You might not change the world. But you can make it a better place.

One of the perks of my job is that I get to meet some of the most talented innovators and entrepreneurs from all over the world. I even get to mentor and support some of them. But they’re the exception, not the rule. Not everyone who sets out to make the world a better place is going to come up with a new, groundbreaking, innovative idea that achieves their goal. Not everyone is going to end up running their own social venture. Not everyone is going to win prizes for their efforts, and not everyone is going to have huge, global impact.

And that’s fine.

One of the most frequent questions I get asked, particularly at student events, is what young people can do to help make the world a better place. Many realise that the chances of becoming the next Muhammad Yunus are slim, and instead they look for something more achievable and realistic they can do.

During my time as a mentor with Unreasonable at Sea, I had the honour to sit on a panel with Archbishop Desmond Tutu in front of several hundred students hungry to find out how they could help make the world a better place. It was a wide-ranging conversation which you can see in full below. (The Archbishop later wrote the Foreword to my first book, which you can read about here).

The advice that I always give can be broken down into four complimentary actions. These only work if done together.

1. Take an interest. Read widely. Watch documentaries. Make an effort to meet like-minded people. Take time to understand the world, to understand the context of the problems we face as a people and a planet.

2. Empathise. Take time to understand what life is like for those less fortunate than yourself. Try to spend time with them. Travel to the places they live if possible. Be open to learning. Empathy is key. Empathy + knowledge is invaluable.

3. Pick something big. Get behind a major global campaign that addresses a major global challenge. Don’t let the enormity of the task put you off, or the fact that you may never know the impact you, individually, may have.

4. Pick something small. Get behind a local organisation addressing a local problem that you’re passionate about. Volunteer your time. Get involved. See, experience and feel the impact you’re having, and draw comfort that you’re making a difference.

Most of the innovators I get to meet didn’t come up with their ideas or solutions overnight. Many were already taking an interest, and spending time with the people they ended up helping. The most important lesson you can learn from this? If you immerse yourself, anything is possible.

Want a holistic view of the world of social innovation? Try these four books.

We’re seeing a steady stream of great books hitting the shelves at the moment, each focusing on a different aspect of the technology/social innovation debate. While some offer hardcore theory and research, others offer softer inspiration and advice. One day we’ll have a book which captures and weaves together all four – that would be the ideal book – but for now we’ll have to read them all as separate volumes.

So, what are they? Well, if you’re interested in the whole spectrum of social change, with a slant towards the use of technology and innovation, these four books should make your summer reading list.


For background, theory and context:

Ben Ramalingam

It is widely recognised that the foreign aid system – which today involves every country in the world – is in need of drastic change. But there are conflicting opinions as to what is needed. Some call for dramatic increases in resources, to meet long-overdue commitments, and to scale up what is already being done around the world. Others point to the flaws in aid, and bang the drum for cutting it altogether – and argue that the fate of poor and vulnerable people be best placed in the hands of markets and the private sector. Meanwhile, growing numbers are suggesting that what is most needed is the creative, innovative transformation of how aid works. In this ground-breaking book, Ben Ramalingam shows that the linear, mechanistic models and assumptions on which foreign aid is built would be more at home in early twentieth century factory floors than in the dynamic, complex world we face today.

For inspiration and inside stories of social innovation:
Ken Banks

Classes in social innovation, social entrepreneurship and design thinking have become increasingly popular in recent years. On the one hand, this might be seen as a good thing. After all, the world needs as many smart, engaged citizens as it can get, particularly when you consider the multitude of challenges we face as a planet. But does a career in social change really begin in the classroom, or out in the real world? How much social change is planned, and how much accidental? And which approach tends to lead to the most meaningful, lasting or impactful solutions?

For research, theory, context:
Kentaro Toyama

In this incisive book, Toyama cures us of the manic rhetoric of digital utopians and reinvigorates us with a deeply people-centric view of social change. Contrasting the outlandish claims of tech zealots with stories of people like Patrick Awuah, a Microsoft millionaire who left his engineering job to open Ghana’s first liberal arts university, and Tara Sreenivasa, a graduate of a remarkable South Indian school that takes impoverished children into the high-tech offices of Goldman Sachs and Mercedes-Benz, Geek Heresy is a heartwarming reminder that it’s human wisdom, not machines, that move our world forward.

FOR Inspiration, advice:
William MacAskill

Almost all of us want to make a difference. So we volunteer, donate to charity, recycle or try to cut down our carbon emissions. But rarely do we know how much of a difference we’re really making. In a remarkable re-examination of the evidence, Doing Good Better reveals why buying sweatshop-produced goods benefits the poor; why cosmetic surgeons can do more good than charity workers; and why giving to a relief fund is generally not the best way to help after a natural disaster. By examining the charities you give to, the volunteering you do, the goods you buy and the career you pursue, this fascinating and often surprising guide shows how through simple actions you can improve thousands of lives – including your own.

Happy reading!

1995. 2005. 2015. Two decades of code

Precisely ten years ago this morning I sat down at a kitchen table in Finland and started coding. Armed with a Visual manual, a laptop and GSM modem, a couple of SIMs and a Nokia 6100 and cable – and plenty of coffee – I delved into the world of Windows programming for the very first time.

I’d already done a fair amount of professional software development over the years, designing and building a membership/fundraising system for Jersey Zoo, and a range of accounting and amortisation systems for a legal firm, but that was ten years earlier in the mid-1990’s when QuickBASIC was my weapon of choice. Ten years had passed, and I’d never written anything event-driven before. I was on a steep learning curve, but was motivated.


I’d already figured out earlier that year that I could drive a mobile phone by sending it a series of Hayes commands through a cable – that was my epiphany moment, so-to-speak – so my task that summer was to try and build a nice user interface around it. It sounds almost crazy now to think that a lot of this was new, but back then very few people were building messaging platforms, and even fewer building messaging platforms aimed at grassroots non-profits in the developing world. After two years working across South Africa and Mozambique it had already become blatantly clear to me that there was a growing need there that nobody seemed willing, or able, to meet.

One of the big advantages I had back in 2005 was that it was easy to hide away and be left alone to focus on a project like this. Anyone with no team, no money and a big project idea knows all too well how important it is to be able to get away and focus. Thanks to the luxury of being unknown in the ICT4D world I was able to hide well enough to write a working prototype of FrontlineSMS in just five weeks.


Designing the ContactManager form


Coding ContactManager


The finished, compiled article


The first FrontlineSMS website, built in a day. The field banner was the view outside

Fast forward to today, I once again sit hidden away taking on a new coding challenge (my decades of code seem to take me from 1995 to 2005 to 2015, which may or may not be significant). In a similar vein to my attempts to tackle Windows programming in 2005 – which didn’t turn out too badly, I guess – today I’ve started work on my first iOS app. With a long list of ideas it’ll hopefully be the first of a few. Not surprisingly, they are pretty-much all based on improving how we interact and engage with the people, causes and world around us. I’m close to securing angel investment for the first app, which is another first. And it has a solid business model, which is another.

Interestingly, my brushes with code seem to have taken me through each of the key platforms of the past twenty years – MS-DOS, Microsoft Windows and, now, iOS. And, like 2005, I find myself with a window of opportunity to hide away and code as I continue my summer sabbatical. Watch this space for more.