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Category — Musings

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

Nokia next in line for an about-turn?

Two years ago Nokia had a global smartphone market share of around 29%. That number has fallen to around 3% today, despite the smartphone market more than doubling over the same period. Nokia’s CEO, Stephen Elop, bet the family silver on a Windows-based strategy and gave it two years to pay off. Well, two years have passed and sales of 4.4 million Lumia’s have disappointed analysts and markets, and likely him.

But it’s not all bad news. In the same period Nokia sold almost 80 million ‘dumb phones’, down on the previous year but clearly a market where they remain strong. What are the chances Nokia will drop it’s Windows strategy and put everything into lower-end devices for emerging markets? The Asha is doing pretty well there, and may be it’s saviour. Telecom TV have a great analysis of Nokia’s options – “Is Asha the future for Nokia?” – which you can read here.

Big tech companies have made embarrasing U-turns before. In 2011 Hewlett Packard announced it was going to sell its PC and tablet manufacturing units only to change it’s mind later. And last summer Apple decided its withdrawal from the EPEAT environmental ratings scheme was probably not all that clever and decided it wasn’t going to leave after all.

Nokia look like two businesses at the moment. At the high end of the mobile market they’re clearly struggling with little to cheer about. At the low to medium end they’re in a totally different position. Overall, Nokia are struggling, and it’s sad to see. If they’re to survive they may need to be brave. Perhaps a U-turn is what they need. And if they decide they need one, they won’t have been alone.

January 29, 2013   1 Comment

2013: The end of sustainability?

One of the most interesting comments I’ve read for while came in this article by Andrew Zolli for the New York Times, written in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy late last year:

Today, precisely because the world is so increasingly out of balance, the sustainability regime is being quietly challenged, not from without, but from within. Among a growing number of scientists, social innovators, community leaders, nongovernmental organisations, philanthropies, governments and corporations, a new dialogue is emerging around a new idea, resilience: How to help vulnerable people, organisations and systems persist, perhaps even thrive, amid unforeseeable disruptions. Where sustainability aims to put the world back into balance, resilience looks for ways to manage in an imbalanced world.

Having spent a large part of my career working in and around environmentalism and conservation (see an earlier post on lessons learnt in primate conservation), a reality-check of ‘sustainability’ is something I’ve had on my mind for a while. With its arch enemy – population growth – driving ever-upward, I’ve often wondered whether we’re just stalling for time or delaying the inevitable. The problem with this school of thought, of course, is that it’s considered by many to be defeatist, particularly by those in the actual business of conservation and environmental protection.

Technology allows us to stretch the limits of what’s possible – grow significantly more food per acre, or live in climates we were never meant to live in – all activities which make us feel comfortable about the world and the places we live within it. Much of this technology has become invisible. We no longer think about the innovations that allow us to grow more, or healthier, food. Or those that get electricity to our homes, or the satellites that help get cars and planes from A to B. It’s only when we don’t have access to these things that we suddenly realise how exposed and dependent we are on them. Surviving technological meltdown is the subject of a wide number of books, including the aptly-titled “When Technology Fails” by Matthew Stein.

The environmental movement (which is to all intents and purposes linked to sustainability) is around forty years old. Its birth is widely linked to the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring“, her seminal book which argued against the increasing use of pesticides in farming. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t hugely popular within the ranks of the chemical industry, but it did spur the birth of grassroots environmentalism which in turn lead to the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). If pesticide use continued, Carson argued, Springs of the future would be void of bird life, amongst others (hence the title).

In another of my favourite books, “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed“, Jared Diamond graphically illustrates what happens to communities and civilisations which live beyond their means. We can learn a lot from history, but today not enough of us are listening. Our world population of over seven billion is already two to three times higher than what’s sustainable and, according to the World Population Balance website, recent studies have shown that the Earth’s resources are enough to sustain only about two billion people at most European’s current standard of living. In short, we’re in trouble.

