Why we need more anthropologists

Today I’m back at the University of Edinburgh talking to anthropology students about how I’ve used my degree in my global technology/development career. I can’t overstate how refreshing it is to speak to a room not obsessed with technology, or scaling projects, or measuring impact. For me, it’s always started with the people and, for everyone in the room, it will be the same. I’ve long advised people interested in a career in global development to study anthropology (better still, anthropology with development studies, as I did at Sussex University).

It may sound crazy, but there aren’t enough people focused on understanding people in the technology-for-development world (one week field trips carrying out surveys don’t count). You see plenty of ‘Technology Advisor’ roles, but where are the ‘People Advisors’? There’s plenty of everything else, just not enough of that. I’m currently looking at work opportunities in the technology-for-development sector, and don’t think I’ve seen a single job description define a major requirement for time spent in the field, understanding the context of technology use in global development. And, of course, no mention of the word ‘anthropology’ anywhere. Everything else seems to matter more than that, and it’s something we have to put right. Anthropology has a huge amount to offer the sector – it just doesn’t seem to know it yet.

A question that I often get asked when people get over the shock that I have an anthropology degree, not something computer science-related, is “What on earth would anthropologists be doing playing with mobile phones?”. The answer may be a little more obvious than you think, but let’s start at the beginning.

Anthropology is an age-old, at times complex discipline, and like many others it suffers from its fair share of in-fighting and disagreement. It’s also a discipline shrouded in a certain mystery. Few people seem to know what anthropology really is, or what anthropologists really do, and a general unwillingness to ask simply fuels the mystery further. Few people ever question, for example, what a discipline better (but often incorrectly) ‘known’ for poking around with dinosaur bones is doing playing with mobile phones and other digital devices.

What anthropology isn’t

The public face of anthropology likely sits somewhere close to an Indiana Jones-type character, a dashing figure in khaki dress poking around with ancient relics while they try to unpick ancient puzzles and mysteries, or a bearded old man working with a leather-bound notepad in a dusty, dimly lit inaccessible room at the back of a museum building. If people were to be believed, anthropologists would be studying everything from human remains to dinosaur bones, old pots and pans, ants and roads. Yes, some people even think anthropologists study roads.

Despite the mystery, in recent years anthropology has witnessed something of a mini renaissance. As our lives become exposed to more and more technology, and companies become more and more interested in how technology affects us and how we interface with it, anthropologists have found themselves in increasing demand. When Genevieve Bell turned her back on academia and started working with Intel in the late 1990’s, she was accused of “selling out”. Today, anthropologists jump at the chance to help influence future innovation and, for many, working in industry has become the thing to do.

What anthropology is

So, if anthropology isn’t the study of ants or roads, what is it? Generally described as the scientific study of the origin, the behaviour, and the physical, social, and cultural development of humans, anthropology is distinguished from other social sciences – such as sociology – by its emphasis on what’s called cultural relativity, the principle that an individuals’ beliefs and activities should be interpreted in terms of their own culture, not that of the anthropologist. Anthropology also offers an in-depth examination of context – the social and physical conditions under which different people live – and a focus on cross-cultural comparison. To you and me, that’s comparing one culture to another. In short, where a sociologist might put together a questionnaire to try and understand what people think of an object, an anthropologist would immerse themselves in the subject and try to understand it from ‘within’.

Anthropology has a number of sub-fields and, yes, one of those does involve poking round with old bones and relics. But for me, development anthropology has always been the most interesting sub-field because of the role it plays in the gobal development arena. As a discipline it was borne out of severe criticism of the general development effort, with anthropologists regularly pointing out the failure of many agencies to analyse the consequences of their projects on a wider, human scale. Sadly, not a huge amount has changed since the 1970’s, making development anthropology as necessary today as it has ever been. Many academics – and practitioners, come to that – argue that anthropology should be a key component of the development process. In reality, in some projects it is, and in others it isn’t.

The importance of KYC (Know Your Customer)

It’s widely recognised that projects can succeed or fail on the realisation of their relative impacts on target communities, and development anthropology is seen as an increasingly important element in determining these positive and negative impacts. In the consumer electronics sector – particularly within emerging market divisions – it is now not uncommon to find anthropologists working within the corridors of hi-tech companies. Intel, Nokia and Microsoft are three such examples. Just as large development projects can fail if agencies fail to understand their target communities, commercial products can fail if companies fail to understand the very same people. In this case, these people go by a different name – customers.

Selling phones as torches in Uganda. Photo: Ken Banks

The explosive growth of mobile ownership in the developing world is largely down to a vibrant recycling market and the initial arrival of cheap $20 feature phones (and now $75 smartphones), but is also down in part to the efforts of forward-thinking mobile manufacturers. Anthropologists working for companies such as Nokia spend increasing amounts of time trying to understand what people living at the bottom of the pyramid, or those with very limited disposable income, might want from a phone. Mobiles with flashlights are just one example of a product that can emerge from this brand of user-centric design. Others include mobiles with multiple phone books, which allow more than one person to share a single phone (a practice largely unheard of in many developed markets) and phones which hold multiple SIMs.

My anthropology journey

My first taste of anthropology came a little by accident, primarily down to Sussex University‘s policy of students having to select a second degree subject to go with their Development Studies option (this was my key interest back in 1996). Social anthropology was one choice, and one which looked slightly more interesting than geography, Spanish or French (not that there’s anything wrong with those subjects). During the course of my degree I formed many key ideas and opinions around central pieces of work on the appropriate technology movement and the practical role of anthropology, particularly in global conservation and development work.

Today, mobile devices are closing the digital divide in ways the PC never did. Industry bodies such as the GSM Association, who have previously run Bridging the Digital Divide initiatives, today remain extremely active in the mobile-for-development sector. International development agencies pump hundreds of millions dollars into economic, health and educational initiatives centred around mobiles and mobile technology. Mobile phones today are almost as exciting as big data, 3D printers and drones.

I’m immensely proud of my anthropology roots, and the insights it has given me in my work. Without it, I’d not have successfully conceived and developed FrontlineSMS. I’m also very proud with my ongoing association with Sussex University in my capacity as Ambassador for International Development.

And I’m always happy to do my part to promote the discipline in the technology-for-development world because I think it needs more – many more – anthropologists walking the corridors if it’s to take full advantage of the wonderful digital opportunity it has been given. I just hope it starts paying attention before it’s too late.

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.

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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!