Spirituality, being human, and how to change the world.

“Despite all of the ghastliness in the world, human beings are made for goodness. The ones that are held in high regard are not militarily powerful, nor even economically prosperous. They have a commitment to try and make the world a better place”Archbishop Desmond Tutu

I’ve been home for about three weeks since leaving the Unreasonable at Sea ship in India. I spent just over a month helping mentor eleven technology startups which, if that was all I’d done, would have been a fantastic experience. What really stood out for me, though, was the interaction with the hundreds of students aboard, and a stronger sense than ever of how important it is that we encourage, engage, support and mentor the next generation of planetary problem solvers (something I’ve written about before). As if that wasn’t enough, the trip gave me the chance to re-immerse myself in the kinds of environments that were responsible for starting me on my own journey back in 1993. Witnessing suffering and hardship, and countless young children denied a childhood in India, Myanmar and Vietnam, reminds me that there’s still much work to be done.

Spirituality plays a large part in what drives me, and I’ve tried to capture some of this before. It’s not just a subject I find incredibly interesting, but one which puts humanity and purpose back at the centre of development (something which has become increasingly cold and institutionalised). I’ve never thought of helping people as a career. For me it was a way of life, a deeper purpose. So it was a huge honour to be invited to sit on a panel with Archbishop Desmond Tutu to talk about “how we change the world” aboard the MV Explorer. A big thanks to Tori Hogan (who was also on the panel) for inviting me to take part.

I’ve had something of a crazy time over the past few years, finding myself in all sorts of places I felt I had no right to be (National Geographic and No. 10 Downing Street, for example). Having the chance to chat with the Archbishop on a number of occasions during my time aboard the ship is another highlight, and the one hour discussion in front of a packed auditorium was the icing on the cake.

This video is also available on the main kiwanja website, and via Semester at Sea (hosts of the Unreasonable at Sea programme).

Here’s to making the world a better place. For all of us.

2013: The end of sustainability?

One of the most interesting comments I’ve read for while came in this article by Andrew Zolli for the New York Times, written in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy late last year:

Today, precisely because the world is so increasingly out of balance, the sustainability regime is being quietly challenged, not from without, but from within. Among a growing number of scientists, social innovators, community leaders, nongovernmental organisations, philanthropies, governments and corporations, a new dialogue is emerging around a new idea, resilience: How to help vulnerable people, organisations and systems persist, perhaps even thrive, amid unforeseeable disruptions. Where sustainability aims to put the world back into balance, resilience looks for ways to manage in an imbalanced world.

Having spent a large part of my career working in and around environmentalism and conservation (see an earlier post on lessons learnt in primate conservation), a reality-check of ‘sustainability’ is something I’ve had on my mind for a while. With its arch enemy – population growth – driving ever-upward, I’ve often wondered whether we’re just stalling for time or delaying the inevitable. The problem with this school of thought, of course, is that it’s considered by many to be defeatist, particularly by those in the actual business of conservation and environmental protection.

Technology allows us to stretch the limits of what’s possible – grow significantly more food per acre, or live in climates we were never meant to live in – all activities which make us feel comfortable about the world and the places we live within it. Much of this technology has become invisible. We no longer think about the innovations that allow us to grow more, or healthier, food. Or those that get electricity to our homes, or the satellites that help get cars and planes from A to B. It’s only when we don’t have access to these things that we suddenly realise how exposed and dependent we are on them. Surviving technological meltdown is the subject of a wide number of books, including the aptly-titled “When Technology Fails” by Matthew Stein.

The environmental movement (which is to all intents and purposes linked to sustainability) is around forty years old. Its birth is widely linked to the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring“, her seminal book which argued against the increasing use of pesticides in farming. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t hugely popular within the ranks of the chemical industry, but it did spur the birth of grassroots environmentalism which in turn lead to the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). If pesticide use continued, Carson argued, Springs of the future would be void of bird life, amongst others (hence the title).

