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Category — Musings

Global Development: Investors in People?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 23, 2015   No Comments

Principles and Charters: A recipe for harmony in ICT4D?

There’s a phenomenon in the science world known as ‘multiple independent discovery‘. It’s where “similar discoveries are made by scientists working independently of each other” and the Theory of Evolution, the jet engine and the television can be counted among its ranks. Not that any of my work comes close to any of these, it was no surprise when I recently announced my Donors Charter to learn that friends on the other side of the Atlantic were working on something very similar. Or at least that appeared very similar.

My Donors Charter was borne out of a specific frustration that donors often appeared to be funding ICT4D projects they shouldn’t. The result? A sector full of replication, failed pilots, poorly thought-out projects, secrecy and near-zero levels of collaboration – none of it useful.

The Charter was an effort to encourage both donors, and project owners, to ensure they were clear about what they were planning, why they were planning it, and how. The questions didn’t seek to steer them in any specific direction, or encourage them to choose one technology solution or principle over another, but simply to be clearer about the what, why and how of their idea. The questions fell into three categories:

Preliminary questions

  1. Do you understand the problem? Have you seen, experienced or witnessed the problem? Why are you the one fixing it?
  2. Does anything else exist that might solve the problem? Have you searched for existing solutions?
  3. Could anything that you found be adapted to solve the problem?
  4. Have you spoken to anyone working on the same problem? Is collaboration possible? If not, why not?
  5. Is your solution economically, technically and culturally appropriate?

Implementation questions

  1. Have you carried out base research to understand the scale of the problem before you start?
  2. Will you be working with locally-based people and organisations to carry out your implementation? If not, why not?
  3. Are you making full use of the skills and experience of these local partners? How?

Evaluation and post-implementation questions

  1. How do you plan to measure your impact? How will you know if your project was a success or not?
  2. Do you plan to scale up or scale out that impact? If not, why not? If yes, how?
  3. What is your business/sustainability model?

Transparency questions

  1. Are you willing to have your summary project proposal, and any future summary progress reports, posted on the Donors Charter website for the benefit of transparency and more open sharing?

None of these questions are difficult, none are particularly technical, and it’s perfectly reasonable to expect anyone starting a new project to be able to answer them. These are, in my view, the kinds of questions everyone should be working through because, well, they’re common sense. Anyone who hasn’t thought any of this through really needs to go away and think, plan or research a little more. And if it comes to it, yes – drop their idea.

There’s a dual benefit to all of this. Firstly, it would force implementers to consider key issues before reaching out for support, resulting in a reinforcement of best practice. Secondly, it will help the donors themselves by focusing their resources and dollars on projects which are better thought-out and less likely to fail.

Shortly after announcing the Charter last August I was pointed to another site – billed as ‘the same thing’ – which had just been launched a few weeks earlier. This site was billed as the “Principles for Digital Development” and it too had a list of things people needed to consider while designing their project. Unlike my Charter, which was scribbled in the back of a notepad during a train journey home, the Principles were the result of an extensive amount of work by a range of ICT4D players and partners including The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, USAID, UNICEF, The World Bank, SIDA, Omidiyar Foundation, The State Department, WHO, HRP, UNHCR, WFP, UNFPA, UNDP, Global Pulse, UNWomen and OCHA.

After reviewing the Principles (you can download a PDF of them here) I quickly decided that they weren’t ‘the same thing’, although they were undoubtedly useful. Despite that, they came up again in a comment posted by Wayan Vota, who pointed people back to the Principles in what became the mother-of-all-discussions on the Charter in my Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) article. I decided it might be useful to seek some clarity because I still didn’t agree that they were the same, and asked him:

1. Who are the principal audience? Is this to remind solutions developers what they should be doing? Or for donors to sense check proposals?

2. Are they going to be enforced in any way? If not, what’s different about this than all the other sets of ‘best practice’ we’ve seen over the past decade?

3. Who’s ‘signed up’ to the Principles, and what does ‘signing up’ actually mean?

4. I’m curious who else was consulted beyond the giants of the development community listed on the site? There seems to be a lack of any grassroots voice, or any of the smaller organisations who probably have a lot to share from their experiences.

Surprisingly I didn’t get a reply, although other friends at USAID did inform me they planned on writing a response to the SSIR piece. So, while I wait to hear their thoughts, here are four of mine on why the Charter and Principles are not ‘the same’.

