Category — Personal
“Despite all of the ghastliness in the world, human beings are made for goodness. The ones that are held in high regard are not militarily powerful, nor even economically prosperous. They have a commitment to try and make the world a better place” – Archbishop Desmond Tutu
I’ve been home for about three weeks since leaving the Unreasonable at Sea ship in India. I spent just over a month helping mentor eleven technology startups which, if that was all I’d done, would have been a fantastic experience. What really stood out for me, though, was the interaction with the hundreds of students aboard, and a stronger sense than ever of how important it is that we encourage, engage, support and mentor the next generation of planetary problem solvers (something I’ve written about before). As if that wasn’t enough, the trip gave me the chance to re-immerse myself in the kinds of environments that were responsible for starting me on my own journey back in 1993. Witnessing suffering and hardship, and countless young children denied a childhood in India, Myanmar and Vietnam, reminds me that there’s still much work to be done.
Spirituality plays a large part in what drives me, and I’ve tried to capture some of this before. It’s not just a subject I find incredibly interesting, but one which puts humanity and purpose back at the centre of development (something which has become increasingly cold and institutionalised). I’ve never thought of helping people as a career. For me it was a way of life, a deeper purpose. So it was a huge honour to be invited to sit on a panel with Archbishop Desmond Tutu to talk about “how we change the world” aboard the MV Explorer. A big thanks to Tori Hogan (who was also on the panel) for inviting me to take part.
I’ve had something of a crazy time over the past few years, finding myself in all sorts of places I felt I had no right to be (National Geographic and No. 10 Downing Street, for example). Having the chance to chat with the Archbishop on a number of occasions during my time aboard the ship is another highlight, and the one hour discussion in front of a packed auditorium was the icing on the cake.
Here’s to making the world a better place. For all of us.
April 2, 2013 1 Comment
“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
- 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
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
I was no different to many other children my age, taking every opportunity to get my hands on a National Geographic magazine and flicking through each colourful page in wonder and amazement. I’d get most of mine cheap from jumble sales back then – I can afford to buy them full price these days – but that sense of fascination remains.
Thirty years on and I find myself back in Washington DC attending my second National Geographic Explorers Symposium. I’ve packed quite a lot in over those thirty years – school building in Zambia, hospital building in Uganda, a degree in Social Anthropology, carrying out biodiversity surveys in Uganda, running a primate sanctuary in Nigeria, various trips and visits to a host of other countries, most on the African continent and, of course, the development of FrontlineSMS.
It was 2003 that my career took its most significant turn when I started working in mobile, and until very recently FrontlineSMS took up most of my time. It was that work which caught the eye of the panel at the National Geographic Society, culminating in my Award in 2010. I’m back again this year to moderate a panel, help mentor the 2012 Class of Emerging Explorers, and share news of my growing relationship with the Society.
It’s not every day that you find yourself randomly sharing a lift with people behind some of the most famous discoveries of our time. This is a very special place, and it’s always a huge honour to be here. If you’d told me thirty years ago that I’d be walking these corridors today, I’d never have believed you.
June 11, 2012 9 Comments
Last week we made one of the most important announcements in the near-seven year history of FrontlineSMS. As I hinted in my “Rolling Stones School of Management Innovation” post last December, I only felt able to take the project to a certain level and that it required different people with a different set of skills to move it to the next. Last week, with that internal transition complete, we announced that I’d be stepping aside to concentrate on other things, and FrontlineSMS would move forward in fresh hands.
Laura Walker Hudson and Sean Martin McDonald will now drive the project forward as CEO’s of our US Foundation and UK Community Interest Company respectively. You can read their thoughts on the transition, and what they have planned, in their follow-up post here.
Many wonderful messages of support flooded in in the form of Tweets, direct messages, blog comments, emails and – of course – text message. The transition announcement was amazingly well received and the response overwhelmingly positive. Many people commented that the move was “incredibly brave” and “must have been difficult” but as I mentioned in the announcement, I felt it was neither. As I said then, I’ve always maintained that it’s just as important to be aware of your limitations as your strengths, and stepping aside in these circumstances is the clearest indication I can give that I do.
There haven’t been many transitions like this in the m4d or ICT4D worlds that I know of, and if that’s the case it reinforces our commitment to not only be innovative with technology but innovative organisationally, and to also always act in the best interests of the project rather than ourselves. FrontlineSMS, as with many other ICT4D projects, is bigger than one person. I’m excited to see where FrontlineSMS goes from here, and I’ll follow and support it in my new capacity as Chairman of the Board with the same commitment and enthusiasm as I did from my one bedroom flat in Cambridge, or VW Camper at Stanford.
