Planet Earth: Desperately Seeking Moral Leadership

It’s not every day that you get the chance to spar with a Nobel Peace Prize winner on how to make the world a better place, but that’s exactly what happened to me three years ago.

Tori Hogan invited me to sit on a panel she was organizing with Archbishop Desmond Tutu – who was 85 last week – aboard the MV Explorer, a ship sailing the world with hundreds of students aboard along with a dozen tech startups which I was invited to help mentor. I’d already had the chance to sit down with the Archbishop over breakfast a few times during my few weeks aboard, and soon discovered that his optimism and hope for the world was immense. I’m a little more cautious, and our slight differences of opinion came out early in the discussion.

Early on I made the point that we needed to be realistic, and that I thought few people really changed the world, despite this being a narrative common to the social entrepreneurship and non-profit sectors. History shows us that it’s far easier to make the world a worse place.

As evidence that anyone – even the seemingly smallest or insignificant of people – could ‘change the world’, the Archbishop brought up the example of Rosa Parks, the “First Lady of Civil Rights” who, in 1955, refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Alabama. There’s little doubt that her brave act was a significant event in the history of the movement, but I countered by asking if it had really changed the world? It more likely changed many people’s worlds, in the US, but even today significant problems with race relations remain.

With the state of the planet today it’s hard to be overly optimistic that any of us can significantly bend the course of history in a positive way – unless we’re realistic about what we hope to achieve. With much of the world becoming overly inward looking, and with nationalism on the rise, the environment necessary for kindness and empathy to turn into any meaningful positive action at any scale is becoming smaller by the day. Any impact any of us may have in helping stricken people in Syria, for example, pales into insignificance when compared to the large scale suffering the Putin and Assad regimes are inflicting on the innocent people there.

Of course, none of this means we shouldn’t try. I often get asked during talks, interviews or casual conversations whether I’m optimistic about the future or not. As I reflect on my work during this, my 50th year on the planet, I’m left wondering whether I’ve achieved all the things I set out to when I ventured on my ‘rebirth’ twenty-three years ago. Despite starting off with the sole objective of trying to be a good person, and to do what I could when I saw wrongdoing, I can’t help but wonder whether or not I’ve made much of a dent, and whether or not it even matters. People are still suffering on a monumental scale – either in silence or on the front pages of our national newspapers. While those I have helped that I know of now count as friends, that number is in single figures. Maybe if we all set our sites a little lower, and focused on doing good at a more modest level, far more could be achieved. Despite this, we live in a sector obsessed with scale. In reality, very little ends up scaling.

If that’s the case, maybe the Archbishop was right about thinking small after all.


Much of what we discussed in our panel discussion echoes much of what I write and speak about today – take an interest, ask questions, be angry at wrongs you see, do your little bit of good where you are – and dream of changing the world. There’s a lot more on this on the Everyday Problems website and in my forthcoming TEDxMunich talk.

Happy birthday to me: On half centuries and legacies

This time tomorrow, fifty years ago, I came into the world and spent the proceeding twenty-seven years trying to figure out what the hell I was doing here. With the summer of 1993 came something of a rebirth, one that put me on the path to where I am today. But the years before were dominated by prolonged spells of frustration, searching and disappointment. It feels, at times, that I’ve only lived half a life, which is probably why I don’t feel anything like the fifty I’ll be tomorrow.

Birthdays with significant numbers often bring with them periods of reflection, although reflecting is something I tend to do on a regular basis. I’m my own worse critic, always challenging and never allowing myself the opportunity to feel comfortable, or develop any sense of achievement in what I’m doing. I’m ridiculously driven and, because of that, tend to see the glass half empty most of the time, reflecting on things I’m yet to do rather than the things I’ve done. There’s never been room for complacency in my life. There’s always more to be done.

In the twenty-three years I feel I’ve actually ‘lived’ a life I’ve certainly crammed a lot in, even if it doesn’t always feel like enough. Living and working across eight African countries, getting a degree, building out one of the more successful mobile messaging platforms, speaking all over the world, winning numerous prizes and awards, publishing two books and building out my spiritual home on the web – – into a well established social innovation/development site. And none of that includes the more recent addition of a young family – something I thought I’d never have given all the time that had passed me by.

If anything, having children has had the effect of driving me even harder, if that were at all possible. What I see happening to other families around the world compared to the peace and stability of life at home tears me up in ways I struggle to describe. Life is cruel. The refugee crisis is a bigger reason as any to not become complacent. There is plenty more to be done.

Uganda 1995

Uganda 1995: A photo which would face much derision today given the growing ‘white savior complex’ debate. Yes, I have made some mistakes along the way.

