The end of a golden age of discovery?

Exactly six years ago this week I was in Washington DC to collect the Pizzigati Prize for Software in the Public Interest, and award given each year to an individual who has created or led an effort to create an open source software product of significant value to the non-profit sector and movements for social change. While the Prize came in a golden spell for me and my work, I wonder if that golden age of discovery in our wider sector – which I was privileged to be a part of – is now over?

When Livingstone, Stanley and Speke set out on their voyages of adventure across Africa, their objective was not only discovery but to show the impossible was possible – that you could penetrate into the heart of Africa – the ‘Dark Continent’ – and live to tell the tale. Although later discoveries and adventures still roused public and press interest (and awards and recognition for the individuals involved) for many that early raw, frontier period was gone, never to return.

Bushbuckridge, South Africa (2003). A frontier of mobile exploration. Photo: Ken Banks

When I look back through the 15-year history of kiwanja.net, much of the first few years felt like a period of raw expectation and raw exploration. It was a bit of a Wild West. Nobody really knew what would work, how it might work, or who it might benefit. Most people weren’t even aware of the early signs of what was to famously become the ‘mobile revolution’. Back then, innovation wasn’t a word thrown around casually, you could have put everyone working in mobile-for-development into a local cinema, and there wasn’t such a thing as best practice. For me and many of those around me, it felt like those early days for Livingstone, Stanley and Speke. It felt like we were making trails that others might follow, but we didn’t know where they would lead, if anywhere, and what we might learn.

My early work, without any doubt, felt like it came in a golden age. It felt like we were forging a path – one centred around the use of SMS in conservation and development – where no-one else had been before. Like those early Africa explorers, interest and fascination among the public and press was high. And because of it, the project grew and awards and recognition came. Over a six year period multiple fellowships, awards and prizes arrived, along with considerable amounts of funding for FrontlineSMS which, for a while, seemed to be everywhere. You could try anything, safely in the knowledge that it was unlikely anyone else had tried it before.

In the true spirit of adventure, in 2010 I had the huge privilege of being named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. At the time it felt like a very bold move by the Selection Committee. Almost all of the other Emerging Explorers were either climbing, diving, scaling, digging or building, and what I do hardly fits into your typical adventurer job description. But as I think about it today, as I write this post, in a way it does. As mobile technology continued its global advance, figuring out ways of applying the technology in socially and environmentally meaningful ways was a kind of 21st century exploring. Since 2010 a number of other friends and colleagues have gone on to be named Emerging Explorers whilst working in the technology sector, continuing a trend at National Geographic of reframing exploration in a digital age.

Today – as I reflect on this, the later stages of my career – my time is increasingly spent helping others cut their own route, and sharing stories of those who succeed. Today we have more tools than ever at our disposal to help solve the social and environmental problems around us – perhaps too many – but despite this the golden age feels over. Our field has become professionalised, and with it we have lost a lot of the magic.

In reality, all that has really changed is that frontiers have shifted. Maybe I just prefer the one I lived through all those years ago.

Introducing our first ever free book offer!

As part of our ongoing efforts to inspire innovators-to-be the world over, and in celebration of the impending arrival of Spring (!) we’re offering the Amazon Kindle version of The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator free of charge until the end of March, or with a whopping 40% discount on the paperback edition when ordered through the UK publisher’s website.Despite the tens of billions spent each year in international aid, some of the most promising and exciting social innovations and businesses have come about by chance. Many of the people behind them did not consciously set out to solve anything, but they did. Welcome to the world of the reluctant innovator.

The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator comes with endorsements from the likes of MIT, National Geographic, the BBC and Nobel Peace Prize-winning Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who also provides the Foreword. Shortly after publication it hit top spot in the Development Studies category on Amazon and has received over forty 5-star reviews across all Amazon sites (24 are available on Amazon.com).



These offers end on 31st March so be quick! And remember to share on your own social media if you know others who might appreciate the heads-up.

