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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.

May 6, 2014   1 Comment

Scaling the charts

Great to see “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator” hitting the top spot in Amazon‘s best selling ‘Development Studies’ books chart (24th February 2014). 

February 24, 2014   1 Comment

Social innovation: Celebrating the unpolished

“I finished my first book seventy-six years ago. I offered it to every publisher on the English-speaking earth I had ever heard of. Their refusals were unanimous, and it did not get into print until, fifty years later, publishers would publish anything that had my name on it”
George Bernard Shaw (1856 – 1950)

Late last year The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator hit the shelves. It was my first taste of publishing, and if I’m honest it really started off as something of an experiment. It wasn’t until Archbishop Desmond Tutu agreed to get involved, the Curry Stone Foundation provided much-needed financial support, and my publisher pushed me to take it up a level, did I begin to let it take over my life. And for about three months that’s precisely what it did.

For most of us, publishing our first book is the epitome of thinking on our feet. Everything was new, and I had to take on every role imaginable. Publishing brings with it all the challenges of bigger, bolder projects – funding, timing, collaboration, design, messaging and outreach – all in one neat little package. Scale, for a change, is an easy one – it’s simply how many books you sell. If you’re keen for a taste of what life as an entrepreneur is like, publish a book.

Since its release, The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator has bounced around the Amazon charts, peaking on one occasion at the #1 spot in the “Development Studies” category. Bookshops around the UK began to stock it, including Waterstones. For a while it was also on the coveted “Best new releases” shelf in my local Heffers store. Nothing beats walking into a bookshop and seeing your own book sandwiched between the likes of Malcolm Gladwell and Seth Godin.

Getting the book out there is one thing. A big thing, in fact. But then comes the public reaction. While some authors aren’t too bothered, it was important to me. The general public were among my key audience, as were students and colleges/universities. The book, after all, seeks to democratise social innovation. So it was hugely gratifying to find this review posted on Amazon one morning:

Stories for every college campus

Ken Banks has collected a volume of stories here that need to be told on every college campus. College campuses are at this moment unique seedbeds of opportunity. Populated with “Millennial Searchers” who, in increasing numbers, tell us they define life success in terms of meaning, purpose, and making a difference, and shaped by the larger movements of social entrepreneurship and sustainability, college curricula have begun shifting towards educating students to become agents for change.

What our change agents need above all right now is not more information, but stories – stories that the move them from paralysis and despair in the face of social disintegration and ecological loss to actions shaped by courage, humor, and hope. These stories do this. And because they inject so much of the raw, the uncertain, and the unformed portion of reality into their tales they are stories on which students will clamber for in the face of the challenges of their generation.

These stories speak eloquently about power – the power of connections, the power in confronting power structures for the sake of the marginal, the power of serendipity, the power of the human spirit to overcome immense challenges and work towards transformation and justice. In doing so, they function as a calling to that part of ourselves that will recreate and restore human and natural communities, that bears witness to our capacity for both good and ill, and that remembers the full range of ingenuity and wisdom we possess individually and as a species.

Wendy Petersen Boring, co-editor, “Teaching Sustainability: Perspectives from the Humanities and Social Sciences”

The book was also written in such a way to avoid ‘sell-by date syndrome’. The stories of the ten innovators, and their solutions, will never age, and neither will their advice. And this was important, because I knew the book was unlikely to set the world on fire when it launched, and that it would most likely slowly find its way into colleges and universities where it could be that book of “the raw, the uncertain, and the unformed portion of reality” that younger people seek. Santa Clara University in the USA, and Goldsmiths College in London, are among a growing number seeing this value and adopting the book. It’s going to take time, but it’s happening.

Another thing I’ve learnt is to not listen to experts. Except perhaps, when they tell you not to do something – then you’ll know that you should. During a conversation with a US book agent late last year, I was told by the expert he consulted – ‘someone who knew about these things’ – that:

I’d want to work with him to substantially transform the book from a set of stories into something more analytical and practical in terms of really going about starting one of these organisations, and that would take some real time. But even then I’m not confident about the book because there have been many published already that tell stories as good as those he’s got, as well as some that are a good deal more substantial in terms of the hands-on advice

It’s something of a revelation to me that the book I published is the polar opposite of the book I was told I should publish. If I had sought advice earlier, and taken it, my book would have been no different to the hundreds of others on the shelves. It would have focused on theory, cold analysis, expert opinion, five year plans, process, how to measure stuff and the odd third party case study. I’d never publish a book like that, not only because it’s not how I work, but also because I don’t think it in any way advances the cause. Sometimes self-publishing has its benefits – you can do anything you want, however you want. Kevin Starr nailed it when he shared his thoughts on the book recently:

