Tim Smit. In tweets.

Tim Smit may be an extraordinary individual, but he’s no ordinary entrepreneur. Founder of The Eden Project – described by some as the “Eighth Wonder of The World” – Tim has taken an unconventional if not fascinating path. By all means read those Business Bibles – but then tear them up. Read Marketing 101 – but then toss it aside. In the sometimes rigid and stuffy world of social entrepreneurship, Tim is a breath of fresh air. And his short talk last weekend at Emerge 2010 in Oxford was nothing short of inspirational.

Courtesy of Twitter, here’s a short summary of a “lucky 13” key points that stood out most for me.

Context: Never forget what you were like as a child. Push the boundaries of your imagination, live out your dreams, find that one thing which truly “switches you on”. And then relentlessly pursue it.

Context: Don’t get caught up in the lingo. Buzzwords mean little if they’re not backed up by very real action.

Context: Inspiration and innovation can happen any time, any place. No person and no structure have exclusive rights over the best ideas. Unconventional can be king. It usually is and, what’s more, it will usually come with the most compelling story.

Context: Seize the moment – it won’t last forever, and there will likely never be a “best time” to execute your idea.

Context: Not everyone will be able to take that “big risk”, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be able to join you on a journey. Inspire others to join you. Don’t travel alone. Build it, and they may just come.

Context: In ICT4D we talk about silos. Take every opportunity to step outside yours. Be open minded. Meet people who, on the surface, have very little in common with you. Explore new horizons. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Context: If you don’t follow your instincts, you may always regret it. Don’t put yourself in that position. Success is just as much about “positive thinking” as “positive doing”.

Context: Make the art of the possible seem possible for everyone. If people can imagine themselves in your shoes then your story will not only resonate, but will gain a reality and life of its very own.

Context: Organisations are only as good as the people who show up every day to work for them.

Context: Actions speak louder than words. Anyone can talk about anything. Creating and building doesn’t happen on the sidelines. Beware of the inexperienced “expert”.

Context: If you have good fortune, pass it on. Use it to help others. Think about who you were, not what you’ve become.

Context: For some people, anything they haven’t had a hand in is rubbish. Quite often, they’ve never actually done anything themselves. Avoid negativity. It’s a cop-out. (Note: Negativity is different to constructive criticism).

Context: Language is EVERYTHING.

This is the second time I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Tim speak. If you ever get the chance, grab it. After all, Tim might be the person you never knew you were meant to meet.

The new face of Kampala

Today, the Kampala skyline is broken by quality four and five star hotels and high-rise office buildings. Mobile phone masts take pride of place on the surrounding hills. The towns are littered with mobile phone shops and kiosks, and a splattering of Internet cafes.

It’s hard to imagine, but when I first came to Uganda in 1995 there was no Internet to speak of, no mobile phone shops, the Sheraton was pretty-much the only place for high-end tourists to stay, and there were few high-rise buildings that I remember. I was also yet to own my first mobile phone.


The folly of “finding what works”

Tuesday 9th November, 2010
Over the past few weeks I’ve found myself drawn into an increasing number of conversations around how we apply models of growth and sustainability to m4d projects. A few early thoughts were posted last week in “
Wrong model. Wrong place“. One symptom of “wrong model wrong place” is the number of pilots which fail to mature into full-blown projects. Another is an obsession with re-inventing wheels and rampant innovation. This post, originally written last June, tackles this issue specifically – and in light of current discussions seemed worth re-posting.

“At what point in the social mobile world do we stop building new things and take stock of what we already have? Is it time to do as we say – “find what works and get it into more hands”, or are we just saying what conference attendees and donors want to hear?

There are more parallels between the approach of “mobiles for development” practitioners and our “traditional development” counterparts than we care to admit. It seems that in a blind rush to innovate we’re borrowing a few too many bad habits from our developmental colleagues when we ought to be identifying and applying best practices. Some time ago, I raised a number of these issues in a challenging blog post entitled “Time to eat our own dog food?“.

Little has changed since then, and many people are already well into their second bowl.

Image courtesy MontanaRaven on Flickr

As with the confusion caused by multiple interpretations of sustainable development, the social mobile space is struggling with its own definitions of  concepts such as collaboration, empowerment, scale, “enabling environment” and “finding what works”. We hear these terms on a daily basis, yet we never stop to ask what they really mean. What does an “enabling environment” really look like, and do we really need one like people say we do? Who decides what scale really means, and how important scaling really is? We all nod in agreement when people use these terms at conferences, but refrain from questioning them through fear of appearing ignorant.

