulties the local sustainability and alternative economy movements have in effectively communicating its message, and engaging their audience, in a recent ten minute talk at Pop!Tech.

Sadly, it’s an area that continues to be overlooked.

A couple of weeks ago, at the Bitcoin London Conference, BBC reporter Rory-Cellan Jones neatly highlighted the ongoing challenge:

In case you’ve not been following the discussion, Bitcoins are an independently machine-generated digital currency (i.e. not owned or managed by any country or entity) which some people believe will revolutionise global trade. Right now, the majority of people active in the Bitcoin world are programmers, developers and geeks, which is where many of these kinds of things start. The problem right now is the language of the movement is far too technical, and this is a problem. Even going to Wikipedia to get an explanation of Bitcoins would leave most of the general public scratching their heads:

Bitcoin (code: BTC) is a cryptocurrency where the creation and transfer of bitcoins is based on an open source cryptographic protocol that is independent of any central authority. Bitcoins can be transferred through a computer or smartphone without an intermediate financial institution.The concept was introduced in a 2008 paper by pseudonymous developer Satoshi Nakamoto, who called it a peer-to-peer, electronic cash system

There is already widespread misunderstanding of how new money is created, and clearly with Bitcoins – however good-an-alternative they may be – we’re not much better off. If shop keepers and the general public are to embrace such an idea and, let’s face it, they’ll have to for it to succeed, clearly some serious PR work needs to be done. (For a simple run-down of what the fuss is all about with Bitcoins, Bloomberg have a helpful feature here).

There is definitely a need for alternative means of exchange (note: plural), as I mentioned in an interview with Quartz recently. My belief is that a growing number of people worldwide have grown tired of being burned by globalisation and just want to get back to functioning within sustainable local systems. They need alternatives to cash, but just don’t realise it yet.

Because of the way our globalised world works (great when it does, rubbish when it doesn’t), hard-working people, and communities, are being destroyed by financial meltdown in distant places. Globalisation has eroded our incentives, and ability, to play well together as local communities, meaning we’re now less resilient to shocks of all kinds than we used to be

Everyone engaged in the alternative economy and local sustainability movement have already passed the ‘recognition threshold’ – recognition that the current system is broken to the detriment of people and planet everywhere, and that we need alternatives. But these people – me included – are in the minority. We might see how broken the system is, but we should never assume that it’s so obvious that everyone else ought to, too.

While we build the tools and, yes – the Bitcoins of the future – we need to seriously work on how we communicate. Conference gatherings have already become echo chambers for much of the ICT4D community. Whatever it is that makes people nod enthusiastically within the walls of alternative economy and sustainability events needs to first be simplified, and then communicated outside in an exciting, engaging way.

As my work over the years has taught me, technology is almost always the easy part. Behaviour change – that’s a totally different beast altogether.

July 16, 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

After twenty years, time to turn the page.

“Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new end”Maria Robinson

Things happen for a reason, and I’ve had my fair share of things ‘happen’ to me over the years. It’s been one heck of a journey. I’m now into my twenty-first year in international development, and eleventh in mobile-for-development. I’ve lived with, worked with and met many incredible people along the way. And I’ve seen first-hand how telecommunications have transformed the lives of communities across the developing world.

I’ve had my fair share of ups and downs. It’s fair to say I was drifting in 2005 when FrontlineSMS came along. If the software has helped save anyone in the developing world then it’s fair to say it saved me, too.

Despite the twenty-year journey, some of the bigger life-changing moments have happened over the last two. The loss of our mother was a big blow, and the one person who had supported and encouraged me to follow my dreams for so long was no longer there. I’ve had a son, Henry – who my mother never got to meet – who has changed the way I see the world in ways nothing else has. And on a professional level I’ve stepped back from FrontlineSMS after making an honest assessment that it could do better in fresh hands. It’s been an absolute honour to have worked on that project.

I write this from a ship docked in Ho Chi Minh City. I’m in the middle of perhaps one of the craziest things I’ve done for a while. Described as a radical experiment in global entrepreneurship, Unreasonable at Sea is made up of “20 Mentors. 100 days. 1 ship. 13 countries. 11 ventures. 1 belief that entrepreneurship will change the world”. I joined the ship in Hong Kong, and depart when we get to India. It’s one month to help and mentor eleven socially-focussed ventures, and to share what I’ve learnt over the past twenty years with both them and many of the students also on board.

I’ve also had plenty of time, for the first time, to reflect – not just on what I’ve done, but more importantly on where I’m headed.

Of course, I could continue as I have done for the past twenty years and see where my journey ultimately takes me. But that feels too uncertain, not to mention the challenges of raising money for a salary year-on-year. I now have responsibilities, and a journey which has largely been just about me is now about others, too. I’m no longer travelling alone.

I often highlight in my many talks that back in the beginning my ideal job didn’t exist, so I had to create it. My passion for technology, anthropology, conservation and development are enshrined in everything I’ve done with kiwanja.net for the past ten years, largely based on my experiences over the previous ten. Looking back, I probably wouldn’t change a thing. Now I feel it may be time to make better use what I’ve learnt, and take it forward somewhere else. I’m not entirely sure what or where that ‘somewhere else’ might be, but I have until the end of 2013 to find out.

What might I offer that ‘somewhere else’?

  • Twenty years experience working in emerging markets, mostly across Africa
  • Twenty-five years experience in the IT sector
  • Ten years at the forefront of mobile-for-development (m4d)
  • A wide variety of multi-industry and non-profit contacts
  • Deep understanding of innovation and (social) entrepreneurship
  • A track record of speaking at international conferences
  • A track record in blogging and writing for websites, books and magazines
  • Mentoring
  • A solid understanding of appropriate technologies
  • A track record in the successful development and rollout of FrontlineSMS
  • Various competition judging and Advisory roles
  • An inherent belief that technology, designed and implemented appropriately and sensitively, can have a profoundly positive impact in the world
  • Ridiculous amounts of enthusiasm and a ‘can do’ attitude
  • (Full bio and list of achievements here)

What does the ideal opportunity look like?

  • It has a mission I can believe in
  • It gives me freedom to think
  • And freedom to write
  • And freedom to be creative
  • And opportunities to share and learn

Where might there be a fit?

  • You’re a charitable foundation looking for someone to drive your technology-themed grant giving
  • You’re a large technology company needing someone to manage your CSR programme
  • You’re a design company working on developing or implementing technologies or services for emerging markets
  • You’re an education establishment in need of someone who’s spent a lot of time getting stuck in on the ground, with a strong interest and understanding of technology and development
  • You’re a startup in need of a helping hand to get your technology or service off-the-ground
  • Or you may just like what I’ve been doing over the years and have the resources to support kiwanja.net so it can carry on doing it, and build on it. I continue to do a lot for free.

There are no doubt many other options. I’ve always quite fancied politics, too. Or a career in documentary film making. So anything and anywhere are on the table right now.

For the time being I’ve got 2013 planned out and will continue to write, speak, mentor, travel (a little) and work on Means of Exchange, a project I’m incredibly excited about – and committed to – for the long term. I’m in no hurry for the page to turn, and think the right next step is out there somewhere. It just might take a few months or more to find it.

If you have any ideas, would like to chat, or know anyone else who might be interested in talking feel free to share this post with them, or drop me a line. I’d love to hear from you.

February 16, 2013   1 Comment