“On 29th August 1965, an article was published in The Observer entitled “How to help them help themselves”, written by Fritz Schumacher the distinguished economist with support from his close friend Observer editor, David Astor. In it, Schumacher pointed out the inadequacies of aid based on the transfer of large scale, capital-intensive technologies and argued for a shift towards “intermediate technologies”, based on the needs and skills possessed by poor people themselves. This article helped shape the future of development.” – Simon Trace, CEO, Practical Action
I came across Schmacher’s writing almost 20 years ago during my time at Sussex University. I was only three years into my global development journey, having spent a decade working in the technology sector until everything changed after a trip to Zambia in 1993. Shumacher’s call for appropriate technologies resonated on so many levels, and seemed to sit in stark contrast to many of the active – and failed – policies of the development system. Sadly, despite the rhetoric, little has really changed, and many ICT4D projects simply follow big brother’s bad practice. This is why, for the best part of the last 13 years, I’ve been relentlessly focused on development ‘outside the system’, and how we might support the grassroots response to many of the problems out there. In 2005, FrontlineSMS was specifically built with this – and Shumacher’s vision – in mind.
(For more on how Schumacher’s work has influenced my own, check out this excellent article and interview in World Watch Magazine from 2010).
My sense has always been that we need to support the people closest to the problem. Not only do they often have a better understanding, but they also get the local context (cultural, geographic, economic and so on). As outsiders, we often do not. As Ahmed Djoghlaf pointed out during the current climate talks, “It’s difficult for someone living up on the 38th floor to know what is going on in the basement”. The same applies in global development, where many of the organisations that drive the agenda are based far away from the problems they’re trying to solve.
Until local actors drive more of the development agenda there will inevitably be a disconnect. And whenever there’s a disconnect, there should be caution. We may have the money, and what we believe to be the better technology and expertise, but history tells us that we often struggle to apply them in ways that result in meaningful change, or any change at all.
This quote from William Macaskill’s new book, “Doing Good Better“, should be printed off and pinned on the wall of every development agency working overseas. It should be the starting point, and opening question, to anything and everything we do.
It’s time to vacate those offices on the 38th floor and move our thinking a little closer to the basement. We still might not get everything right, but it’s almost certainly a better starting point. Just ask Schumacher. He’s been saying it for 50 years.
While growing numbers of people in the development sector get increasingly excited at the potential of tablet computing for health, agriculture, education and other development activities, it’s the Amazon Kindle that’s been exciting me recently. The irony is, without really trying, Amazon have built something which more closely resembles an appropriate technology than other organisations who have specifically gone out to try and build one.
Remote delivery of books and materials (local wi-fi permitting)
Of course, I’m not the first person to notice this. A year or two ago the highlight of an ICT4D conference I attended was a short video showing children in West Africa using Amazon Kindles. I’ll never forget how they interacted with the devices, and what having access to one meant to them and their hopes of an education. Not many technologies give us these little glimpses of magic.
Imagine, all the books a child would ever need to see them through their basic education, all packed into a ~$100 device.
The people behind that video were from Worldreader.org, an organisation whose mission is to “make digital books available to all in the developing world, enabling millions of people to improve their lives”.
We often say in mobiles-for-development that today most people in the developing world will make their first phone call on a mobile, and have their first experience of the Internet on one, too. Perhaps children, in the not-too-distant future, will have their first experience of reading on an e-reader?
“Two weeks ago, I was staying at a working dairy farm sixty kilometers north of Bogotá, Colombia. I was fiddling around with my iPad when one of the kids that worked in the stables came up to me and started staring at it. He couldn’t have been more than six years old, and I’d bet dollars to donuts that he had never used a computer or even a cellular telephone before (Colombia has many attractions. The vast pool of illiterate poor is not one of them)
Curious, I handed him the device and a very small miracle happened. He started using it. I mean, really using it. Almost instantly, he was sliding around, opening and closing applications, playing a pinball game I had downloaded. All without a single word of instruction from me”
Two questions scream out at me when I read this. Firstly, what would happen if Apple turned a fraction of its attention to ICT4D? And secondly, why don’t Apple work in ICT4D? In a sector where so many tools and solutions seem to fail because they’re too complex, poorly designed, unusable or inappropriate, who better to show us how it should be done than the masters of usability and design?