These real – occasionally raw – stories do more to capture the life of the committed social entrepreneur than anything else I’ve read. Inspiring, yes, but even better, it works as a real world case-based manual for how to create change for the better

The book tries to buck the trend of ‘social innovation as a discipline’, in other words as something you need to study or learn before you can do anything. Its purpose is to create belief in talented young people with a vision to do good that meaningful change is possible, even without skills and resources. It’s not about who’s smartest – it’s about who cares the most, and who’s willing to go all the way to make that change happen.

Nor is it just a detailed analysis or unpicking of the ‘market opportunity or problem’, either, that students need – that perhaps comes later. Instead, what much of the book tries to give them is the inside line on what and how the entrepreneur was feeling when they encountered a life-changing problem. How it made them feel at a deeper level, and in turn how that passion and commitment drove them to dedicate much (if not all) of their time to solving it, and how it got them through huge obstacles and barriers. There are plenty of books that don’t do this, that don’t give the raw, unedited, deeply personal accounts of how these people and projects got started. Social innovators are rarely the hero figures we make them out to be, and people need to be able to resonate with their stories at every level.

And resonating is what they seem to be doing. From the emails and tweets I’ve received over the past three months, many people have found themselves deeply moved by some of the stories. Some have even cried on trains. Five year plans rarely do that.

Further details, including a list of endorsements and chapter contributions, and how to buy, are available from the official book website. You can also download a sample PDF which includes the cover, full foreword, introduction and endorsements, and the first two pages of each chapter, here.

February 21, 2014   No Comments

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.

December 12, 2013   No Comments

Reluctant innovators are go!

It’s been a busy few months as our new book – “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator” – has been taking shape. We’ve been finalising chapter contributions, working on the introduction, sorting out cover and chapter designs, doing last minute copy-editing, building a new website, keeping Kickstarter supporters up-to-date, and pulling in book endorsements. We got 24 of those in the end, all glowing and hugely supportive. You’ll find all of them on the inside cover of the book, or on the website (click here for a full PDF version).

All that said, everything has been delivered on time, with the new website set live on the eve of the book launch. And everything has been well worth the effort. The books look incredible.

“The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator” is aimed at a general audience, although we’re 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 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, “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator” shows us that anything is possible, planning isn’t everything, and that anyone anywhere can change their world for the better.

To coincide with the book launch we’ve given a limited number of interviews, with articles going out via PopTech, National Geographic, TechPresident and the Unreasonable Group. Feel free to click on any of the images below to read them.

Finally, why not check out the book website, and if you like what you see feel free to share details with your own networks. We believe this book has an important story to tell, and would love you to help us tell it.

November 21, 2013   No Comments

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

September 11, 2013   1 Comment

m4d: The fun is over. Time to get tough?

I’m all for discussion and debate, and I’ve taken part in my fair share over the past eleven years. But I’m now beginning to wonder if, after all this time, everything we could have said has been said. The fact we’re still talking about the same handful of challenges and issues implies that very little, if anything, has changed where it matters – on the ground. Have we really made so little progress?

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but it wasn’t until the recent Guardian Activate conference that the scale of the problem finally drove home.

It’s worth mentioning that I wasn’t at the event this year, but I did follow from a distance. To be honest, sometimes it’s better to listen and reflect from the outside, and as my train hurtled towards London it became increasingly obvious that much of the early conversation followed a similar pattern to many of the other technology-for-good conferences I’d attended over the years.

If, about a decade ago, we’d listed all of the questions, unknowns, problems and challenges faced by the ICT4D community, it would probably have looked something like this:

  • How do we replicate and scale?
  • How do we measure impact?
  • How do we stop the reinventing of wheels?
  • How do we avoid being ‘technology-lead’?
  • How do we break out of our silos?
  • What is our business/sustainability model?
  • Is open source a help or a hindrance?
  • How do we maximise the opportunity mobile brings?

If we made the same list today, it would probably look something like this:

  • How do we replicate and scale?
  • How do we measure impact?
  • How do we stop the reinventing of wheels?
  • How do we avoid being ‘technology-lead’?
  • How do we break out of our silos?
  • What is our business/sustainability model?
  • Is open source a help or a hindrance?
  • How do we make sense of the countless pilots taking place?