Get the Kindle version for free on Amazon:
https://www.amazon.com/Rise-Reluctant-Innovator-Ken-Banks-ebook/dp/B00MX0ZWW6/

Get the paperback edition with a 40% discount from the publisher:
https://www.nbninternational.com/checkout?isbn1=9781907994180&copies1=1&pub=158&promocode=LPP40BANKS


Happy reading and sharing, and if you feel sufficiently inspired all we ask is that you share a review on Amazon to help raise awareness among other like-minded innovators. Thank you!

Announcing our Four-Part Manifesto for Change

For almost fifteen years kiwanja.net has been home for our hopes, dreams and frustrations on all things technology, social innovation, and international conservation and development. During that time we’ve widely travelled, spoken, published, built, consulted, mentored and despaired. It’s been an incredible journey that started in early 2003 on the fringes of Kruger National Park, and we’ve had plenty of opportunities to see what does and what doesn’t work along the way. Crucially, we’ve stayed small and independent over that time, allowing us to remain honest and challenging when and where we need to be.


Where it all began. Early mobile phone research in Bushbuckridge, South Africa. Photo: Ken Banks

One of our earlier, seminal posts from 2009 – “Time to eat our own dog food?” – challenged the sector to not waste the opportunity that mobile phones gave us, asking:

Is the future of social mobile an empowered few, or an empowered many? Mobile tools in the hands of the masses presents great opportunity for NGO-led social change, but is that the future we’re creating?

Sadly, much of the same argument outlined in that post can be applied today, placing something of a question mark over what progress we’ve made. We know, for example, that many projects still rarely optimise for their beneficiaries and the environments in which they operate, and despite what they often claim, many set out as solutions looking for a problem. Too many initiatives still lead with technology, and fail to scale into sustainable programs – in part because donors are constantly under pressure to disburse funds to new and ‘innovative’ projects, rarely giving older projects time to mature.

There is still no minimum standard for funding development projects, either. As a result, money struggles to find it’s way to the projects most likely to succeed, and a vicious cycle ensues. Worse still, despite talk of local capacity building and ownership, the vast majority of programs are still conceptualised, executed and funded by outsiders and parachuted in.

And to top it all, as a sector we still lack a shared vision of the future we all should be working towards. All of this adds up to a cycle of underperformance, perpetuated by the fact that feedback loops between donors, practitioners, policy makers, academia, civil society and program beneficiaries remain at best weak.

We can, and should, be better than this.

One thing I’m particularly proud of is that we’ve offered solutions when we’ve identified problems over the years. It’s far too easy to rant about how rubbish everything is, and it goes without saying it’s much harder, yet undoubtedly more productive, to offer ways forward. Over the past few years in particular, many of those bigger ideas have sufficiently matured to allow us to today launch our new Four-Part Manifesto for Change.

This new Manifesto focuses on four areas in particular that we feel need positive disruption in our field.

PAINTING A SHARED, FUTURE VISION
Working closely with innovators and entrepreneurs from the places where the problems exist, we propose the creation of a new policy paper that helps us achieve a future where local innovators and local innovations drive the development agenda. You can download a summary PDF of that proposal here.

A NEW CODE OF CONDUCT FOR DONORS
We believe that donors are in an ideal position to stem the flow of poorly thought-out or inadequately planned technology-for-development projects and propose the adoption of a Charter to put things right. You can read about that here.

SERIOUSLY GET BEHIND OUR TOP TALENT
Offering long-term support to some of our top talent would increase the chances of them – and us – having a positive global impact. We focus too much on projects and not the people who drive them. You can read our thoughts on a new Global Fellowship Programme here.

TIME TO ANSWER THE BIG QUESTION
Do international development projects designed and managed at grassroots level perform better than those managed from the outside? The debate rages, so we propose a development challenge to help us find the answer. You can read more about how that might work here.

To reach our full potential, and to alleviate as much suffering on the planet as possible, we need to be bold, embrace appropriate innovation and be open to disruption in our own sector, not just others. We need to face up to our problems, failures and inefficiencies, and be brave in seeking new solutions when things go wrong. Our Manifesto offers four new solutions to four of those long-standing problems.

We hope this might be the start of a wider, bolder conversation where we begin putting into action projects and programmes that put the needs of the people we seek to help before those of ourselves or our organisations – however uncomfortable that may be.

You can read more on our Manifesto at hackingdevelopment.org