ICT4D students: The world is your classroom

It seems courses in business and innovation are getting a hard time these days. First, Peter Jones, a 49-year-old serial entrepreneur in the UK, said he believed that hands-on experience was far more valuable to potential business leaders than several years studying theory in a lecture theatre. Then we had the likes of Peter Thiel, Scott Cook and Elon Musk telling us they believed business school graduates were hurting, rather than helping, innovation.

If we’re overstating the role of education in entrepreneurship and innovation, are we doing the same with social innovation and ICT4D?

Most people working in technology-for-development seem to agree the field isn’t in the best of health, with a whole range of problems persisting since the birth of the discipline decades ago. We have a constant stream of books telling us how we’re failing, without anything really changing. The technology toolkit expands and shifts, sure, but the difficulties we have in applying and implementing it stays the same. Is the way we’re ‘teaching people to do ICT4D’ part of the problem?

Empathy is a key step in the education process, but one we often skip (image via edsi.org.uk)

Empathy is a key step in the education process, but one we often skip (image via edsi.org.uk)

In The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator, I shared my concerns with what I saw as the institutionalisation of social change (which includes the broader global development and technology-for-development fields). The essence of the book began to develop during my time at Stanford University where I became increasingly exposed to social entrepreneurship, social innovation and design thinking as academic disciplines. I found myself meeting increasing numbers of smart young people looking to colleges and universities to equip them with the skills they felt they needed to ‘go out and change the world’.

I was a bit taken aback. You didn’t need qualifications to change the world, did you? Often I’d dig deeper and ask what they wanted to do when they graduated. Answers such as ‘I want to be a social entrepreneur’ perplexed me. Few people I know in the messy, often frustrating world of social entrepreneurship ever set out with the explicit aim of becoming one. Rather, they stumbled across a problem, a wrong or a market inefficiency which bothered them to such an extent that they decided to dedicate much – if not all – of their lives to putting it right. It was rarely, if ever, part of a wider plan.

Many of the students I met were unlikely to experience that problem, wrong, injustice or market inefficiency within the walls of their college or university. And, worse, many had never even stepped foot in the villages and communities they were aspiring to help. I agree that teaching the mechanics of social innovation or ICT4D may be helpful, yes, but only if matched with passion, and a cause, to which people can apply it, and genuine experience and empathy with – and for – the people you wish to help.

What I was witnessing at Stanford, and almost everywhere I have been since, was the increasing institutionalisation of social entrepreneurship and social innovation. This is unhelpful on many fronts, not to mention that it could easily be seen as a barrier by many motivated young people unable to take a course. Worse still, it implied that social change was a well- thought out process, when in reality it isn’t.

Bushbuckridge. Photo: Ken Banks

In ICT4D we’re so fixed on the technology – the ICT bit – that we often forget the ‘D’ – that minor inconvenience we call ‘development’. Fewer and fewer people seem to be making the effort to teach or learn the D, and this is a huge problem. It’s almost arrogant, and certainly disrespectful, to imply you can help people far far away you have never spoken to, and whose country, let alone village, you have never been to.

The first thing we should be teaching ICT4D students is development – the state of the world, how we got there, and what it means for the billions of people who for no fault of their own are on the receiving end of a life in poverty. Sure, getting on a plane and actually going somewhere for a few months (longer ideally) is difficult. But that’s no excuse for not doing it. For people who can’t, there are likely many problems in their own communities they could turn their attention to.

If we’re to fix ICT4D then the best place to start is by properly educating the ICT4D practitioners of tomorrow. If we don’t then little will change, and change is what we need.

Global development R&D: Maintaining a balance

My first brush with technology-for-development, almost twenty years ago, wasn’t on the potential of the Internet, or how mobile phones were going to change, well, everything. To be honest, neither were really on the development radar in any meaningful way back then. It’s almost funny to imagine a time when that was the case.

No, my first contact with what was to become a career in ICT4D started off with an essay on the failure of plough and cook stove projects across Africa. I was struck by the beauty of simple, locally appropriate solutions and amazed at how development experts just didn’t seem (or want) to get it. Many of their failed initiatives seemed more like a reaction against them – that, as experts, they were expected to come out with something the opposite of simple, primitive, practical. This they did, but very little of it ever worked.

smallisbeautifulIt was around this time that I also came across the work of E. F. Schumacher and his brilliant 1973 book, Small is Beautiful. The lessons in his book apply just as much today in a world dominated by digital technologies – a world he would never have imagined back then. World Watch magazine interviewed me a few years ago on why his appropriate technology ethos was just as relevant today. It’s well worth a read.

