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.

The “Tweet. Recycle. Repeat” of ICT4D

During a rare, quiet, bored few minutes last week I looked through a few early blog posts from some of the longer standing members of the ICT4D community. Between around 2012 and now, many of the same statements, proclamations and questions have come up time and time and time again. The same tweets with the same outcome – usually nothing. Many have regularly appeared on my blog over the past seven or eight years, too, without making the slightest bit of difference.

I recently wrote about the need to stop just meeting up and repeating ourselves in the ICT4D echo chamber, which is what has been happening. But suffice to say it continues, and likely will, for as long as the discipline survives. The most obvious impact of all this activity are tweets and retweets of surprise every time something is said, even if it has been said for the past five years. If we’re looking to keep ourselves in a job and not fix anything, this isn’t a bad strategy, I suppose.

Here’s just a few of the things we’ve been saying over and over again for years.

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Okay, so no more pilots. Let’s put an end to ‘pilotitus’. Other than talking, what are we going to do about it, precisely? And how can we enforce it?

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Okay, after decades of trying we have done some stuff right. So how do we identify the stuff that works and genuinely support that? Other than talking, what are we going to do about it, precisely? And how can we enforce it?

kiwanja-trr-3

Yup. The world doesn’t need any more data collection tools or SMS gateways. So how do we put an end to this constant replication and reinvention? Other than talking, what are we going to do about it, precisely? And how can we enforce it?

kiwanja-trr-4

In many cases it’s still unclear who should pay to do monitoring and evaluation. Donors seem to think grantees should do it, and grantees only seem prepared to do it if the donor has given money for it. Other than talking, how are we going to fix this, precisely? And how can we enforce it?

kiwanja-trr-5

Hallelujah. After years of ignoring the end user we’re now entering an age (in ICT4D and global conservation and development, more broadly) where we think it’s a good idea to be consulting our end user. But it still doesn’t happen as much as it should. What are we going to do about it, precisely? And how can we enforce it?

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Everyone loves talking about appropriate technologies, but then they go off and build iPad apps for African farmers. We need to lead with the problem and the people, not the technology. But other than saying this, what are we going to do about it, precisely? And how can we enforce it?

When it comes to talking, blogging and tweeting ‘best practice’, I’m as guilty as the next person. We all do it, and we all rightly believe in what we’re saying. But talk is cheap if we do something very different on the ground (or do nothing at all). And after 12 years working in ICT4D/m4d I seem to keep seeing the same questions and issues raised over and over again. I’m sure I’m right when I say we all want to do the best we can for the people we serve. If we’re under performing then that’s something we all should naturally want to address.

Of course it’s pretty easy to rant about how bad things are, but that’s little use if you don’t offer any solutions. I’ve been trying to do more of that lately, publishing a book – The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator – to challenge conventional wisdom around how social innovation happens and should be done. I also launched the Donors Charter which seemed to stir up all sorts of trouble, breaking the SSIR commenting system in the process. Check out the Stanford Social Innovation Review post if you’ve got a couple of hours spare.

donorscharter

The Charter, in short, proposed (quite logically in my mind) that if donors largely control what gets funded, all they needed to do was ask potential grantees a few simple questions before they handed over their money. We could then put a stop to some of the repetitive bad practice that we see. Donors all sign up to the Charter, and enforce it among themselves.

Of course, whether anything like this gets adopted is out of my control. But at least it’s a possible solution, not a rant.

Passions often get fired up in these kinds of debate, and it’s wonderful to see so much of it around ICT4D and m4d, particularly on how we can move the disciplines forward. But if the people and organisations with teeth in the non-profit sector aren’t in the room, and don’t act, then nothing will ever change. Perhaps everyone is too comfortable with how things are, and perhaps people don’t really want change.

Or perhaps we’re only comfortable with disruption as long as it doesn’t happen to us. Tweet that.

Talking ICT4D

Back in 2009 I carried out something of an experiment. Me and Erik Hersman attended ICT4D in Doha. For both of us it was our first time at a ‘professional’ tech-for-development gathering. After hearing and writing so much about the disconnect between academia and practitioners in ICT4D, I wanted to see if it existed – and in what form – for myself.

I wasn’t disappointed. After just one day it became blatantly clear that the majority of people were attending to share their research, and latest paper, and to tick boxes. The audience were the other speakers. It was a very self-serving event, to say the least.