The only difference is the last one. We’ve gone from not really knowing what to do with mobile phones to a position of everyone everywhere trying to solve something with them, whether or not they’re the right tool for the job. It’s still a problem, but arguably a more serious one.

These questions – and many others like them – might keep academics in work, but they’re serious issues for practitioners, too. Project owners and tools developers are rarely clear on their positions on open source, or scale, or their interpretation of ‘appropriate technology’. Among other things this leads to confusion and unnecessary competition (yes, the non-profit world is competitive). I attempted to put a stop to some of this in a post called “Our “social mobile” line in the sand” way back in May 2009, without success. I wonder if the time is right for someone to try again?

None of us surely want to sit in yet another conference, gathering or workshop and hear the same things over and over again, but that’s often what we do. And more often than not we pay good money for the privilege. Messages I personally don’t want to hear again include:

“We need to stop talking in silos”
“Projects need to build for scale from the outset”
“We need to stop reinventing wheels”
“We need more collaboration”
“We need to become sustainable”
“We need to embrace failure”
“Mobile technology has huge potential”

Can’t the m4d community come together and fix some of this? Create a code of conduct, a directory of terms and meanings, a set of best practice? With the billions of dollars funding mobile projects the world over, can’t we siphon a little off and create an overarching set of guidelines that projects and donors adhere to? Almost everything we see out there has been funded by someone, so if only the donors seriously tried to grapple with the problem – and got strict with what they funded – we’d almost certainly make serious progress.

Some of this stuff isn’t difficult. Take the problem of silos. Most of the events where this comes up are silos themselves. How can someone stand up at a mobile health conference packed with only people who use mobile phones and only for health, and say we should stop talking in silos? How about a mobile health practitioner attending an agriculture conference, instead? Or one focussing on human rights? Don’t tell me mobile health projects can’t learn something from non-mobile agriculture? If, as we constantly hear, innovation and opportunity happen in unexpected places, we need to put ourselves in them a little more, as Tim Smit suggested at the Emerge Conference in 2010.

Perhaps as a sign of things to come, mentions of mPesa are increasingly banned at meetings I attend. If we have to use the same example of a successful mobile money project over and over again, doesn’t that say something about the state of mobile money?

I was recently asked what progress I thought we’d made since I wrote “Technology’s new chance to make a difference” for the Guardian in January 2012. In the areas of best practice, adopting more appropriate technology and mainstreaming ICT4D, sadly I had to admit very little. As I wrote three years earlier:

I spent the best part of my university years critiquing the efforts of those who went before me. Countless others have done the same. Looking to the future, how favourably will the students and academics of tomorrow reflect on our efforts? If the next thirty years aren’t to read like the last then we need to re-think our approach, and re-think it now

The development sector is hardly awash with success. The m4d community have a great chance to buck the trend. The big question is, will we?

Further reading
An inconvenient truth?

July 29, 2013   6 Comments

Time to think message and motivation

Few companies succeed if they don’t take the time to understand their users. Fewer non-profit ventures succeed if they don’t either. After recently ‘moving on’ from FrontlineSMS and a ten year spell focusing exclusively on ICT4D, I’m beginning to realise that much of the wider technology-based social sector suffers from not-too-dissimilar problems. Few people, it seems, working on software-based solutions have much of an appreciation of the motives to engage, and the technical literacy, of their target audience. Whenever that’s the case, things tend not to turn out too well.

For the past few years I’ve been taking an increasing interest in economic resilience, particularly how technology could be applied to buffer local communities from global economic downturns. Ironically, since I started that research the world has entered a period of growing economic uncertainty. The causes – although fascinating – don’t so much interest me, more the response at local, grassroots level and the response from the social sector, particularly those turning to technology to provide some of the answers.

My Means of Exchange project particularly motivates me because it’s tasked with understanding what drives some local people (and not others) to resort to alternative methods of exchange, particularly during times of hardship, and explores how we might motivate the wider global community to adopt a healthier mix of exchange as a part of its daily lives – before things get bad. Money has become the dominate means of exchange in almost all of our lives, to the detriment of all the more creative, flexible methods that came before it.

In parallel with all of this is a growing interest in the sharing economy, and local and digital currencies which – if adopted widely enough – might just loosen the stranglehold of legal tender. And therein lies the problem. No matter how good the technology, solution or service, in almost all cases if it’s not adopted widely enough it’s unlikely to succeed. And one of the biggest problems many alternative exchange tools have is that they’re just not marketed or promoted well enough to reach anywhere near the tipping point they need. I talked a lot about the difficulties the local sustainability and alternative economy movements have in effectively communicating its message, and engaging their audience, in a recent ten minute talk at Pop!Tech.