In another of my favourite books, “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed“, Jared Diamond graphically illustrates what happens to communities and civilisations which live beyond their means. We can learn a lot from history, but today not enough of us are listening. Our world population of over seven billion is already two to three times higher than what’s sustainable and, according to the World Population Balance website, recent studies have shown that the Earth’s resources are enough to sustain only about two billion people at most European’s current standard of living. In short, we’re in trouble.

During a recent talk at Pop!Tech I highlighted two things that I thought needed to change. First, we need to get people to listen and take interest, but not in the way the wider non-profit movement has historically tried to get us to (i.e. guilt-based education). Second, we need to rethink our relationships with local business, local resources, and each other. You can watch that ten minute talk below, and find out more of what we’ll be up to on the soon-to-launch Means of Exchange website.

As I admit at the start of my talk, I have more questions than answers right now. But I do know that, with the current economic climate, conditions are better than they’ve ever been to get people to rethink their relationship with money, resources and each other. These may not directly impact the environmental or sustainability agenda, but the secondary benefit of people making better use of the human, social, financial and environmental capital around them almost certainly will.

An inconvenient truth?

Exactly ten years ago this month I was preparing for my first ever piece of work in mobile, two years of work which would lead to the development of an innovative conservation service in 2003 – wildlive! – and the release of one of the earliest reports [PDF] on the application of mobile technology in conservation and development in 2004. A lot has happened since then, not least an explosion in interest, buzz, excitement – and, yes, hype – and a sense that mobile can be the saviour of, well, everything. Back then you’d likely be able to fit everyone working in mobile-for-development (m4d) into a small cafe. Today you’d need at least a football stadium. m4d – and it’s big brother, ICT4D – have become big business.

Not that I needed more proof of mobile’s status at development’s top table, earlier this week I attended Vodafone’s “Mobile for Good” Summit in London. It was a high-profile affair, and an extremely upbeat one at that. I left with mixed feelings about where m4d is headed.

My five takeaways after a day of talks, debates and demonstrations were:

1. Everyone is still excited by the potential of mobile
2. The same projects surface over and over again as proof mobile works
3. Mobile is still largely seen as a solution, not a tool

4. It’s up to the developed world to get mobile working for the poor
5. The top-down mindset is alive and well

Suffice to say, all of these conclusions troubled me as I sat on the train home.

I’ve been thinking for some time about the future of m4d, and how far we’ve got over the past ten years or so. I’ve written frequently about the opportunities mobile technology offers the development community, and my fears that we may end up missing a golden opportunity (see Time to eat our own dog food?” from March 2009). I’ve long been a champion of platforms, and understanding how we might build tools for problem owners to take and deploy on their own terms. Yes, we should provide local entrepreneurs and grassroots non-profits with tools – and where appropriate and requested, expertise – but we shouldn’t develop solutions to problems we don’t understand, we shouldn’t take ownership of a problem that isn’t ours and we certainly shouldn’t build things thousands of miles away and then jump on a plane in search of a home for them.

But this is still, on the whole, what seems to be happening. And this, I’m beginning to believe, is rapidly becoming ICT4D’s “inconvenient truth”.

A fulfilled future for ICT4D (of which m4d is an increasingly dominant part) is not the one I see playing out today. It’s future is not in the hands of western corporates or international NGOs meeting in high-profile gatherings, and it’s not in our education establishments who keep busy training computer scientists and business graduates in the West to fix the problems of ‘others’. The whole development agenda is shifting, and my prediction for the future sees a major disconnect between what ‘we’ think needs to be done, and what those closest to the problems think needs to be done. Call it “disruptive development“, if you like. As I told the Guardian in an interview earlier this month:

The rise of homegrown solutions to development problems will be most crucial in future. That means African software developers increasingly designing and developing solutions to African problems, many of which have previously been tackled by outsiders. This, I think, will be the biggest change in how development is ‘done’

I’m not the only person to be saying this. Many good friends working at the intersection of African development and technology have been doing the same for some time. The real change, and the big difference, is that it’s finally happening. A message which was previously given in hope, a message that was previously given out of an inherent belief that there was a better, more respectful and appropriate way of doing things, is now becoming reality. ICT4D is changing, and the balance of power is changing with it.