In the corridor outside the main hall sat – among others – Erik, Brenda, Patrick and I. We weren’t reading papers (or our blog posts) to each other, but trying to find ways of getting FrontlineSMS, Ushahidi and Freedom Fone to play nicely together. Clearly, the needs of the practitioners there were very different to everyone else, namely the academics, observers, ICT4D professionals and other recognised ‘experts’.

In six years, little seems to have changed. When I look today at the frequent and regular ICT4D conferences, gatherings and meetups – most of them entrenched in Western corridors – I continue to wonder. Who are the audience? What is the purpose? Objective? Impact? Is it the same people who attend – and speak at – most of these events?

My hunch is that, like in Doha, practitioners out there are having very different conversations than the ‘professional’ tech-for-development players. The needs of the two camps continue to be very different. I meet few social entrepreneurs or social innovators obsessing relentlessly about big data or drones. That seems to be a luxury for others.

Thankfully, increasing amounts of the more interesting stuff in ICT4D is beginning to happen outside the official development system. Give it a few years and most of it will be. Maybe there ought to be a few more conferences about that.

Principles and Charters: A recipe for harmony in ICT4D?

There’s a phenomenon in the science world known as ‘multiple independent discovery‘. It’s where “similar discoveries are made by scientists working independently of each other” and the Theory of Evolution, the jet engine and the television can be counted among its ranks. Not that any of my work comes close to any of these, it was no surprise when I recently announced my Donors Charter to learn that friends on the other side of the Atlantic were working on something very similar. Or at least that appeared very similar.

My Donors Charter was borne out of a specific frustration that donors often appeared to be funding ICT4D projects they shouldn’t. The result? A sector full of replication, failed pilots, poorly thought-out projects, secrecy and near-zero levels of collaboration – none of it useful.

The Charter was an effort to encourage both donors, and project owners, to ensure they were clear about what they were planning, why they were planning it, and how. The questions didn’t seek to steer them in any specific direction, or encourage them to choose one technology solution or principle over another, but simply to be clearer about the what, why and how of their idea. The questions fell into three categories:

Preliminary questions

  1. Do you understand the problem? Have you seen, experienced or witnessed the problem? Why are you the one fixing it?
  2. Does anything else exist that might solve the problem? Have you searched for existing solutions?
  3. Could anything that you found be adapted to solve the problem?
  4. Have you spoken to anyone working on the same problem? Is collaboration possible? If not, why not?
  5. Is your solution economically, technically and culturally appropriate?

Implementation questions

  1. Have you carried out base research to understand the scale of the problem before you start?
  2. Will you be working with locally-based people and organisations to carry out your implementation? If not, why not?
  3. Are you making full use of the skills and experience of these local partners? How?

Evaluation and post-implementation questions

  1. How do you plan to measure your impact? How will you know if your project was a success or not?
  2. Do you plan to scale up or scale out that impact? If not, why not? If yes, how?
  3. What is your business/sustainability model?

Transparency questions

  1. Are you willing to have your summary project proposal, and any future summary progress reports, posted on the Donors Charter website for the benefit of transparency and more open sharing?

None of these questions are difficult, none are particularly technical, and it’s perfectly reasonable to expect anyone starting a new project to be able to answer them. These are, in my view, the kinds of questions everyone should be working through because, well, they’re common sense. Anyone who hasn’t thought any of this through really needs to go away and think, plan or research a little more. And if it comes to it, yes – drop their idea.

There’s a dual benefit to all of this. Firstly, it would force implementers to consider key issues before reaching out for support, resulting in a reinforcement of best practice. Secondly, it will help the donors themselves by focusing their resources and dollars on projects which are better thought-out and less likely to fail.

Shortly after announcing the Charter last August I was pointed to another site – billed as ‘the same thing’ – which had just been launched a few weeks earlier. This site was billed as the “Principles for Digital Development” and it too had a list of things people needed to consider while designing their project. Unlike my Charter, which was scribbled in the back of a notepad during a train journey home, the Principles were the result of an extensive amount of work by a range of ICT4D players and partners including The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, USAID, UNICEF, The World Bank, SIDA, Omidiyar Foundation, The State Department, WHO, HRP, UNHCR, WFP, UNFPA, UNDP, Global Pulse, UNWomen and OCHA.

After reviewing the Principles (you can download a PDF of them here) I quickly decided that they weren’t ‘the same thing’, although they were undoubtedly useful. Despite that, they came up again in a comment posted by Wayan Vota, who pointed people back to the Principles in what became the mother-of-all-discussions on the Charter in my Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) article. I decided it might be useful to seek some clarity because I still didn’t agree that they were the same, and asked him:

1. Who are the principal audience? Is this to remind solutions developers what they should be doing? Or for donors to sense check proposals?