Alongside the congratulatory messages a few people wished me luck and said they hoped to still see me on the innovation, technology, mobile or African scene. Well, they will. I’m not retiring, just handing over the reins at FrontlineSMS. I’ll continue to write, blog and speak about technology, innovation and social change, and maintain a focus on Africa as I’ve done for the past twenty years.
As for what’s next, I’m excited that over the past few months I’ve been increasingly drawn into the wider world of innovation and entrepreneurship beyond my technology roots – speaking the other week at the Ashoka/Ben & Jerry’s ”Join Our Core” event, for example, and next month spending time with BMW executives in Munich.
My writing has also started to gain traction beyond the news sites and journals which dominate our discipline, with a short guest piece in Wired Magazine last month. I’m also planning my first book which will focus on “reluctant innovation“, due out later this year. And I’m doing an increasing amount of mentoring with organisations such as Pop!Tech, National Geographic and the Unreasonable Institute, something that aligns perfectly with my long-standing commitment to “give back”.
Project-wise I have a long list of new ideas I’ll be working on. One is just a few weeks away from being ready, so I’ll save the official announcement for then. But in the spirit of my efforts with FrontlineSMS, the overarching focus of my work will continue to centre around how we best apply modern technology for social benefit, both in the developed and developing world. If anything, it’s the additional focus on the developed world which represents the biggest shift in my thinking.
In an effort to stay innovative and relevant, large companies are often encouraged to reinvent themselves. There’s no reason why this shouldn’t apply to individuals, too. The ICT4D sector has shifted focus considerably since I started out all those years ago. When the time is right, there’s no reason why some of the people in it shouldn’t do the same, either.
ClearlySo featured our transition on their blog. You can read their excellent commentary here.
June 5, 2012 52 Comments
Earlier this week I was invited to London to spend an hour talking to the twenty-five “Join Our Core” semi-finalists, a social entrepreneurship competition set up through a collaboration between Ben & Jerry’s, Ashoka UK and VSO. It’s vital that we not only continue to encourage and inspire young people into the field, but that we also put support structures in place to enable them to build on – and take – their ideas forward. This event did both.
The location could not have been better – the home of the BBC’s “Dragons Den” – a TV series where entrepreneurs (not usually the social variety) pitch business ideas to five dragons (aka investors) in the hope of walking out with cash in exchange for equity in their fledgling business. Often a daunting scene, it was made less intimidating with the addition of a Ben & Jerry’s banner, more casual seating and a splattering of cow bean bags, plastic cows, bails of hay and, of course, free ice cream.
By the time I arrived in the early afternoon most of the entrepreneurs had pitched their ideas but I did manage to catch the last half-dozen or so. The Den was out of bounds so I joined the other entrepreneurs, and Ashoka and Ben & Jerry’s staff, in one of the other rooms where we all watched intently on a big screen.
It was a real honour to be given the chance to spend time with the entrepreneurs and talk to them about their business ideas. The range of ideas and projects may have been wide and varied, but the maturity, passion and commitment that each showed in their work bound them all. Anyone who reads my blog will know how much emphasis I place on helping young people see through their ideas and dreams, and how important I believe it is that we help them reach their potential. Three years ago, in “Enabling the inspiration generation“, I wrote:
If we can help anyone on their journey, then we should. Whether that be giving advice or a positive critique on an idea, helping raise awareness through blog posts, giving tips on fundraising, making introductions to other projects and people with the same interests, or offering to be a future soundboard as their ideas grow and develop. These are all things I didn’t have when I started out, and using them productively now that I do is one of the biggest contributions I believe I can – and should – make to the future growth of our discipline. Our legacy shouldn’t be measured in the projects or tools we create, but in the people we serve and inspire
My talk, which at an hour is about twice as long as I usually get, focused on a range of topics from reluctant innovation to grassroots innovation, my background, the humble beginnings (and current impact) of FrontlineSMS, things which I feel define me and my work, and lessons I’ve learnt along the way. These included:
- Don’t be in a hurry. Grow your organisation on your own terms.
- Don’t assume you need money to grow. Do what you can before you reach out to external funders.
- Volunteers and Interns may not be the silver bullet to your human resource issues.
- Pursue and maximise every opportunity to promote your work.
- Remember that your website, for most people, is the primary window to you and your idea.
- Know when to say “no”. Manage expectations.
- Avoid being dragged down by the politics of the industry you’re in. Save your energy for more important things.
- Learn to do what you can’t afford to pay other people to do.
- Be open with the values that drive you.
- Collaborate if it’s in the best interests of solving your problem, even if it’s not in your best interests.
- Make full use of your networks, and remember that the benefits of being in them may not always be immediate.