During a recent talk at Pop!Tech I highlighted two things that I thought needed to change. First, we need to get people to listen and take interest, but not in the way the wider non-profit movement has historically tried to get us to (i.e. guilt-based education). Second, we need to rethink our relationships with local business, local resources, and each other. You can watch that ten minute talk below, and find out more of what we’ll be up to on the soon-to-launch Means of Exchange website.

As I admit at the start of my talk, I have more questions than answers right now. But I do know that, with the current economic climate, conditions are better than they’ve ever been to get people to rethink their relationship with money, resources and each other. These may not directly impact the environmental or sustainability agenda, but the secondary benefit of people making better use of the human, social, financial and environmental capital around them almost certainly will.

January 7, 2013   18 Comments

An inconvenient truth?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, how about something a little more like this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 12, 2012   129 Comments

The innovation conundrum

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

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

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

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

Harvard Business Review

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

Stanford Social Innovation Review

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

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

Failing to recognise this carries a number of risks:

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

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

Organisational Capacity to Innovate

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

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

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

November 25, 2012   71 Comments

Reflections on a career in IT

Exactly ten years ago next month I started work in the fledgling mobiles-for-development sector. I was incredibly lucky to get in so early, in large part due to the incredible foresight of the corporate team at Fauna & Flora International who realised the potential of mobile in the conservation and development fields very early, and invited me on board to help figure out the technology challenges.

I’d never worked with mobile phones before, but to be fair in December 2002 very few other people had either. What did stand me in good stead was my earlier IT experience. Looking back now it all looks incredibly archaic, demonstrating – more than anything – the speed and rate of innovation in just half my lifetime.

This is the computer I learnt to program on. The Commodore PET had a whopping 32K of RAM, no hard drive (just a cassette deck to save programs to tape), and a massive 40 character screen width. Learning how to hack this as a teenager eventually launched a career in IT (with a bunch of travel and a university education in between).

In the mid-1980′s, as my professional IT career began, I took charge of this beauty at Hambros Bank in Jersey. This Burroughs B1900 mainframe had 2Mb of RAM and ran all of the bank’s systems. It had six exchangeable drives and a command console to drive everything. These were the fun days of computing when everything was big, everything seemed to breathe, and machines had soul.

I doubt I’ll look back at my iPhone or MacBook Air with the same feeling of nostalgia and romance. But let’s save that for another post, perhaps when I celebrate my twentieth anniversary in mobile…

November 6, 2012   5 Comments

Ideas vs. execution: A personal history

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 8, 2012   22 Comments

Social innovation and the art of reinvention

Big companies are on the move.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Many find themselves under pressure in a few key areas:

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 26, 2012   24 Comments

In search of an ICT4D mantra

In many sectors of international development it’s hard to imagine how you’d have much impact if you weren’t out in the field. After all, teachers want to be in-class. Doctors want to be in-clinic. And conservationists want to be in-situ. There’s only so much any of them can do when they’re not. Getting ‘stuck in’ is largely what it’s all about.

So why are so many ICT4D professionals happy to work remotely? And why does much of the ICT4D sector not find that odd?

In an article due to be published this week on BBC Future, I write about how technology has ‘democratised development’ and that there are “likely more people working on solving social and environmental problems in the world today than ever before in human history”. The spread of mobile technology and the Internet has made all of this possible. These are exciting times, make no mistake.

But  just because these tech-based opportunities have literally come to us in the comfort of our own homes, we mustn’t kid ourselves into believing that we don’t need to make any effort to lay the groundwork to our apps and ideas by getting out and spending time in the field. Just because the very technologies we use, by their very nature, allow us to work at-a-distance – remotely – that doesn’t mean we have to. If that doctor, or teacher, or conservationist could do their work without stepping into that Malawian clinic, or Lusaka classroom or Namibian national park, would they? I doubt it.

Last night I caught sight of a tweet from Tony Roberts. Although it sounds like something an anthropologist (or philosopher) might say, it perfectly describes an approach the ICT4D sector might like to adopt.