2. Are they going to be enforced in any way? If not, what’s different about this than all the other sets of ‘best practice’ we’ve seen over the past decade?

3. Who’s ‘signed up’ to the Principles, and what does ‘signing up’ actually mean?

4. I’m curious who else was consulted beyond the giants of the development community listed on the site? There seems to be a lack of any grassroots voice, or any of the smaller organisations who probably have a lot to share from their experiences.

Surprisingly I didn’t get a reply, although other friends at USAID did inform me they planned on writing a response to the SSIR piece. So, while I wait to hear their thoughts, here are four of mine on why the Charter and Principles are not ‘the same’.

Firstly, in many places the Principles are quite technical, and anyone other than a software developer, design thinker or ICT4D professional may struggle to understand them. For example, “Design solutions that learn from and enhance existing workflows and plan for organizational adaptation” isn’t useful if you’re a grassroots innovator trying to fix a local problem. The Charter is deliberately non-technical, aimed at everyone, everywhere.

Secondly, the Charter simply asks questions to help ensure projects consider the wide range of issues they may need to address. The Principles makes direct suggestions on how projects should be designed and run.

Thirdly, and perhaps more dangerously, the Principles apply a broad-brush approach to ICT4D project development. “Employ this”, “Apply that”, “Demonstrate this” and “Demonstrate that”.

Fourthly, the Principles steer projects in a specific direction with their recommendations, which is again dangerous. For example, “Design for scale” should only apply if the project wants scale. What if it doesn’t need to scale? “Develop software to be open source by default” implies that closed source is less effective. If we look at the evidence, is that really the case?

If the Principles are aimed at the very organisations that took part in their development – many of them the heavyweights of the ICT4D world – then that’s fine. They’ll have the knowledge, money and resources to make sense of them and deploy them in their work, and it sounds like many of them now do. That’s great news if it works for them.

But for the people and projects I’ve spent the best part of my 20+ year career working with – largely grassroots non-profits, and local social actors and innovators – they’re not much use at all. Even if they could unpick some of the development speak, they’d struggle to act on many of them. One of the biggest problems, as I’ve seen it over the past few years, is the increasing institutionalisation of international development. In 2015 it’s going to get worse, not better.

I believe now, more than ever, that we need to be more inclusive in our work, and although the Donors Charter – unlike the Principles – has very little chance of being adopted by donors anywhere, it is at least aimed at the ‘everyday innovators’ who will – quite rightly in my view – end up being the future of the technology-for-development sector.

International development: A problem of image, or a problem of substance?

The world has problems. Big problems. They need big answers, ambitious projects and innovative solutions. And that costs money. Lots of it. Three trillion dollars over the past sixty years, if the research is to be believed. Fixing stuff is big business.

With these kinds of resources, what could go wrong? The problem is, many development initiatives have gone wrong, and continue to. Somewhere along the line development has lost it’s way. For many people it is so lost that it’s now become part of the problem.

While donors and other more senior professional development practitioners might disagree, many of the people I know who work in the various guises of ‘development’ admit that – on the whole – it’s not working, that resources are mis-focused, and that the majority of international aid initiatives are not fit for purpose. That’s not to question the motives of those who work to make the world a better place, it’s just that often they choose the wrong vehicle in which to do it. As Bill Easterly says:

The fondness for the Big Goal and the Big Plan is strikingly widespread. It’s part of the second tragedy that so much goodwill and hard work by rich people who care about the poor goes through channels that are ineffective

There’s no shortage of debate, of course. Many academics spend most of their waking hours disecting and analysing the big data on big aid, only to come up with different conclusions. The more practical among us choose to just get on with it, and choose to do it outside the system. Rather than taking jobs in large development structures, we go about it on our own terms. This is the approach featured in my recent book, “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator“.

There’s no better example of big development than the Millenium Development Goals which, at the time of writing are about 450 days away from ‘maturing’. Progress has been sketchy. Given that it can sometimes take years to collect and analyse the kind of data needed to measure them, it may be some time beyond the 2015 deadline before we know how many were met. And then we’ll never really know whether it was development policies, or simple economic growth, that was responsible. As with most things development, few things are that clear cut. If they’re met it might not be clear who to thank, and if we fail we’ll not know who to blame, either.

That all said, it’s far easier for critics who sit on the sidelines and say how rubbish it all is. It’s much harder coming up with actual answers, and harder still acting on them. I, for one, have always tried to balance my criticism of the technology-for development (ICT4D) sector with suggestions, ideas and thoughts on how we might improve our effectiveness. Just last week I announced my Donors Charter, an attempt to bring some harmony to how technology-for-development projects get funded.

