Want a holistic view of the world of social innovation? Try these four books.

We’re seeing a steady stream of great books hitting the shelves at the moment, each focusing on a different aspect of the technology/social innovation debate. While some offer hardcore theory and research, others offer softer inspiration and advice. One day we’ll have a book which captures and weaves together all four – that would be the ideal book – but for now we’ll have to read them all as separate volumes.

So, what are they? Well, if you’re interested in the whole spectrum of social change, with a slant towards the use of technology and innovation, these four books should make your summer reading list.


For background, theory and context:

Ben Ramalingam

It is widely recognised that the foreign aid system – which today involves every country in the world – is in need of drastic change. But there are conflicting opinions as to what is needed. Some call for dramatic increases in resources, to meet long-overdue commitments, and to scale up what is already being done around the world. Others point to the flaws in aid, and bang the drum for cutting it altogether – and argue that the fate of poor and vulnerable people be best placed in the hands of markets and the private sector. Meanwhile, growing numbers are suggesting that what is most needed is the creative, innovative transformation of how aid works. In this ground-breaking book, Ben Ramalingam shows that the linear, mechanistic models and assumptions on which foreign aid is built would be more at home in early twentieth century factory floors than in the dynamic, complex world we face today.

For inspiration and inside stories of social innovation:
Ken Banks

Classes in social innovation, social entrepreneurship and design thinking have become increasingly popular in recent years. On the one hand, this might be seen as a good thing. After all, the world needs as many smart, engaged citizens as it can get, particularly when you consider the multitude of challenges we face as a planet. But does a career in social change really begin in the classroom, or out in the real world? How much social change is planned, and how much accidental? And which approach tends to lead to the most meaningful, lasting or impactful solutions?

For research, theory, context:
Kentaro Toyama

In this incisive book, Toyama cures us of the manic rhetoric of digital utopians and reinvigorates us with a deeply people-centric view of social change. Contrasting the outlandish claims of tech zealots with stories of people like Patrick Awuah, a Microsoft millionaire who left his engineering job to open Ghana’s first liberal arts university, and Tara Sreenivasa, a graduate of a remarkable South Indian school that takes impoverished children into the high-tech offices of Goldman Sachs and Mercedes-Benz, Geek Heresy is a heartwarming reminder that it’s human wisdom, not machines, that move our world forward.

FOR Inspiration, advice:
William MacAskill

Almost all of us want to make a difference. So we volunteer, donate to charity, recycle or try to cut down our carbon emissions. But rarely do we know how much of a difference we’re really making. In a remarkable re-examination of the evidence, Doing Good Better reveals why buying sweatshop-produced goods benefits the poor; why cosmetic surgeons can do more good than charity workers; and why giving to a relief fund is generally not the best way to help after a natural disaster. By examining the charities you give to, the volunteering you do, the goods you buy and the career you pursue, this fascinating and often surprising guide shows how through simple actions you can improve thousands of lives – including your own.

Happy reading!

1995. 2005. 2015. Two decades of code

Precisely ten years ago this morning I sat down at a kitchen table in Finland and started coding. Armed with a Visual Basic.net manual, a laptop and GSM modem, a couple of SIMs and a Nokia 6100 and cable – and plenty of coffee – I delved into the world of Windows programming for the very first time.

I’d already done a fair amount of professional software development over the years, designing and building a membership/fundraising system for Jersey Zoo, and a range of accounting and amortisation systems for a legal firm, but that was ten years earlier in the mid-1990’s when QuickBASIC was my weapon of choice. Ten years had passed, and I’d never written anything event-driven before. I was on a steep learning curve, but was motivated.


I’d already figured out earlier that year that I could drive a mobile phone by sending it a series of Hayes commands through a cable – that was my epiphany moment, so-to-speak – so my task that summer was to try and build a nice user interface around it. It sounds almost crazy now to think that a lot of this was new, but back then very few people were building messaging platforms, and even fewer building messaging platforms aimed at grassroots non-profits in the developing world. After two years working across South Africa and Mozambique it had already become blatantly clear to me that there was a growing need there that nobody seemed willing, or able, to meet.

