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.