Going by a recent article in the Huffington Post, many donors are becoming increasingly concerned about how aid – and their work – is perceived outside the sector. That concern has lead to the birth of the Narrative Project, whose goal is “to reverse the decline of public support for our work” and to counteract “fatigue” among rank-and-file supporters of these charities, many of whom increasingly view aid as “a good idea, done badly”.

Reading between the lines it might appear that many of the donors involved believe that aid is fundamentally “a good idea, done well” and that the problem is simply one of PR. Let’s hope this isn’t the case. While aid definitely does have a PR problem, there’s also plenty wrong with how it’s executed – and we can only hope that those present at the meetings accept that, and have committed to addressing it, too.

The Narrative Project does include a call for “a co-ordinated development sector”, and donors hold many of the cards (as I argue with the Donors Charter). It also makes the point that independence and self-reliance, i.e. people in the developing world solving their own problems, should be key development objectives. And that people need to believe they can make a difference. None of this is new, but it’s refreshing to see it being discussed at such a high level.

One huge red flag, however, are the parties to the work. The UN Foundation, Bond, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, ONE, Oxfam, Comic Relief and others. All large international players. Let’s hope that somewhere along the way they consulted smaller organisations, local organisations, local innovators, small projects and low-level grantees. We all know what happens when you talk in silos. And this looks like an international donor silo to me.

Like many colleagues and friends, I’ve grown increasingly despondent with the international development sector, and have only managed to stay positive thanks to my early decision to ‘go it alone’. Aid does do good, but it could do so much better if it got it’s house in order. And that’s the frustrating thing for me. In a career spanning 21 years, many of the bigger institutional problems persist, with no-one seemingly having the energy, the influence or the political will to fix any of it.

In my ICT4D world, there are some very simple (and I’d argue, obvious) things, for example.

  1. Focus more on enabling environments – genuine empowerment opportunities for those who own, or who are closest to, the problem.
  2. Seriously get behind, and support, projects that we know are working, or know have the best approach. Stop always looking for the next big thing.
  3. Have at least a few innovators on staff. Don’t head up innovation teams with people who have never built anything.
  4. Adopt best practice, along the lines of the Donors Charter.
  5. Give local innovators a voice.

The world needs a strong international development sector, particularly when it’s called to deliver emergency aid in times of greatest need. But beyond that it needs to work for the people it seeks to help, not in the interests of itself. It needs to be bold, be brave, and do things that might not always be in its best interests.

And it needs an exit strategy. Without one, how is anyone expected to have confidence that they’re doing the right thing, the right way?

Time for a Donor Funding Charter?

Innovation isn’t about green bean bags and whacky idea sessions. It is a long term business development strategy
Lucy Gower

Behind almost every good social entrepreneur you’ll find a donor. These donors come in all shapes and sizes – family members, friends, companies, CSR departments and sponsors are the most typical, increasingly followed by the crowd funders among us. While plenty of great things get funded, pretty crazy stuff does, too. Zack Danger Brown just raised $55,000 on Kickstarter to make a potato salad, for example.

More often than not, the really big bucks come from government and philanthropic foundations. The UK’s Department for International Development will hand out £10.765 billion this financial year, funding all manner of projects that help those in greatest need. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the biggest private foundation in the world, gave $3.6 billion last year. The world has plenty of problems – big problems – and these budgets reflect that. Donors get to choose which ones they fix, too. The Rockefeller Foundation, for example, currently focuses on resilient cities, digital jobs in Africa, food security, gender equality and universal health coverage, among a few others.

Donors also pay attention to what other donors do, and to what and who they fund. They love, for example, the idea of matched funding where two or more will put in an equal share of funds for a project. It spreads the risk, and gives them all comfort that they’ve not made a silly decision. If the project is good enough for someone else’s money, it’s good enough for theirs. Getting funded by one of the bigger foundations often makes it easier to get money from the others – a sort of shared due diligence, if you like.

Despite all the money and resources – and attempts to apply them to all manner of projects and initiatives – problems remain. During my “Rise of the Reluctant Innovator” book talks, I draw on some of the bigger challenges and failures of international development. Yes, a lot of good work has been done, but I often wonder if we’re getting value for money. Over the past 60 years, we’ve sure spent a huge amount of it.