One of the big advantages I had back in 2005 was that it was easy to hide away and be left alone to focus on a project like this. Anyone with no team, no money and a big project idea knows all too well how important it is to be able to get away and focus. Thanks to the luxury of being unknown in the ICT4D world I was able to hide well enough to write a working prototype of FrontlineSMS in just five weeks.


Designing the ContactManager form


Coding ContactManager


The finished, compiled article


The first FrontlineSMS website, built in a day. The field banner was the view outside

Fast forward to today, I once again sit hidden away taking on a new coding challenge (my decades of code seem to take me from 1995 to 2005 to 2015, which may or may not be significant). In a similar vein to my attempts to tackle Windows programming in 2005 – which didn’t turn out too badly, I guess – today I’ve started work on my first iOS app. With a long list of ideas it’ll hopefully be the first of a few. Not surprisingly, they are pretty-much all based on improving how we interact and engage with the people, causes and world around us. I’m close to securing angel investment for the first app, which is another first. And it has a solid business model, which is another.

Interestingly, my brushes with code seem to have taken me through each of the key platforms of the past twenty years – MS-DOS, Microsoft Windows and, now, iOS. And, like 2005, I find myself with a window of opportunity to hide away and code as I continue my summer sabbatical. Watch this space for more.

Gazing into development’s crystal ball

It’s a sector that famously likes to look and plan ahead. So what does the development professional of today think it takes to be a professional development worker of tomorrow?

In partnership with the USAID Global Development Lab and PSI, Devex recently conducted a survey of development professionals to see what tools, skills and approaches they think the next-generation of development professionals will need to thrive ten years from now. Last week they published a report of these findings. And it’s enlightening on a number of levels. From the report:

“The results paint the picture of a well-rounded, flexible professional who takes a holistic view of development work. Just as likely to be a venture capitalist or high-tech whiz as your traditional aid worker, the future development professional will need to be agile, collaborative and constantly learning new skills.”

A few elements of the report particularly stood out for me. For a start, the fact that only 10% of respondents felt that disrupters would play any significant role by 2025. Perhaps today’s emphasis on disruption is a passing trend, or we’re just over-estimating its significance? Or perhaps development professionals are blind to what’s going on out in the real world, and they choose to not recognise it?


There was some recognition, though, that the traditional top-down approach would decline, although I’m not quite sure how the target communities will be able to meaningfully engage in the debate that replaces it. I guess the survey respondents assume that by 2025 we’ll have finally nailed those tricky little feedback loops.


It was also interesting to see where the respondents felt most of the ‘development professionals of the future’ were going to come from. We’re already seeing a blurring of boundaries between aid and business (i.e. Facebook and Google’s approach to last mile connectivity issues), and perhaps that trend will continue. If this forecast does turn out to be true, I’d argue that they shouldn’t be called ‘development professionals’, though (in the same way we don’t call Facebook and Google’s work in Africa today aid or development).


Last but certainly not least, this was one of the most revealing slides for me. Lack of empathy is already a huge problem as people by-pass time in the field and opt to develop solutions far away from the problems without speaking to anyone. It’s great to see empathy on the list, but it should be higher. After all, none of the other skills matter if you don’t understand the people you’re trying to help, surely?


So, what was missing? Well, I’d loved to have seen a breakdown of responses from aid workers in the developing world vs. aid workers from the developed world. I’m sure some of the attitudes would have been quite conflicting and, in turn, revealing. And I’d love to see a similar survey carried out among aid recipients – their thoughts, concerns and hopes for the sector – something that will be increasingly important if they do, quite rightly, begin to have more say in how ‘their’ aid is spent and administered.

You can download your own copy of the survey findings here.