Our obsession with the latest shiny technology hasn’t gone away, either. History repeats itself and, despite being armed with a range of tools and solutions that work, experts still appear to rebel against them because they’re digitally too simple, primitive or practical. And, again, many of their alternative ‘innovative’ solutions simply don’t work.

Sure, there needs to be a degree of emphasis on new tools, new solutions, new ways of tackling old problems. This – the R&D side of the development machine – is essential but it needs to be kept in balance. The average R&D spend among top UK companies in a recent survey was 5%. No company in its right mind would spend most of its money on research and development and ignore its bread and butter, namely its current products and services, and current customers.

95-5-Rule

How about the global development sector make a commitment to spend, say, 5% of its funding on blue sky, high tech, high risk forward-looking ideas, and commit the rest to funding the really simple, primitive, appropriate solutions we already have that are proven to work? 5% of global development spending is still a few billion dollars, more than enough to invest in the next big thing.

And how about it pool these funds and create a single Global Development R&D Fund? A better coordinated approach might result in better outcomes, and it could better manage its external communications. The amount available would compare quite favourably with R&D spends of the bigger tech companies (source: Atlas)

Tech-Co-RandD-Spend

Right now, with an increasing big data, drones and wearables obsession (among others), you get the sense that global development R&D lacks coordination and spends too much of its time, energy, focus and resources on high-risk ideas. While it toys around with the next big thing people are going to bed hungry, dying of treatable diseases, at school with no pens or books, or drinking polluted water. All of these things can be put right with the technologies we possess today, but they’re not. I’ve never understood why. We should only allow ourselves the luxury of looking to the future once we’ve fixed the solvable problems of the present.

While the development community needs to naturally look ahead, it also needs to remember the people suffering today, those who might not be around to reap the benefits of any cool drone, big data or wearable solution of the future. Every life matters, after all. You get a sense that in the development space, R&D spending is way out of control as it feeds its obsession with cool, shiny and innovative.

So let’s keep that R&D budget in check, be more open with how much is being spent on speculative new ideas which may go nowhere, and make sure we don’t forget our bread and butter – our current (working) products and services, and our current customers – the poor, marginalised and vulnerable out there who, through no fault of their own, desperately need our help. Today.

In global development, is the pen mightier than the sword?

I’m reading two books in parallel right now – Ben Ramalingam‘s ‘Aid on the Edge of Chaos‘ and Kentaro Toyama‘s ‘Geek Heresy‘. With both books I’m finding myself regularly pausing for a nod of approval or a wry smile. Both books are spot on in their identification of the issues – Ben in global development more broadly, and Kentaro in ICT4D, a sector/field/discipline/specialism of global development.

A while back when Bill Easterly published his ‘Tyranny of Experts‘ I started to wonder what impact his previous book – ‘The White Man’s Burden‘ – has had on the practice and policy of global development. I have the same question for Dambisa Moyo, too, whose ‘Dead Aid‘ is another classic development critique. Both provide strong arguments for a new aid world order (or, more to the point, no aid at all).

developmentbooks

Suffice to say, if you’re not a fan or supporter of big development there are countless books out there to feed your anger, frustration and despair. But for all the hundreds of billions of words written over the past decade or two citing the challenges, problems and issues, have any forced any kind of change in how those hundreds of billions of Pounds, Dollars or Euros of development aid were spent? Almost everyone I meet who works in big development has at least one major frustration with it – many have several – but the one that drives me to despair the most is that no-one seems to be able to change anything.

I published ‘The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator‘ because I wanted to help steer young social innovators away from expensive university courses and encourage them to firstly get out into the world, meet the people they wanted to help, gain some empathy, and find their passion. I can’t speak for Ben or Kentaro, but they probably hope something might improve as a result of their writing efforts, too.

I spent the best part of three years as an undergraduate at Sussex University in the late 1990’s writing about how rubbish development was. That’s what undergraduates do. Of course, it’s not all bad, but many of the problems I studied 20 years ago persist. That’s my problem.

I thoroughly recommend all of the books Ben, Kentaro, Bill and Dambisa have written. Oh, and of course, mine. And if nothing changes, at least you’ll have had a good read.