The beauty of the Internet, and the spread of mobile technology, is that anyone anywhere can quickly develop and distribute a mobile-based solution to a social or environmental problem, and start picking up users immediately. The technology is in place, and the distribution channel is there. All that’s needed are good, solid ideas and a drive and passion to fix a problem somewhere – and, let’s face it, there are plenty of those. All-in-all, the barriers to entry are lower than they’ve ever been.

But they’re so low we end up with a different problem.

For the doctor, teacher or conservationist, understanding the context of their patient, student or endangered species is critical for the work they do if they’re to do it well. With few exceptions, they can only get that by spending time in the field. This isn’t perceived to be the case for a programmer or coder. The result? A majority of apps written in isolation which have little chance of success.

Maybe that doesn’t matter. With the barriers to entry so low the cost of building and distributing these apps is minimal. The fact that so many people are taking an interest in fixing things should be encouraging enough. But there’s no doubt that spending time with your users, understanding their context, discussing what they need and then building a tool based on all of those things gives you the greatest chance of success.

Further reading
Social mobile: Myths and misconceptions
Mobile applications development: Observations
Rethinking Schumacher.

August 27, 2012   53 Comments

Good idea, bad idea or no idea?

For every one of our failures we had spreadsheets that looked awesome

Scott Cook. Founder and Chairman, Intuit

One of the biggest privileges of working in the technology sector for so long are the number of young entrepreneurs and innovators who approach me for thoughts on their big idea. As I’ve written before, whenever I can add value to someone else’s work I’m more than happy to. Giving back is important.

There’s something of an assumed wisdom in the social entrepreneurship and innovation sectors that “ideas are cheap” and that what it’s really all about is execution. While that’s true to an extent (I’ve only put a few of my ideas over the years into practice) good ideas certainly aren’t cheap. It’s just that sometimes – most of the time, in fact – they’re frustratingly hard to spot. Just to complicate things further, ideas often evolve over time, so could well start off in the lower half of the score card but then rise to dizzying heights later.

We’ll never know what would have happened to the tens of thousands of product ideas Steve jobs famously turned down, but the ones he did pursue were clearly good calls (with the exception of Apple TV, perhaps). For the Apple CEO, turning down a great idea was a price worth paying to maintain his relentless focus on focus.

But focusing on ideas and execution doesn’t give us the whole picture. One of the most effective tools in an innovator’s toolbox is passion and, although it won’t turn a mediocre idea into a great one, being passionate about it will certainly impact positively on their ability to deliver.

Passion is easy to spot, but what about the potential of the idea being communicated? In a recent Co.Design article, Scott Anthony provided a few helpful tips. Before getting too far down the road, he says, ask yourself these five questions:

1. Is it targeting an important problem that customers can’t address because existing solutions are expensive or inconvenient?

2. Does it solve the problem in a simpler, more convenient, or more affordable way?

3. Is there a plausible hypothesis about an economically attractive, scalable business model? Don’t believe financial forecasts, but ensure that there’s at least a sensible story

4. Does the team have the right stuff to course-correct according to in-market learning? Avoid dogmatic teams that will keep trying to prove they are right in spite of mounting evidence to the contrary

5. Can early profitability be a choice? The sooner there is a line of sight to profits, the better. You might make a strategic decision to be unprofitable by investing in marketing, sales capability, and so on, but at least you know that the core part of the model works

One of the key lessons FrontlineSMS taught me was the importance of getting your idea out there as quickly as possible and letting your users shape it. Thanks to the Internet, product launches – in the technology sector at least – are today only a mouse click away. Products can be accessed, used, hacked and abused in no time – or simply not used at all – giving you the quickest and clearest indication possible of its potential. Twitter was, in effect, shaped this way.

In terms of the tools, networks and opportunities available today, it’s never been easier to be an innovator or social entrepreneur. The difficult part has remained the same for generations of innovators gone by – that tricky combination of nailing a great idea, convincing others of its value, and then delivering on it.

Further reading
Three Ways To Predict What Consumers Want Before They Know It

July 25, 2012   19 Comments