Firstly, in many places the Principles are quite technical, and anyone other than a software developer, design thinker or ICT4D professional may struggle to understand them. For example, “Design solutions that learn from and enhance existing workflows and plan for organizational adaptation” isn’t useful if you’re a grassroots innovator trying to fix a local problem. The Charter is deliberately non-technical, aimed at everyone, everywhere.

Secondly, the Charter simply asks questions to help ensure projects consider the wide range of issues they may need to address. The Principles makes direct suggestions on how projects should be designed and run.

Thirdly, and perhaps more dangerously, the Principles apply a broad-brush approach to ICT4D project development. “Employ this”, “Apply that”, “Demonstrate this” and “Demonstrate that”.

Fourthly, the Principles steer projects in a specific direction with their recommendations, which is again dangerous. For example, “Design for scale” should only apply if the project wants scale. What if it doesn’t need to scale? “Develop software to be open source by default” implies that closed source is less effective. If we look at the evidence, is that really the case?

If the Principles are aimed at the very organisations that took part in their development – many of them the heavyweights of the ICT4D world – then that’s fine. They’ll have the knowledge, money and resources to make sense of them and deploy them in their work, and it sounds like many of them now do. That’s great news if it works for them.

But for the people and projects I’ve spent the best part of my 20+ year career working with – largely grassroots non-profits, and local social actors and innovators – they’re not much use at all. Even if they could unpick some of the development speak, they’d struggle to act on many of them. One of the biggest problems, as I’ve seen it over the past few years, is the increasing institutionalisation of international development. In 2015 it’s going to get worse, not better.

I believe now, more than ever, that we need to be more inclusive in our work, and although the Donors Charter – unlike the Principles – has very little chance of being adopted by donors anywhere, it is at least aimed at the ‘everyday innovators’ who will – quite rightly in my view – end up being the future of the technology-for-development sector.

January 20, 2015   1 Comment

How “Designing with the end user” undermines ICT4D best practice

After years of near-invisible end users, it’s promising to see the beginnings of ‘end-user recognition’ in much of ICT4D‘s emerging best practice. It looks like we’ve made a big stride forward, but we’re not where we need to be yet, despite making all the right noises. To a great extent, we’re still saying one thing and doing another.

The international development sector, which includes the ICT4D community, is famously uncoordinated. That’s no surprise to many of the people who work in it. You would hope that, at least if the wrong things were being done they’d be being done in a coordinated way, but that’s rarely the case. Haiti is a great case in point, where “a confused aid effort‘ has only added to the difficulties. You’d be right to ask why so many people continue to live in tents nearly five years after the earthquake.

Very recently, the Narrative Project – which I blogged about here – included a call for “a co-ordinated development sector”. It also made the point that independence and self-reliance, i.e. people in the developing world solving their own problems, should be key development objectives. And that people need to believe they can make a difference. This is good to hear, but they’re empty words if ‘best’ practice continues to undermine it.

You could argue that “designing with the user” is a sensible approach – it’s certainly better than designing without them – but is it taking us closer to an end-game of “people in the developing world solving their own problems”? It may if you’re working with them to build a tool or platform which they, and other communities elsewhere, can then take and subsequently deploy on their own terms to solve whatever problem they see fit, in whatever way they decide, without the ‘solution’ provider needing to be involved.

To me, “Design with the user” makes more sense to a local solutions developer, who can simply jump on a bus to go and work with them. But it doesn’t for the overseas solutions developer, for example the student group designing an ICT4D intervention as part of their design thinking course. Local empowerment can only genuinely happen if it’s local people helping local people. So what we need to do is work towards a place where that can happen. “Allowing the user to design” is that place.

The truth of the matter is that far too many ICT4D projects are still initiated from the outside. When I initially launched FrontlineSMS in 2005, the platform was squarely designed to allow local people to conceive, design and run their own projects. The only outside help they needed was for someone to provide something that allowed them to do that. It really isn’t rocket science.

Yet, despite its successes, it still seems to be a model, and an approach, in the minority.

I worry that people who read, study and follow the “Design with the end user” mantra might feel more than ever that they’re doing the right thing, but they’ll simply be reinforcing the outside-in, top down approach without realising it. “Design with the end user” is a step in the right direction, but it’s not the end of the journey, and we shouldn’t kid ourselves that it is.

September 21, 2014   4 Comments

International development: A problem of image, or a problem of substance?

The world has problems. Big problems. They need big answers, ambitious projects and innovative solutions. And that costs money. Lots of it. Three trillion dollars over the past sixty years, if the research is to be believed. Fixing stuff is big business.