- Remember the bigger picture.
During the early part of the evening the fifteen finalists were announced. In reality, there were no losers – all of the projects and ideas were worthy in their own right, and as I pointed out at the start of my talk, many entrepreneurs I know would have given their right arm to be at “Join Our Core”. By simply taking their ideas and turning them into something tangible, they had already elevated themselves into the top few percent.
The fifteen finalists will be off to Uganda in August to take part in the final challenge. The projects that made it through are:
Archipelago. One of the largest communities of young entrepreneurs in Western Europe. They help young people create sophisticated businesses through events, think tanks and crowd sourced funding initiatives.
Biochar. A product created from burning waste materials such as manure and wood in the absence of oxygen in a process called pyrolysis. The outcome is a charcoal substance but unlike regular charcoal biochar has been proven to enhance soil condition, crop yield and it sequesters carbon for up to 1,000 years making it carbon negative.
Elevation Networks. An award winning youth employment charity that seeks to develop the leadership potential of young people to increase their employability.
Elvis & Kresse. Creators of stunning life-style accessories by re-engineering seemingly useless wastes. The raw material for their principal range is genuine de-commissioned British fire brigade hoses.
FairMail. A social enterprise producing fair-trade greeting cards. The pictures on the cards are taken by at-risk teenagers in Peru, India (and soon Morocco).
FoodCycle. Building communities by combining volunteers, surplus food and a spare kitchen space to create nutritious meals for people at risk from food poverty.
Hackney Pirates. Transforming the who, where and what of learning. They give kids intensive 1-1 support from volunteers, to work on projects that matter, in an unconventional learning environment.
!SYOU. Introducing the new way of walking. Unique sneakers produced in collaboration with DAC-listed nations.
Mattecentrum. Tutors around 70.000 young people in math every month – for free.
ONEforONE. A social enterprise in The Netherlands that sells water bottles, health insurances and green energy on a ‘buy one give one’-basis.
Play31. Using the unifying power of football to bring together people who have been torn apart by war.
Retoy. Creating experiences and places where children learn about the environment, sustainable consumption and children’s rights in a joyful way through toys and play.
Rubies in the Rubble. Making the tastiest chutney and the fruitiest jam in the nicest possible way at the same time as addressing social issues of unemployment, social exclusion and waste.
Ruby Cup. Improving menstrual hygiene and raising the quality of life of women and girls worldwide.
SuperHoney. Putting beehives into schools to teach kids about bees, the environment and food, and providing much-needed homes for millions of British bees.
May 25, 2012 32 Comments
Over the past few years I’ve given a fair few interviews, and have been grateful for the continued interest and enthusiasm from others for our work. Most interviews have focused on combinations of my time working in Africa, my technology interests, or the evolution and development of FrontlineSMS. Until now, none had asked me to go way back and talk about my background, family and upbringing, or dig deeply into what drives me and my work.
Last week, Kate Ebner on “Visionary Leader, Extraordinary Life” did just that. You can read the write-up below.
Finding What Lights You Up: The Unassuming Wisdom of Mobile Innovator and Anthropologist Ken Banks
Ken Banks finished up his hour on our radio show and, moments later, tweeted “thanks for the therapy!” with a cyber smile. During his radio hour, Kate invited Ken to tell his life story at length for the benefit of our listeners. The story began in Banks’ childhood — in Jersey, England, one of the Channel Islands off the coast of Normandy, France. To date, it takes place in Africa where Banks is bringing mobile technologies to enable effective communications channels for communities in the developing world through his organization kiwanja.net and his free, open-source software FrontlineSMS.
Why did Kate invite Ken to spend so much of the hour telling his story? “Ken’s story is one of overcoming loss, uncertainty and adversity to find his path. He is an optimist with high standards for himself and the world. He hasn’t always been able to see how the pieces of his story quite fit together. We can relate to those feelings and circumstances. How Ken moves through life — the decisions that he has made and how he makes them — is so instructive and inspiring for all of us.”
Here are just a few of the wise nuggets that Ken Banks imparted during his hour on Visionary Leader, Extraordinary Life:
Everyone should be given a chance to maximize their potential. Inspire people to feel they have something to contribute to the world and help them find ways to make it happen. Read Ken’s blog post, “Enabling the Inspiration Generation.”
Just think about how you can help 4-5 people. You don’t need to save the whole world. If everyone helped just 4-5 people, the world would be a better place.
Anything is possible. Regardless of the cards you are dealt in life, pick yourself up and walk on. You don’t need parents in high places, or lots of money to make a difference in the world.
Do something that feels right. Don’t let others dictate your path. Only you will know what is right for you at any given moment in your life. If you feel good about what you are doing, don’t give up.