Plenty of things have been tried, and continue to be tried. Much of the failure is put down to the people and projects (who in turn often blame the target communities), but in many cases responsibility also needs to fall on the people who backed them. Under pressure to support ‘innovative’ (often crazy) ideas, and often under pressure to spend their large budgets, Programme Officers often resort to funding projects they shouldn’t be going anywhere near.

What we end up with is a sector full of replication, small-scale (failed) pilots, secrecy and near-zero levels of collaboration. This negatively impacts not only other poorly-planned initiatives, but it also complicates things for the better ones. On top of all that, it confuses the end user who is expected to make sense of all 75 mobile data collection tools that end up on offer. The policy of funding many in the hope that the odd one shines through – the so-called “let a thousand flowers bloom” scenario – belongs to an earlier era. Today, we know enough about what works and what doesn’t to be far more targeted in what is funded and supported.

Given the vast majority of projects would never get started without some form of funding, donors are the ideal position to put this right. So here’s my proposal.

All major philanthropic foundations – and, where appropriate, government development/aid agencies – sign up to a Funding Charter which encourages much greater scrutiny of the technology projects they’re considering funding. This Charter will be available online, offering considerably more transparency for projects looking for money.

In the first instance, project owners will need to answer the following questions before their grant application is considered:

Preliminary questions

  1. Do you understand the problem? Have you seen, experienced or witnessed the problem? Why are you the one fixing it?
  2. Does anything else exist that might solve the problem? Have you searched for existing solutions?
  3. Could anything that you found be adapted to solve the problem?
  4. Have you spoken to anyone working on the same problem? Is collaboration possible? If not, why not?
  5. Is your solution economically, technically and culturally appropriate?

Implementation questions

  1. Have you carried out base research to understand the scale of the problem before you start?
  2. Will you be working with locally-based people and organisations to carry out your implementation? If not, why not?
  3. Are you making full use of the skills and experience of these local partners? How?

Evaluation and post-implementation questions

  1. How do you plan to measure your impact? How will you know if your project was a success or not?
  2. Do you plan to scale up or scale out that impact? If not, why not? If yes, how?
  3. What is your business/sustainability model?

Transparency questions

  1. Are you willing to have your summary project proposal, and any future summary progress reports, posted on the Donors Charter website for the benefit of transparency and more open sharing?

Not being able to answer these questions fully and reasonably needn’t be the difference between funding or no funding – donors would be allowed wildcards – but it would serve two purposes. First, it would force implementers to consider key issues before reaching out for support, resulting in a reinforcement of best practice. And second, it will help the donors themselves by focusing their resources and dollars on projects which are better thought out and less likely to fail.

The simple adoption of this kind of Charter might do more to solve many of the niggling problems we regularly write, talk, complain and moan about in the ICT4D sector. Any takers?

A more concise version of the proposal is available on the dedicated Donors Charter website.

Field of dreams

Two years ago this summer, long-time friend Erik Hersman and I took a stroll through this grass meadow in St. Ives, a small market town in Cambridgeshire where I work from a small office above a supermarket. Erik was on holiday, but that didn’t stop us taking a long walk discussing life, family and work. Erik had a few ideas on the boil, and I was entering a new phase after stepping back from day-to-day operations at FrontlineSMS a couple of months earlier.

I walk a lot, and often use the time to think, strategise and develop my ideas. The walk with Erik that day wasn’t particularly unusual, but something rather rare and unusual has happened since.

During our conversation, I told Erik I was thinking of publishing a book on social innovation – something I’d always wanted to do but lacked the seed of what I thought was a solid enough idea. That summer, a short article I’d penned – Genius Happens When You Plan Something Else – had appeared in the print edition of Wired magazine in the UK. The article looked at the concept of reluctant innovation, but was only 600 words long. I felt there was much more of a story to tell, and discussed the idea of turning the article into a full book. Erik was, of course, invited to contribute a chapter on his own life and work.

Once I’d decided to go for it, the next fifteen months were frantic. There were times the book looked like it wouldn’t come off. The first Kickstarter campaign was a spectacular failure. The second was better thought out and successful. That campaign was topped up by the Curry Stone Foundation, and a little personal funding on top took the book past a key financial hurdle. Along the way I managed to find a publisher, secure a foreword from Archbishop Desmond Tutu and collect two dozen high profile endorsements. Everything finally fell into place and in November 2013 “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator” hit the shelves, hitting top spot in Amazon’s ‘Development Studies’ chart a few months later. A number of colleges and universities in the US and UK have also picked up on the book, using it as part of their social innovation courses.