The answer to the second question is a little easier to answer than the first. As Walter Isaacson pointed out in his recent biography, Steve Jobs felt he could contribute more to the world by ‘simply’ making brilliant products. He seemed to have little time for philanthropy, at least publicly, and his laser focus meant he saw almost everything other than Apple’s mission as a distraction. Ironically, had he decided to give away some of his ballooning wealth, he’d most likely have funded programmes working in nutrition and vegetarianism, not technology, according to Mark Vermilion (who Steve Jobs hired back in 1986 to run the Steven P. Jobs Foundation, which he was destined to shut down a year later).
Had Steve Jobs decided to pursue his Foundation, and had he decided to fund technology-based initiatives in the developing world, how well might he have done, and what might Apple have been able to contribute to our discipline?
Here’s five initial thoughts on where an Apple approach to ICT4D might be different – or problematic.
1. Consult the user
One of the central tenets of ICT4D is to consult the user before designing or building anything. In business, at least, Apple don’t do this. They certainly didn’t speak to Colombian farm children, yet they managed to intuitively build something that worked for the six year old Michael Noer met. As Steve Jobs famously said:
Our job is to figure out what users are going to want before they do. People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page
An Apple ICT4D project would unlikely spend much time, if any, speaking with the target audience, an approach entirely at odds with the one we champion right now.
2. Customer vs. beneficiary
Apple would see people as customers, and they’d be carrying out what they’d see as a commercial transaction with them. This approach would mean they’d have to build something the customer wanted, and that worked (and worked well). Since it would have to sell, if successful it would by default be financially sustainable. Part of the problem with the largely subsidised ICT4D “give away technology” model is that no-one is ultimately accountable if things don’t work out, and regular business rules do not apply.
3. Open vs. closed
The ICT4D community is entrenched in an open source mindset, almost to the extent that closed solutions are scorned upon. Steve Jobs was a strong believer in controlling all aspects of the user experience, all the way from hardware through to software. To him, closed systems were better “integrated” and open systems “fragmented”:
What is best for the customer – integrated versus fragmented? We think this is a huge strength of our system versus Google’s. When selling to people who want their devices to just work, we think integrated wins every time. We are committed to the integrated approach. We are confident it will triumph over Google’s fragmented approach
There is no evidence in ICT4D, I don’t believe, which points towards more success for open solutions vs. closed (however you define success), yet open remains dominant. An early Apple success might give us pause for thought.
4. Time for the field
Although Paul Polak doesn’t work in ICT4D, he is one the biggest proponents of “getting out into the field to understand the needs of your customer”. In his long career he’s interviewed over 3,000 people earning a dollar or less a day to better understand their needs – and the market opportunity. In this short video he talks about the process of spending time in rural villages, talking in depth with villagers, and identifying opportunities for transformative impact.
Apple wouldn’t see the need to do this because they wouldn’t consider the needs of dollar-a-day customers as being any different to anyone else. They’d consider their intuitive design and user interface to be non-culturally specific. People, everywhere, want simple-to-use technologies that just work, regardless of who they are.
5. Appropriate technology
Apple’s product line hardly fits into the appropriate technology model – they’re expensive, power-hungry and the devices are reliant on a computer (via iTunes) as their central controlling “hub”. The systems are also closed, blocking any chance of local innovation around the platform. How Apple tackle this – yet maintain their standards of excellence in design and usability – would probably turn out to be their biggest challenge.
Although it hasn’t happened yet, a post-Steve Jobs Apple might yet develop a philanthropic streak. If they did they could easily turn to their friends at frog design (now branded Frog) for help. Frog, who worked closely with them in the early days of the Macintosh range, have recently worked with a number of ICT4D initiatives and organisations, including Project Masiluleke and UNICEF.