With these kinds of resources, what could go wrong? The problem is, many development initiatives have gone wrong, and continue to. Somewhere along the line development has lost it’s way. For many people it is so lost that it’s now become part of the problem.

While donors and other more senior professional development practitioners might disagree, many of the people I know who work in the various guises of ‘development’ admit that – on the whole – it’s not working, that resources are mis-focused, and that the majority of international aid initiatives are not fit for purpose. That’s not to question the motives of those who work to make the world a better place, it’s just that often they choose the wrong vehicle in which to do it. As Bill Easterly says:

The fondness for the Big Goal and the Big Plan is strikingly widespread. It’s part of the second tragedy that so much goodwill and hard work by rich people who care about the poor goes through channels that are ineffective

There’s no shortage of debate, of course. Many academics spend most of their waking hours disecting and analysing the big data on big aid, only to come up with different conclusions. The more practical among us choose to just get on with it, and choose to do it outside the system. Rather than taking jobs in large development structures, we go about it on our own terms. This is the approach featured in my recent book, “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator“.

There’s no better example of big development than the Millenium Development Goals which, at the time of writing are about 450 days away from ‘maturing’. Progress has been sketchy. Given that it can sometimes take years to collect and analyse the kind of data needed to measure them, it may be some time beyond the 2015 deadline before we know how many were met. And then we’ll never really know whether it was development policies, or simple economic growth, that was responsible. As with most things development, few things are that clear cut. If they’re met it might not be clear who to thank, and if we fail we’ll not know who to blame, either.

That all said, it’s far easier for critics who sit on the sidelines and say how rubbish it all is. It’s much harder coming up with actual answers, and harder still acting on them. I, for one, have always tried to balance my criticism of the technology-for development (ICT4D) sector with suggestions, ideas and thoughts on how we might improve our effectiveness. Just last week I announced my Donors Charter, an attempt to bring some harmony to how technology-for-development projects get funded.

Going by a recent article in the Huffington Post, many donors are becoming increasingly concerned about how aid – and their work – is perceived outside the sector. That concern has lead to the birth of the Narrative Project, whose goal is “to reverse the decline of public support for our work” and to counteract “fatigue” among rank-and-file supporters of these charities, many of whom increasingly view aid as “a good idea, done badly”.

Reading between the lines it might appear that many of the donors involved believe that aid is fundamentally “a good idea, done well” and that the problem is simply one of PR. Let’s hope this isn’t the case. While aid definitely does have a PR problem, there’s also plenty wrong with how it’s executed – and we can only hope that those present at the meetings accept that, and have committed to addressing it, too.

The Narrative Project does include a call for “a co-ordinated development sector”, and donors hold many of the cards (as I argue with the Donors Charter). It also makes the point that independence and self-reliance, i.e. people in the developing world solving their own problems, should be key development objectives. And that people need to believe they can make a difference. None of this is new, but it’s refreshing to see it being discussed at such a high level.

One huge red flag, however, are the parties to the work. The UN Foundation, Bond, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, ONE, Oxfam, Comic Relief and others. All large international players. Let’s hope that somewhere along the way they consulted smaller organisations, local organisations, local innovators, small projects and low-level grantees. We all know what happens when you talk in silos. And this looks like an international donor silo to me.

Like many colleagues and friends, I’ve grown increasingly despondent with the international development sector, and have only managed to stay positive thanks to my early decision to ‘go it alone’. Aid does do good, but it could do so much better if it got it’s house in order. And that’s the frustrating thing for me. In a career spanning 21 years, many of the bigger institutional problems persist, with no-one seemingly having the energy, the influence or the political will to fix any of it.

In my ICT4D world, there are some very simple (and I’d argue, obvious) things, for example.

  1. Focus more on enabling environments – genuine empowerment opportunities for those who own, or who are closest to, the problem.
  2. Seriously get behind, and support, projects that we know are working, or know have the best approach. Stop always looking for the next big thing.
  3. Have at least a few innovators on staff. Don’t head up innovation teams with people who have never built anything.
  4. Adopt best practice, along the lines of the Donors Charter.
  5. Give local innovators a voice.

The world needs a strong international development sector, particularly when it’s called to deliver emergency aid in times of greatest need. But beyond that it needs to work for the people it seeks to help, not in the interests of itself. It needs to be bold, be brave, and do things that might not always be in its best interests.

And it needs an exit strategy. Without one, how is anyone expected to have confidence that they’re doing the right thing, the right way?

September 8, 2014   1 Comment

Time for a Donor Funding Charter?