Self-publishing is tough, and a massive learning curve, but it’s been well worth it. “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator” always felt like a book that needed to exist. Thanks to that walk in the meadow, today it does.

If my book was to be difficult, Erik’s idea was on another planet. Today you’ll know the vague little black box we discussed as BRCK. The conversation was fascinating on a number of levels, and I loved the idea of a Kenyan outfit fixing an African problem that others either didn’t know about, or didn’t care about. But while we were both serial software developers, neither of us had built hardware before (although we had talked about designing and building a FrontlineSMS/Ushahidi GSM modem a couple of years earlier during one of our stints at PopTech). That summer I was about to throw myself into the murky world of publishing. Erik was on the verge of doing the same in the hardware industry. I didn’t envy him.

Two years on, and the BRCK is a reality thanks to a Kickstarter campaign that blew their total out of the water, followed up by a further $1.2 million in venture funding. (Erik was always determined to make this a business, not another non-profit venture. We’ve had many conversations about the need for a more solid business approach to the kinds of ‘development’ problems BRCK was built to solve). It’s not been easy for the team, and I’ve been fortunate to see early prototypes and have numerous behind-the-scenes conversations on the challenges of not only building hardware, but doing it from East Africa.

That said, the BRCK team have been very open about the process and they’ve regularly blogged updates when things have been going well, and not so well. “Problems, Perseverance, and Patience” gives great insight, as does this post by Erik himself which will take you through the whole BRCK story. No mention of the meadow there, though.

We constantly hear that ideas are cheap, and that it’s all about execution. To an extent, that’s true. What was unusual about that summer walk in the meadow – our field of dreams – wasn’t so much two friends sharing ideas, but two friends with a dream they both saw through. In both our worlds, BRCK and “The Rise” both felt like things that needed to exist.

Thankfully, today, they do.

Innovation out of necessity is alive and well

(This article first appeared on the Virgin website as part of their special feature on innovation and disruption. The original post can be read here).

While much of the West debates the pros, cons, merits and current state of technological innovation, innovators in the developing world just get on with it. And they’ve never been so busy. Innovation out of necessity is alive and well, and on the rise, according to Ashoka Fellow, Ken Banks.

For many of us, innovation is the iPhone, iPad or pretty much anything that comes from today’s high-tech production line. It’s the latest phone, laptop, smart watch or passenger aircraft, and it’s designed to make things easier, quicker, more convenient and, in some cases, just more fun. We rarely question why we feel we need the latest and greatest, why we change our phones every year, or even what the drivers might be for all these high-tech innovations. Who, for example, decided the world needed an iPad-powered coffee machine?

Much of the innovation we see in the developing world, whether the innovators behind them come from there or not, is done out of necessity. They solve very real problems, many of which happen to be faced on a daily basis by many of the poorest and most vulnerable people on the planet. Innovation here isn’t about fast, shiny or modern, it’s about solving very real problems. And many of those problems aren’t going away any time soon.

Entrepreneurs in the West may well be losing the will to innovate, although I’d suggest it’s more about ability and a conducive environment than will. Many face difficulties with funding, highly competitive markets and patent wars, all of which make for challenging times. But this is far from the case throughout much of Africa, where I’ve focused most of my efforts for the past 20 years. Many innovations here are born by the side of the road, or in rural villages without any funding at all. Furthermore, market opportunities abound and patents are the last things on people’s minds. Compared to the West, African markets are still something of a Wild West in innovation terms, and this is precisely why there’s so much focus there.

Innovation out of necessity has given Kenya, for example, a world-leading position in mobile payments. On a continent where hundreds of millions of people lacked bank accounts, mobile phones provided the answer. An estimated 40% of Kenya’s GDP now works its way through Safaricom’s M-PESA system. It’s an innovation success story, and it’s provided a platform for many other innovators to offer everything from pay-as-you-go solar lighting to villagers to automated payment platforms for microfinance organisations. The further (anticipated) opening up of systems like M-PESA will spur even more innovation in the future. This is just the beginning.

When faced with very real problems that in many cases cost lives, innovators in the developing world kick into a different gear. With little funding or resources, it’s innovation in this ‘long tail’ that is most interesting – a place where people innovate out of necessity, not luxury, and as a matter of survival or ethics, not profit or markets. Health is a classic example of these drivers at work.

Six out of the 10 chapters in my recent book, “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator”, cover health. The issues these innovators address include data collection, genetic disorders, communications between community health workers, patents, access to medicines, and solar energy as a lighting solution for maternity wards. The range of examples shows how broad and complex an issue health is, as well as the sheer scale of the need for its improvement across much of the developing world.