Sadly, it’s an area that continues to be overlooked.

A couple of weeks ago, at the Bitcoin London Conference, BBC reporter Rory-Cellan Jones neatly highlighted the ongoing challenge:

In case you’ve not been following the discussion, Bitcoins are an independently machine-generated digital currency (i.e. not owned or managed by any country or entity) which some people believe will revolutionise global trade. Right now, the majority of people active in the Bitcoin world are programmers, developers and geeks, which is where many of these kinds of things start. The problem right now is the language of the movement is far too technical, and this is a problem. Even going to Wikipedia to get an explanation of Bitcoins would leave most of the general public scratching their heads:

Bitcoin (code: BTC) is a cryptocurrency where the creation and transfer of bitcoins is based on an open source cryptographic protocol that is independent of any central authority. Bitcoins can be transferred through a computer or smartphone without an intermediate financial institution.The concept was introduced in a 2008 paper by pseudonymous developer Satoshi Nakamoto, who called it a peer-to-peer, electronic cash system

There is already widespread misunderstanding of how new money is created, and clearly with Bitcoins – however good-an-alternative they may be – we’re not much better off. If shop keepers and the general public are to embrace such an idea and, let’s face it, they’ll have to for it to succeed, clearly some serious PR work needs to be done. (For a simple run-down of what the fuss is all about with Bitcoins, Bloomberg have a helpful feature here).

There is definitely a need for alternative means of exchange (note: plural), as I mentioned in an interview with Quartz recently. My belief is that a growing number of people worldwide have grown tired of being burned by globalisation and just want to get back to functioning within sustainable local systems. They need alternatives to cash, but just don’t realise it yet.

Because of the way our globalised world works (great when it does, rubbish when it doesn’t), hard-working people, and communities, are being destroyed by financial meltdown in distant places. Globalisation has eroded our incentives, and ability, to play well together as local communities, meaning we’re now less resilient to shocks of all kinds than we used to be

Everyone engaged in the alternative economy and local sustainability movement have already passed the ‘recognition threshold’ – recognition that the current system is broken to the detriment of people and planet everywhere, and that we need alternatives. But these people – me included – are in the minority. We might see how broken the system is, but we should never assume that it’s so obvious that everyone else ought to, too.

While we build the tools and, yes – the Bitcoins of the future – we need to seriously work on how we communicate. Conference gatherings have already become echo chambers for much of the ICT4D community. Whatever it is that makes people nod enthusiastically within the walls of alternative economy and sustainability events needs to first be simplified, and then communicated outside in an exciting, engaging way.

As my work over the years has taught me, technology is almost always the easy part. Behaviour change – that’s a totally different beast altogether.

July 16, 2013   1 Comment

Joining forces with the GSMA

Good mobile data is hard to come by. Much is either speculative, out of date or – if based on more recent research – expensive. And what is freely available is often spread far and wide across the Web. If you’re into mobiles for development then today your life is set to become a lot easier with the launch of “Mobile for Development Intelligence” (MDI), a new open data platform from the GSM Association which aims to educate and unite all who want to harness the power of mobile for good - “Closing Mobile’s Data Divide” - June 2012.

Exactly one year ago I had the pleasure to blog about the launch of Mobile Data Intelligence, at that time the latest in a line of GSMA m4d initiatives designed to help unlock the potential of mobile technology for development. MDI has made great strides during its first twelve months. If closing in on 3,000 registered users wasn’t enough, the site tracks over 100 mobile data metrics – everything from network coverage to mobile penetration – and profiles well over 2,000 products, services and organisations. The site has become a rich, unique and valuable source of baseline data for practitioners, researchers and developers all seeking to maximise the huge developmental potential of mobile technology.

Given my enthusiasm for the GSMA’s commitment to providing access to valuable data and analysis to a broader community of people, I’m excited to start working with the team as part of my return to consultancy to help build further on their early success. At various times during my ten years in the m4d sector I’ve regularly blogged about the challenges of data scarcity, the challenges of measuring impact and ways we can achieve scale – however you define it – and the GSMA is uniquely placed to fill many of these gaps.