Innovation isn’t about green bean bags and whacky idea sessions. It is a long term business development strategy
Lucy Gower

Behind almost every good social entrepreneur you’ll find a donor. These donors come in all shapes and sizes – family members, friends, companies, CSR departments and sponsors are the most typical, increasingly followed by the crowd funders among us. While plenty of great things get funded, pretty crazy stuff does, too. Zack Danger Brown just raised $55,000 on Kickstarter to make a potato salad, for example.

More often than not, the really big bucks come from government and philanthropic foundations. The UK’s Department for International Development will hand out £10.765 billion this financial year, funding all manner of projects that help those in greatest need. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the biggest private foundation in the world, gave $3.6 billion last year. The world has plenty of problems – big problems – and these budgets reflect that. Donors get to choose which ones they fix, too. The Rockefeller Foundation, for example, currently focuses on resilient cities, digital jobs in Africa, food security, gender equality and universal health coverage, among a few others.

Donors also pay attention to what other donors do, and to what and who they fund. They love, for example, the idea of matched funding where two or more will put in an equal share of funds for a project. It spreads the risk, and gives them all comfort that they’ve not made a silly decision. If the project is good enough for someone else’s money, it’s good enough for theirs. Getting funded by one of the bigger foundations often makes it easier to get money from the others – a sort of shared due diligence, if you like.

Despite all the money and resources – and attempts to apply them to all manner of projects and initiatives – problems remain. During my “Rise of the Reluctant Innovator” book talks, I draw on some of the bigger challenges and failures of international development. Yes, a lot of good work has been done, but I often wonder if we’re getting value for money. Over the past 60 years, we’ve sure spent a huge amount of it.

Plenty of things have been tried, and continue to be tried. Much of the failure is put down to the people and projects (who in turn often blame the target communities), but in many cases responsibility also needs to fall on the people who backed them. Under pressure to support ‘innovative’ (often crazy) ideas, and often under pressure to spend their large budgets, Programme Officers often resort to funding projects they shouldn’t be going anywhere near.

What we end up with is a sector full of replication, small-scale (failed) pilots, secrecy and near-zero levels of collaboration. This negatively impacts not only other poorly-planned initiatives, but it also complicates things for the better ones. On top of all that, it confuses the end user who is expected to make sense of all 75 mobile data collection tools that end up on offer. The policy of funding many in the hope that the odd one shines through – the so-called “let a thousand flowers bloom” scenario – belongs to an earlier era. Today, we know enough about what works and what doesn’t to be far more targeted in what is funded and supported.

Given the vast majority of projects would never get started without some form of funding, donors are the ideal position to put this right. So here’s my proposal.

All major philanthropic foundations – and, where appropriate, government development/aid agencies – sign up to a Funding Charter which encourages much greater scrutiny of the technology projects they’re considering funding. This Charter will be available online, offering considerably more transparency for projects looking for money.

In the first instance, project owners will need to answer the following questions before their grant application is considered:

Preliminary questions

  1. Do you understand the problem? Have you seen, experienced or witnessed the problem? Why are you the one fixing it?
  2. Does anything else exist that might solve the problem? Have you searched for existing solutions?
  3. Could anything that you found be adapted to solve the problem?
  4. Have you spoken to anyone working on the same problem? Is collaboration possible? If not, why not?
  5. Is your solution economically, technically and culturally appropriate?

Implementation questions

  1. Have you carried out base research to understand the scale of the problem before you start?
  2. Will you be working with locally-based people and organisations to carry out your implementation? If not, why not?
  3. Are you making full use of the skills and experience of these local partners? How?

Evaluation and post-implementation questions

  1. How do you plan to measure your impact? How will you know if your project was a success or not?
  2. Do you plan to scale up or scale out that impact? If not, why not? If yes, how?
  3. What is your business/sustainability model?

Transparency questions

  1. Are you willing to have your summary project proposal, and any future summary progress reports, posted on the Donors Charter website for the benefit of transparency and more open sharing?

Not being able to answer these questions fully and reasonably needn’t be the difference between funding or no funding – donors would be allowed wildcards – but it would serve two purposes. First, it would force implementers to consider key issues before reaching out for support, resulting in a reinforcement of best practice. And second, it will help the donors themselves by focusing their resources and dollars on projects which are better thought out and less likely to fail.

The simple adoption of this kind of Charter might do more to solve many of the niggling problems we regularly write, talk, complain and moan about in the ICT4D sector. Any takers?

A more concise version of the proposal is available on the dedicated Donors Charter website.

August 4, 2014   4 Comments

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