Accidental appropriate technologies

#1: The Amazon Kindle

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.

So, what makes the Kindle so special?

  1. It’s light, relatively rugged, and mobile
  2. Ten days reading time on one charge
  3. One month ‘standby’ time between charges
  4. Solar panel cover option removes the need for mains charging
  5. Built-in dictionary and thesaurus
  6. Display can be read in bright sunlight
  7. Internal storage for up to 200 books
  8. No need for the Internet once books are loaded
  9. Text-to-speech for illiterate/semi-literate users
  10. Costs continue to come down
  11. 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, 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?

What if Apple worked in ICT4D? Reflections on the possible

“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”

Michael Noer, “The Stable Boy and the iPad

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.

Caught on camera [phone]

They say a picture paints a thousand words, and that may be the case. But if they cost the earth or you don’t have permission to use them, they end up painting nothing much at all.

When my mobile ‘career’ kicked off in 2003 with multiple research trips to South Africa and Mozambique, I took the opportunity to start taking and collecting mobile- and technology-related photos. Back then people were beginning to take an interest in the impact of mobile phones on the African continent, and NGOs were looking to use photos on websites or in project proposals, newsletters and presentations. On top of that, people were just generally curious about what was going on.

kiwanja Mobile Gallery

That collection now stands at over 150 photos, and covers everything from people around the world texting or making calls to pictures of shops, signs, mobiles themselves and other interesting examples of mobile entrepreneurship in action. The images are free to use – with citation – by non-profits or any other organisation seeking to profile the social impact of mobile technology. Visit the kiwanja Mobile Gallery for the full gallery of images, and for details on how to credit their use.

The never-ending road to self-improvement

“Once in a while it really hits people that they don’t have to experience the world in the way they have been told to”
Alan Keightley

Sports players are always told they can “do better”. Even championship winning teams are told they can “play better”. A musician’s next album could always “sound better” and Little Johnny at school could always “try a little harder”. We seem to be in a constant state of attempted self-improvement. Are we ever happy with who we are or what we’ve achieved?

Survival is the main preoccupation for a vast majority of the world’s inhabitants. If it’s not yours then you’re one of the lucky ones, like me. Also, like me, you’re likely instead preoccupied with building a career, or “trying to make something of yourself” as people like to put it. We’re brought up to be ambitious and conscientious, to strive to be successful at whatever we choose to do. Society does what it can to equip us along the way. We’re in a hugely priviledged position.

Personally, I’ve always believed that I need to have fully developed at least three ideas before I consider myself a success. I have no idea why I think I need to be a success, or why I think I need to prove myself three times, or even who I’m trying to prove it all to. But I do know that I enjoy building and starting things, so each time I decide to go through the process it’s because I enjoy it.

Despite what we constantly hear, though, it’s not just the “taking part that counts”. Whatever we do has to succeed – or lead us on to something else that does – if we’re to “reach our potential”.

Many social entrepreneurs live in this world. Life is about taking the seed of an idea, building it into something meaningful, and then ideally doing it all over again. Do it just the once and it might be luck. Do it a few times and you’re smart. The problem with this approach is that you never quite know when you’re “there”. At what point do you stop pushing and settle for what you have? Surely it’s not possible to constantly self-improve?

As someone who’s constantly pushing themselves to improve, I think about this a lot. Looking at the Zen Habits website, I’m not alone. Quashing the Self-Improvement Urge is a wonderfully reflective post on the subject, and is well worth a read if you’re in the same boat. As Leo Babauta himself concludes:

Quash the urge to improve, to be better. It only makes you feel inadequate. And then explore the world of contentment. It’s a place of wonderment.

I wonder how well this approach would sit with today’s social entrepreneurs and innovators?