The “folly of finding what works” strikes particular resonance. Although mobiles for development has only been around for a few short years, surely by now we’ve identified at least a few things that work? Isn’t that the purpose of all these reports, blog posts, tweets, projects, conferences, workshops, barcamps and academic studies?

Image courtesy "_sarchi" on Flickr

Without a shadow of a doubt we have fairly strong evidence that certain approaches and tools create real social change. The problem is that, once we identify them, rather than collaborate and “get what works out into more places” like we say we need to, we see a flurry of activity to build copy-cat tools and services. Very soon we’re going to have more crowd-sourcing tools, or SMS hubs, or community sites, or data collection tools, or toolkits, or fancy reports, or in-depth studies than we can throw a mobile at. Calls for ‘competition’ and a rich ecosystem are all very well, but not if it comes at the expense of the communities where these kinds of tools are desperately needed today.

After six years-or-so of social mobile, we’re surely at the point where we can throw some real resources around at least a few tools? Surely we can pool our collective skills, knowledge and resources into helping at least a few reach their full social change potential? Instead of sitting around talking about our commitment to social mobile, we need to show our true colours and act, regardless of who gets credit for those actions.

At the end of the day it comes down to this. If mobiles truly are as revolutionary and empowering as they appear to be – particularly in the lives of some of the poorest members of society – then it’s hard to argue against us having a moral duty – competition, ego and status aside – to see that they fulfill that potential.

Quite rightly we will ultimately be judged on what we do, not what we say. I, for one, 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? A wasted, or unnecessarily delayed opportunity?

Let’s hope not. The clock is ticking, though.”

Wrong model. Wrong place.

If conventional wisdom were anything to go by, this is what might typically happen to a social entrepreneur with an idea:

Said entrepreneur comes up with an idea. Entrepreneur puts together a sample budget and an early-stage business model. Funding is sought for a pilot or prototype. Said pilot runs and impact/results are measured. If the signs are good, entrepreneur goes back to his or her donor, seeks increased funding, then scales. Said project becomes financially sustainable (or not) during the new funding period. Based on proven impact, sustainability and/or long term investor interest, said project either remains and grows or joins others in the giant “failed business ideas” graveyard in the sky.

Although this approach may be fine in the wider world of social entrepreneurship, it begins to struggle whenever there’s a strong ICT4D component, or where the individuals with the ideas aren’t social entrepreneurs at all but technologists or development workers out in the field. Despite making little sense applying the same model to both scenarios, this is precisely what often happens. Welcome to the world of “one size fits all”.

The realities of innovation in ICT4D are often very different to those elsewhere. For a start, the best ideas are not necessarily seeded in a lab, or a business school, or the global headquarters of a large international company. Workers on the front lines of conservation, human rights, disaster response or agricultural development often have to adapt and innovate based on the realities of their experiences in the field. Ideas that end up “sticking” don’t benefit from the process and order of the conventional “social entrepreneurship” approach. Business models and impact metrics all come a distant second to developing an appropriate solution to a very real problem, whatever and wherever that may be.

In reality, this may be a more sensible way of going about things. Only people who show initiative – and ideas which show promise – rise to the surface, and only then do others put time and money into figuring out how to best build on them. But as if there weren’t enough to do, inflicting foreign entrepreneurship models on a technology innovation which is at best a bad fit simply adds to the confusion. It’s time we recognised that adopting an approach based on “scale, sustainability and impact” doesn’t always make sense. One size doesn’t fit all, and ICT4D warrants a new approach.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few weeks thinking about this. Despite the promise, there are still far more mobile pilots than fully fledged, long term projects. Far more failed and lost projects than successful, ongoing ones. And too many people assessing success or failure based on potentially flawed, misleading or irrelevant metrics.

In short, we need to acknowledge three new (hard) realities in our field:

  1. Not all projects will have business models
  2. Not all projects will be financially sustainable
  3. Not all projects will be able to measure impact

So, where does this leave us? Well, we can at least acknowledge that applying conventional entrepreneurship models to mobile-for-development might be decreasing rather than increasing our chances of success. That financial sustainability may or may not be possible. And that figuring out precise impact may or may not be realistic or achievable. “Failure” on these fronts does not make a bad project. If it did then there’s a very large number of bad projects out there.

For me, this “ongoing failure” more likely indicates a flawed model, and a bad way of measuring success. We need a new model, and one of our own. Because – as the advert reminds us – we’re worth it…