Birthdays with significant numbers also put more of a spotlight on legacy, but in this case not mine – more the people who have been instrumental in shaping the last twenty-three years of my own life. People like Freddie Cooper, who let me tear into his Commodore PET computers in the early 1980s, an act not as destructive as it sounds but one that built the foundations of all my later technology-based work. Or Karen Hayes and Simon Hicks, who called me up from my sick bed in the autumn of 2002 offering me the chance to explore an emerging technology – mobile phones – and their potential for development.

And, of course, there was my mother, who encouraged and supported me the whole way, and who thankfully lived long enough to realize, as my work took off, that all her efforts and sacrifice were worth it. Sadly she never got to meet Henry, our first child, who was born four months after she died. She would have made a brilliant grandmother.

In an early school report I was described as ‘too sensitive’ and, if I’m honest, a vast majority of the things I choose to do are a reaction to that oversensitivity. Empathy, something that seems to be lacking in many, exists in abundance and I have no problem identifying with the suffering of others, whatever and wherever it may be. One of my favourite films of all time is The Green Mile, and one of the stand-out quotes from John Coffey, the central character, resonates for that very reason:

I’m tired, boss. Tired of bein’ on the road, lonely as a sparrow in the rain. Tired of not ever having me a buddy to be with, or tell me where we’s coming from or going to, or why. Mostly I’m tired of people being ugly to each other. I’m tired of all the pain I feel and hear in the world everyday. There’s too much of it. It’s like pieces of glass in my head all the time. Can you understand?

zero-degrees-empathyFiguring out how we might use technology to raise levels of empathy, compassion and understanding is close to the top of the list of things I’m yet to do. It’s one of those ideas that’s been gently burning away in the background for years, but now feels like a good time to focus on it a little more. This weekend I started reading a new book.

I’ve been very fortunate over the years to develop a way of working which allows me to write, speak, consult and earn money and then use excess funds to subsidise many of my own personal projects. In each case I’ve done most of the work myself to keep costs down, and used WordPress to develop the websites. Ideas I’ve managed to work on the past couple of years or so include two books, Donors Charter and Everyday Problems. Right now I’m working on a new mobile giving app called altruly, another app with a working title of For My Children, and a wider thought-leadership piece going by the name of Hacking Development.

It’s for others to judge how significant, meaningful or impactful my work has been but, whatever the outcome, I’ll continue on as I have for the past twenty-three years. I still have a distant dream of opening a community cafe, but am saving that for the end.

The biggest challenge for me is going to be knowing when that is.

Breakfast with explorers

I’m sitting on the top deck of a 747 after British Airways kindly decided to upgrade me to First Class. After a week in Washington DC it feels like a fitting – if not fortunate – end to a crazy and hugely productive, thought-provoking few days. The main purpose of my trip was to attend the National Geographic Explorers Symposium, but that ended up being sandwiched between various meetings for the Global eHealth Foundation, a CARE International workshop, and coffee with a number of old friends and colleagues. There’s nothing like a bit of diversity in your working week.

The Symposium itself is a bit like Christmas – you sort of wish it would come round every week. Hundreds of Explorers and Fellows converge on the Society’s headquarters for five days and share new and exciting updates on their work. It doesn’t matter who you are, or what you do, or how far up or down you are on the fame ladder. What makes the week special is that, for a while at least, everyone is equal. (Example: On the first night at dinner I sat next to Bob Ballard. For those who don’t know who Bob Ballard is, he discovered the Titanic).

The National Geographic Explorer family

The National Geographic Explorer family

During the week I had the chance to catch up with some older acquaintances, including Meave Leakey (who picked up a Hubbard Medal, the Society’s highest honour) and John Francis, the ‘planetwalker’ – both fascinating, approachable, humble people. And I bumped into Lee Berger, who picked up Explorer of the Year award for his discovery of a new hominid species. Given my passion as a child was conservation and exploration – not unlike many others, I don’t suppose – Explorers Week finds me pinching myself almost hourly. It truly is an honour and a priviledge to be a member of this family.

I had the opportunity this year to share my latest work and decided to focus on my writing and work on altruly, a new kind of mobile giving app. Education came across as a strong theme during the week, and much of what I find myself doing at the moment – writing, speaking and mentoring – proved very complimentary. I also managed to hand out some free copies of “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator” (which carries three National Geographic endorsements) to help push the message further. Nothing beats a free book. And after a couple of productive meetings I’m hopeful for a future collaboration with National Geographic Education. Watch this space.

Although I come away energised and inspired, I also come away frustrated and impatient – not just at the problems and challenges of the sector I work in, but in my own progress and ability to make a positive dent on them.

When you meet people at the very top of their game it makes you question the one you’re playing. That’s exactly what Explorers Week does, and one of the many things that makes it so special.