Over the next few months I’ll be working with them to build new tools designed to help decision makers identify the right tools and services for their project, use my own experiences in the field – and as a software developer – to provide fieldworkers and practitioners specifically with the kinds of information they currently lack, and think about how the GSMA’s services can be extended to appeal to new audiences.

I look forward to working with the growing m4d team, and everyone at the GSMA, to help further an aim that we all share – to support organisations, educators and innovators the world over, and to help them use mobile technology to its full potential in their social change work, whatever and wherever that may be.

June 26, 2013   6 Comments

Means of Exchange: Enabling more resilient economies

“Citizen movements are compelling reforms that were unimaginable only a short time ago. Solutions to today’s challenges involve a complex mix of actors that include governments, nonprofits, foundations, civil society and the business sector in major new ways”Rockefeller Foundation

This year, the Rockefeller Foundation will be one hundred years old. As part of the celebrations, the Foundation recently launched the Next Century Innovators Awards which seeks to identify the top 100 innovations likely to solve some of the more pressing challenges of the next century. We’re excited to announce that Means of Exchange has made the list. You can read the project profile on the Rockefeller website here, or below.

What is the innovation and how does it address a pressing problem?

We live in a time of great economic uncertainty. Millions of people around the world have lost jobs, homes, businesses, independence and purpose as a result of the current financial crisis, not to mention the many crises that came before it. Millions more face growing uncertainty. The defining feature of a century of globalization is an economic system few of us understand, and even fewer of us have any control over. Over the years the incentives and ability of communities to build resilient local economies has been gradually eroded, leaving us more vulnerable to global shocks.

At the same time, communities, often in the hardest-hit places, have begun independently developing initiatives to strengthen the capacity of local systems to meet local needs. Bartering exchanges, time-banking and buy-local movements exist in increasing numbers, yet they are by-and-large failing to result in systemic change.

Means of Exchange ties together these disparate initiatives, and shares stories of how local communities are fighting back. It looks at how a combination of everyday technologies and human ingenuity can democratize opportunities for economic self-sufficiency and promote a return to local resource use. Its online community brings people together, helps encourage new thinking, builds and scales the use of new tools, and takes a fresh look at the public messaging behind local economic empowerment schemes to make them more inclusive, simple, relevant, fun and engaging.

What existing practices inspired the innovation and how does it represent something new?

Local barter exchanges, time banks and local currencies are nothing new. Most have been around for years, and there are countless success stories out there if you look hard enough. The majority of these pockets of success have remained small in scale, and many only work because a small number of dedicated local activists work hard to keep them going. What’s more, the people that take part are often the ones who are already converted to the cause, or older members of a community already sympathetic to the local agenda.

Means of Exchange sets out to understand why so many existing initiatives fail to replicate and scale, building the community needed to bring in “new blood,” and bringing in the skills required to leverage digital tools that allow for meaningful scale.  The online community will highlight approaches it sees working, and tease out the factors that make them succeed. It will look at how social media and mobile technologies might strengthen these activities, explore gamification techniques, and consult experts to understand how activities should be branded and marketed for mass appeal.  And at the end, all of the tools, websites and resources developed by Means of Exchange will be openly shared on the website, encouraging further adoption and sharing.

Bringing this community together addresses a critical gap in the majority of current initiatives, giving Means of Exchange the potential to transform a set of isolated activities into an effective and organized movement.

Please describe the social impact to date, as well as potential impact in the future.

During the Summer Olympics in London, Means of Exchange launched its first ‘tool’ – CashMobbers.net – promoting a new and innovative way for people to support local business. Cash mobs are typically organized over social media, encouraging people to meet others at a predetermined local business at a predetermined time, where they all agree to spend a small amount of money.

In just a couple of hours during the launch event at a bookshop in Hackney, London, several dozen people showed up and helped the store hit its highest day of sales for a year. The buzz created by social media drove people to attend, partly out of excitement, partly out of curiosity, partly out of a desire to see something positive happen on their main shopping street. The event was picked up by the Financial Times, Daily Telegraph, Huffington Post and other international media. Since then, regular cash mobs have started taking place across London and other parts of the UK as the idea spreads.

These are the kinds of ideas Means of Exchange seeks to help develop, promote and spread. Whether it’s supporting a local business, buying local goods, helping a neighbor or swapping unwanted goods, it’s crucial that the activities which drive and promote better sharing, support and co-operation are fun, bring in new people, make good use of new technology and serve to educate and inspire the wider community to action.

You can join us at Means of Exchange by signing up on the website, liking us on Facebook, or following us on Twitter.

April 30, 2013   No Comments