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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 Basic.net 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.

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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.

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Designing the ContactManager form

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Coding ContactManager

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The finished, compiled article

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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.

Making a new ending

Exactly two-and-a-half years ago I sat on the Unreasonable at Sea ship, docked in Ho Chi Minh City, planning next steps in a life and career that’s taken me from programming Commodore PET computers, running primate sanctuaries and developing messaging tools to mentoring tech startups and students on a ship with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. If it’s all about the journey, then I think I’ve passed on that one.

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Despite all of that, as time passes the destination inevitably becomes just as important. After 25 years working in technology – 22 years of those in conservation and international development – I’ve been rewarded with some amazing friendships, many wonderful experiences and more than my fair share of (unexpected) awards and recognition. But now feels like the right time to once again see what might be next.

My last attempt to find it was halted by some great opportunities to work with a bunch of other people on their projects, and to publish “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator”. In between the paid work I’ve continued the trend of doing a bunch of talks and guest writing, and helping mentor students and early stage socially-focused technology startups, usually in my own time. I’ve been fortunate to be able to do that.

When it comes to change I could, of course, continue as I have done for the past twenty-odd years and see where my journey takes me. But that now feels a little too risky, not to mention the uncertainty of having to cobble together a salary year-on-year (even though I’ve done pretty well at it for well over a decade). 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.

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kiwanja.net now has passengers

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 twelve years, largely based on my experiences over the previous decade or so. Looking back, I probably wouldn’t change a thing.

But now it feels like time to make better use of 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 onset of autumn to find out.

What might I offer that ‘somewhere else’?

  • Over twenty years experience working in emerging markets, mostly across Africa
  • Twenty-five years experience in the IT sector
  • Twelve 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
  • (Click here for full bio and list of achievements)

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
  • And colleagues who also believe in what they do

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
  • You’re looking for an Entrepreneur in Residence
  • 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 (anyone want to make a film about technology and social innovation?). So anything and anywhere are on the table right now.

new-beginning-quoteFor the time being I’m taking a three month sabbatical to bring my iOS and Android coding skills up to speed and to build out a couple of app ideas I’ve had bubbling under for a while. I’ll also work on my new book, and work on Means of Exchange, a project I’m incredibly excited about (what’s happening in Greece right now makes it as important as ever). 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 so 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.

Book Review

The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator
Ken Banks (ed), London Publishing Partnership, 2013, 232 pages

Review by the Society of Business Economists

“Any book with a foreword by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and comments from the World Economic Forum, the BBC and National Geographic is surely one to take notice of, and this book still exceeded my expectations in so many ways.

If the book has a purpose, it is probably to inspire us to innovate using existing technology for those who cannot help themselves. As an economist in the field of innovation and creativity I was ready to uncover the principles involved. What I didn’t expect was the emotional roller coaster that made me stop and wonder why I was so close to tears. Human stories of injustice and income inequality are so much more powerful than statistics. Politicians and economists please take note. I was moved by the magnanimous response of the human spirit to solve the problems. Surprising as this may sound, the story here of a patent lawyer was especially moving.

There are ten stories of ‘reluctant’ innovators. None was forced to innovate but they had the classic necessary combination of motivation, knowledge and ability.

The book was hard to follow sometimes, but much easier if you read about the person and their innovation at the back of the book, before you read their chapter. So many stories in one set of covers made it a little messy too, but also gave so many interesting angles on ‘social’ innovation.

It is an emotional book about the human spirit and the desire help people who cannot help themselves. It is a book about the struggle that innovators face to introduce even low-budget, life-saving innovations. It is a book about the failure of the current economic system to address social needs and how poorer people are locked out from the most basic health care. I got an insight into why childbirth is so dangerous in developing countries; it is more basic than I thought.

This is an uplifting and motivating book about the best aspects of human creativity and desire to help those who need it. It is also a book about not clearing your conscience by convincing yourself that Governments and NGO’s are acting on your behalf; their ego and short-sightedness often gets in the way of innovation despite them being good at some things. It is a story of how any of us with the will can creatively apply our knowledge of existing technology in new situations to have outstanding life-saving or life-changing effects for others.

If that is not enough for you, there is a hidden ‘how-to’ manual about social innovation including the qualities you need. This is no technical manual about stage-gating and managing risk, but rather a guide to making something happen against all odds.

It inspired me to make some of our social innovations around economics happen and it’s a long time since that happened to me. I’ll be using some of the examples of creativity, and recommending partners read this book to get them fired-up for innovation.”

Review by Adrian Woods. Reprinted with permission.

For more on “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator”, including endorsements and a free sample, visit the book website at reluctantinnovation.com