Apple have already reinvented the music and publishing industries. With the talent, capital and resources available I’d bet my bottom dollar on them reinventing ICT4D if they chose to. Steve Jobs liked to “live at the intersection of the humanities and technology”, and that’s exactly the place where ICT4D needs to be.
“Our life is half natural and half technological. Half-and-half is good. You cannot deny that high-tech is progress. We need it for jobs. Yet if you make only high-tech, you make war. So we must have a strong human element to keep modesty and natural life”
Nam June Paik, Artist (1932 – 2006)
There’s a saying in the technology world which asks “What would Google do?”. When I’m confronted with a problem, I’d rather ask “What would nature do?”. Why? Well, if you believe Google have the answer then you’re immediately assuming that modern technology – in some shape or form – is the solution. More often than not that’s the wrong place to start.
I recently sat on a panel at the Aspen Environment Forum which focused on the use of social media in the environmental movement. (You can watch the video here, or read my summary of whole the event here). Many people had already made their minds up that Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and so on were ‘the’ answer, before really thinking through what they were really trying to do, what their message was, or who the different audiences would be. That’s also the wrong place to start.
Asking what nature might do immediately pulls us away from looking for a modern, high-tech solution and more towards a simpler, low-tech (and potentially more appropriate and sustainable) one. It also encourages us to think entirely out-of-the-box.
So, if you were to ask “What might nature do?”, what kind of solutions might you come up with which you otherwise might not have?
Some of my earliest mobile work back in 2003 was in Southern Africa where I was asked to help understand and apply modern communications technology to local conservation efforts. One of the bigger problems people were trying to tackle back then was human-elephant conflict – elephants ‘encroaching’ on farmland and destroying livelihoods literally overnight. In response, some farmers resorted to poisoning or shooting elephants. Not a good conservation outcome.
All kinds of modern technology solutions were proposed, and many trialled, to try and solve the problem. Electric fences, RFID tagging, sensors and live-GSM-tracking among them. Few proved as successful as hoped, or particularly replicable or affordable.
So, what might nature do?
It turns out that elephants run a mile when they encounter bees. According to this BBC article, early research in Kenya indicates hives can be a very effective barrier, so much so that 97% of attempted elephant raids were aborted. Where satellites, RFID tags and mobile phones failed, humble honey bees might just be the answer.
Each summer, as tennis players battle it out on the lawn courts at Wimbledon, the authorities do battle trying to stop pigeons interfering with play. All manner of modern technology is available to deter birds – lasers and radio controlled aircraft to gas guns and ultrasound emitters. Again, each have varying degrees of success and many can be expensive.
What would nature do?
Wimbledon’s answer doesn’t involve anything more high-tech than a bird of prey. A few laps by Rufus around the tennis courts are enough to scare the hardiest of pigeons away. No batteries – or lasers, or sound emitters – required. Simple, sustainable and replicable.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the grandly-named “Waspinator” was a little black box with wires, buttons and flashing lights. No doubt there have been attempts to develop high-tech wasp deterrents in the past, but the Waspinator isn’t one of them. In fact, if you saw one you’d likely be a little disappointed. This particular solution looks like nothing more than a brown paper bag. But don’t be fooled – nature has very much influenced its development.
According to the website:
The Waspinator is a fake wasps nest. Wasps are very territorial and will aggressively defend their nest against wasps from another colony. When a foraging wasp sees another wasps nest it will rapidly leave the area for fear of being attacked by the nest’s defenders.
Wasps have a very long range of vision and when they see a Waspinator they think it’s an enemy wasps nest and quickly leave the area for somewhere safer, leaving the area around the Waspinator completely free of wasps
It couldn’t be simpler. And no moving parts (if you exclude the wasps).
So, drawing on these examples, what five lessons does nature teach us?
1. Understand the context of your target audience/user.
2. Use locally available materials wherever possible.
3. Low-tech is not poor-tech.
4. Keep it simple.
5. The answer is likely already out there.
Next time we look to develop a technology solution to a problem, we might be best asking what nature might do before turning to the likes of Google, or any high-tech solution provider for that matter. Mother Nature usually knows best.