Many others are better placed to comment on whether entrepreneurs in the West are losing the will to innovate. Whatever the outcome of that debate, thankfully this isn’t the case in the places that matter – the places where far too many people still die from perfectly treatable diseases, or fail to reach their potential because of a lack of access to the most basic of education.

To paraphrase former Liverpool football manager, Bill Shankly, in the developing world innovation isn’t just a matter of life or death. It’s more
important than that.

Thinking the future with shift 2020

I’m excited to announce my contribution to a new book project – shift 2020: How Technology Will Impact Our Future. It’s a self-published book curated by Rudy De Waele which includes foresights on how technology will impact our future from some of the world’s leading experts.

The idea of shift 2020 is based on Mobile Trends 2020, another collaborative project Rudy launched early 2010. It’s one of the highest viewed decks on Slideshare (in the Top 50 of All Time in Technology with +320k views). Reviewing the document a couple of weeks ago Rudy realised that many of the predictions were becoming dated, and asked the original contributors for an update on their original predictions and for new foresights for the year 2020.

Rudy broadened the scope of the new book and asked new contributors to give their vision and foresights on a number of additional topics, including 3D Printing, AI, Apps, Biotech, Cloud, Connected Living, Crowdfunding, Data, Education, Entrepreneurship, Enterprise, GreenTech, Health, Hyperconnectivity, Maker Movement, Media, Retail, Robotics, Sensors, Smart Cities, Social Media, Society, Surveillance, Transport and Wearables.

shift 2020 is designed by Louise Campbell, an award winning UX and design technology professional with years of experience working with luxury fashion e-commerce brands, designing first-class, multi-platform, digital shopping experiences.

Kickstarter campaign has been launched to cover costs for the design, editing, website and promotion of the book (which will be printed by blurb.com). It includes 80 pages of original content, featuring most of the original Mobile Trends 2020 contributors in addition to some 40 new contributions from around the world – prominent futurists, trend-predictors and industry leaders. There are also opportunities for companies to personalise the cover of the book with their name and logo.

shift 2020 includes quotes, paragraphs and essays from confirmed contributors, such as:

Neelie Kroes (VP of the European Commission), Douglas Rushkoff, Salim Ismael (Singularity University), Loic Le Meur (LeWeb), Shannon Spanhake (Innovation Officer San Francisco), Adeo Ressi (The Founder Institute), Boris Veldhuijzen (The Next Web), Saul Klein (Index Ventures), Aubrey de Grey, Sunny Bates (Kickstarter / Jawbone), Carlos Domingo (Telefonica Digital), David Rowan (Wired Magazine), Laurent Haug (Lift), Martin Recke (next), Will Page (Spotify), Scott Jenson (Google), Gerd Leonhard (The Futures Agency), Yuri Van Geest, Russell Buckley, Russ McGuire (Sprint), Kwame Ferreira (Kwamecorp), Delia Dumitrescu (Trendwatching.com), Georgie Benardete (Shopbeam), Hans-Holger Albrecht (Millicom), Tariq Krim (JoliCloud), Dr. James Canton, Andrew Hessel (Autodesk), Christian Lindholm (Korulab), Eze Vidra (Google Campus), Harald Neidhardt (MLOVE), Raina Kumra (Juggernaut). Robin Wauters (Tech.eu), Nicolas Nova, Gianfranco Chicco, Shaherose Charania (Women 2.0), Ken Banks, Marc Davis (Microsoft), Felix Petersen, Kelly Goto, Erik Hersman (Savannah Fund), David Risher (Worldreader), Glen Hiemstra (Futurist.com), Jessica Colaço (iHub), Mark Kanji (Apptivation), Rohit Talwar (Fast Future), Priya Prakash (Changify), Andrew Berglund (Geometry Global), Alan Moore, Martin Duval (Bluenove), Maarten Lens-FitzGerald (Layar), Andrew Bud (mBlox/MEF), Andy Abramson, Fabien Girardin, C. Enrique Ortiz, Raj Singh (Tempo AI), Inma Martinez, Robert Rice, Ajit Jaokar, Jonathan MacDonald, Tony Fish, Dan Applequist, Redg Snodgrass (Wearable World), David Wood, Mark A.M. Kramer (razorfish Healthware) , John Kieti (m:lab), Aape Pohjavirta, Kosta Peric (Innotribe), Blaise Aguera y Arcas (Microsoft) , Michael Breidenbruecker (Reality Jockey), Tricia Wang, Louisa Heinrich (Superhuman), Mike North (UC Berkeley), Mac-Jordan D. Degadjor, Kate Darling, Simon White, Chris Luomanen (Thing Tank), Ariane Van De Ven (Telefonica), Ed Maklouf (Siine), and many others.