Make your own opportunities. If you haven’t found the one thing that immediately switches you on, get out and put yourself in the kinds of environments where you have a better chance of finding it. You won’t find it sitting at home and watching television.
Maximize every opportunity. You are only as good as the last thing you have done. It doesn’t matter that you gave a great talk last year – it’s all about the one you are doing now. If you give everything 100%, it will start to pay off and you will build momentum and people will want to support you and your ideas.
This interview was in part dedicated to our Mother, who passed away one year ago last month.
May 6, 2012 5 Comments
February 12, 2012 6 Comments
A nurse has recorded the most common regrets of the dying, and among the top ones is “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard”. What would your biggest regret be if this was your last day of life?
Earlier this week I tweeted a link to this soberingly-titled Guardian article on the “Top Five Regrets of the Dying“. Since then I’ve had several conversations with people on the subject. For me, the line between ‘work’ and ‘life’ has become increasingly blurred over the past twenty years. Back in the early 1990′s when I first started thinking about the intersection of technology, people, conservation and development there wasn’t a job anywhere where I’d have been able to blend all those skills and interests. My ideal job didn’t exist, so I had to create it. This long-standing quote on the kiwanja website sums up pretty well where I’ve ended up today.
Of course, I’m one of the lucky ones. That said, like everyone I have regrets, but if anyone had told me twenty years ago – even nine years ago when I started out in mobile – that I’d be where I am today I’d never have believed them. I met too many people in my banking days who were content to spend their lives doing jobs they didn’t like – hated even – so they could “enjoy their retirement” with a good pension. For me it’s always been about the journey, not the final destination. I still don’t know where I’m going to end up, truth be told.
In sharp contrast to death and regret, Paul Lamb from Man On a Mission Consulting sent me a random email two days after the Guardian article on the subject of happiness (happy life = fewer regrets?). Having a job you love may be one way to happiness (or fewer regrets), but not everyone is lucky enough to have one of those. So, for anyone who’s yet to figure out their purpose, journey or destination, here’s a few good “Happiness Resources” gleaned from Paul’s email.
Enjoy. And be happy.
The happy secret to better work
Shawn Achor, TED Talks (2011)
The habits of happiness
Matthieu Ricard, TED Talks (2004)
10 Ways to be happy
From the Happiness Project
Taking a Kindness Day off of work
Huffington Post (2011)
The “social game for good”
The Greater Good Center
The “science for a meaningful life”, courtesy UC Berkeley
The Happy Movie
(In celebration of World Happiness Day on February 11th, 2012)
February 9, 2012 15 Comments
“Once in a while it really hits people that they don’t have to experience the world in the way they have been told to”
Sports players are always told they can “do better”. Even championship winning teams are told they can “play better”. A musician’s next album could always “sound better” and Little Johnny at school could always “try a little harder”. We seem to be in a constant state of attempted self-improvement. Are we ever happy with who we are or what we’ve achieved?
Survival is the main preoccupation for a vast majority of the world’s inhabitants. If it’s not yours then you’re one of the lucky ones, like me. Also, like me, you’re likely instead preoccupied with building a career, or “trying to make something of yourself” as people like to put it. We’re brought up to be ambitious and conscientious, to strive to be successful at whatever we choose to do. Society does what it can to equip us along the way. We’re in a hugely priviledged position.
Personally, I’ve always believed that I need to have fully developed at least three ideas before I consider myself a success. I have no idea why I think I need to be a success, or why I think I need to prove myself three times, or even who I’m trying to prove it all to. But I do know that I enjoy building and starting things, so each time I decide to go through the process it’s because I enjoy it.
Despite what we constantly hear, though, it’s not just the “taking part that counts”. Whatever we do has to succeed – or lead us on to something else that does – if we’re to “reach our potential”.
Many social entrepreneurs live in this world. Life is about taking the seed of an idea, building it into something meaningful, and then ideally doing it all over again. Do it just the once and it might be luck. Do it a few times and you’re smart. The problem with this approach is that you never quite know when you’re “there”. At what point do you stop pushing and settle for what you have? Surely it’s not possible to constantly self-improve?
As someone who’s constantly pushing themselves to improve, I think about this a lot. Looking at the Zen Habits website, I’m not alone. Quashing the Self-Improvement Urge is a wonderfully reflective post on the subject, and is well worth a read if you’re in the same boat. As Leo Babauta himself concludes:
Quash the urge to improve, to be better. It only makes you feel inadequate. And then explore the world of contentment. It’s a place of wonderment.
I wonder how well this approach would sit with today’s social entrepreneurs and innovators?
January 3, 2012 27 Comments