The eBook version will be delivered before Christmas and the printed books most likely in the new year. Check the shift2020 website for latest updates and additional information.

Charting The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who come alive”Howard Thurman (1899 – 1981)

When David Rowan, editor of Wired Magazine, invited me to write a short article for “Ideas Bank” last spring, it gave me a great opportunity to share something I’d been witnessing on an increasing scale since my days at Stanford University in 2007. The article had to be short – 600 words – and because of that I only invited a couple of friends to contribute their stories. But the seed of an idea was born, as was the concept of ‘reluctant innovation’. It was that seed which, one year on, would turn into a book set for launch in a couple of months time.

You can read the original Wired piece that inspired it here.

The new book features the likes of Medic Mobile, WE CARE Solar, Ushahidi, PlanetRead and DataDyne, and comes with a Foreword from Archbishop Desmond Tutu. “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator” highlights the personal stories of ten social innovators from around the world – ten social innovators – ordinary people – who randomly stumbled across problems, injustices and wrongs and, armed with little more than determination and belief, decided not to turn their backs but to dedicate their lives to solving them.

Take Brij Kothari, for instance. Watching yet another Spanish movie in his friend’s apartment to avoid writing up his doctoral dissertation, Brij makes a throwaway comment about subtitles, which plants the seed of an idea and spawns a literacy initiative that has had, in Bill Clinton’s words, “a staggering impact on people’s lives”.

Worried about the political turmoil in Kenya, and concerned at the lack of information that is forthcoming from his adoptive country, Erik Hersman mobilises his own five-strong army to conceive, create and launch a web-based facility that revolutionises how breaking news is disseminated worldwide.

Parachuted into the middle of sub-Saharan Africa with a brief to collect public health data, and confronted with a laborious, environmentally wasteful paper-based system, paediatrician Joel Selanikio finds the perfect outlet for the skills he acquired as a Wall Street computer consultant.

Intending to ground himself in the realities of global health during his internship in rural Malawi, Josh Nesbit discovers that it is hard to sit on the sidelines and soon finds himself proposing a solution to overcome the difficulty of connecting patients, community health workers and hospitals.

After watching local doctors and midwives struggle to treat critically ill pregnant women in near-total darkness on a Nigerian maternity ward, where an untimely power cut can mean the difference between life and death, obstetrician Laura Stachel delivers a solar-based solution that enhances survival prospects.

Observing how well the autistic son of a close friend responds to the therapeutic effects of a Chinese massage technique that she has advocated using, Louisa Silva is convinced that the treatment has the potential to benefit thousands of others, but she needs to prove it.

Haunted by the memory of being separated from her older sister during a childhood spent in foster care, and horrified that other siblings are continuing to suffer the same fate, Lynn Price resolves to devise a way to bring such people back together.

An unexpected conversation over dinner leads Priti Radhakrishnan to build an innovative new organisation with a mission to fight for the rights of people denied access to life saving medicines.

Until a visit to the dermatologist turns her world upside down, Sharon Terry has never heard of pseudanthoma elasticum (PXE), but when she discovers that research into the disease afflicting her children is hidebound by scientific protocol, she sets about changing the system with characteristic zeal.

Encounters and conversations with leftover people occupying leftover spaces and using leftover materials, at home and abroad, led architecture professor Wes Janz to view them as urban pioneers, not victims, and teach him a valuable lesson: think small and listen to those at the sharp end.

The book is aimed at a general audience, although I’m hoping it will particularly appeal to younger people interested in social innovation and social entrepreneurship, and schools, colleges and universities teaching the subject. It fills what I believe is a much-needed gap in the market, one which is currently dominated by books which – often at no fault of their own – give the impression that meaningful change is only possible if you’re an MBA, or a geek, or have money or influence, or a carefully laid out five-year master plan, or all five. Let’s be honest – you don’t need qualifications to change the world.

By highlighting the stories of ten ordinary yet remarkable individuals, and the impact their work is collectively having on hundreds of millions of people around the world, “Rise of the Reluctant Innovator” will show us that anything is possible, planning isn’t everything, and that anyone anywhere can change their world for the better.

We have a holding page up at reluctantinnovation.com and you can follow us on Twitter @ReluctantsBook. The book, and new website, will launch on 20th November.

“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”

Enabling the Inspiration Generation, December 2009