FrontlineSMS has always spoken to an approach I’ve long believed in, one where users are empowered to develop solutions to their own problems if they so wish. There are many reasons why FrontlineSMS continues to work – the decision of the new Management Team to shift software development to Nairobi is one of the more recent ones. But fundamentally it’s about what the platform does (and doesn’t do) that really resonates with innovators, entrepreneurs, non-profits and problem owners across the developing world. As the Guardian put it in the recent article, “As open-source technology for mobile platforms, innovations like FrontlineSMS are essentially a blank canvas for grassroots organisations to apply to any local context”.

That local context is becoming increasingly vibrant as university students across Africa graduate with Computer Science and Business Management degrees; as innovation hubs spring up across the continent meeting a growing, insatiable demand for places to meet, work and network with like-minded problem solvers and entrepreneurs; and as investors launch funds that show they’re starting to take young African tech startups seriously.

This activity hasn’t escaped big business. Google, IBM, Microsoft, Nokia, Hewlett Packard and Samsung have been opening offices across the continent, snapping up much of the talent in the process (ironically often at the expense – and despair – of locally-based NGOs). But while technology businesses take note and develop local capacity that enables them to develop more appropriate local solutions, the broader development ‘community’ seem trapped in an older mindset of technology transfer.

Technology transfer, of course, is big business – there’s no shortage of donor money out there for projects that seek to implement the latest and greatest proven Western innovations in a development context, and there are countless tens of thousands of jobs that keep the whole machine running. A lot has to change if the development community is to face up to all its new realities, yet it’s looking more likely that the destiny of the discipline lies in the hands of the very people it originally set out to help.

So, if the future of ICT4D is not university students, NGOs or business graduates devising solutions in labs and hubs thousands of miles away from their intended users, what is it?

Well, how about something a little more like this?

It seems rather obvious to put a local technology entrepreneur on a bus and have him chat to a rural farmer, but imagine what might be possible if this approach became the “new ICT4D”, not that the entrepreneur or the farmer would see it as that, or ‘development’ at all. You can see more of the fascinating TV series which linked local technologists to local problems on the TVE website. There’s a lot that’s right with this approach, particularly if you consider what would usually happen (hint: it involves planes).

I’m not usually one for making predictions but it is that time of year, after all, and it is my ten year anniversary in mobile. So here’s a biggie.

Development is changing, powered by accessible and affordable liberating technologies and an emerging army of determined, local talent. A local talent that is gradually acquiring the skills, resources and support it needs to take back ownership of many of its problems – problems it never took original ownership of because those very skills and resources were not available.

Well, now they are. The ICT4D community – education establishments, donors and technologists among them – need to collectively recognise that it needs to ajdust to this new reality, and work with technologists, entrepreneurs and grassroots non-profits across the developing world to accelerate what has become an inevitable shift. Or it can continue as it is, and become increasingly irrelevant. “Innovate or die” doesn’t just apply to the technologies plied by the ICT4D community. It applies to the ICT4D community itself.

[This post was edited down and republished in the Stanford Social Innovation Review in January 2013 here].

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

Means of Exchange at Pop!Tech

Last month I returned to the US for one of my favourite annual events – Pop!Tech. It’s generally an opportunity to be re-inspired, meet old friends and help out as a Faculty member on the Social Innovation Fellows Program. This year I had the added opportunity of giving the first public talk on my latest project, Means of Exchange.

You can watch the eleven-minute talk here, or on the Pop!Tech website.

For further details, and to receive updates as we roll the project out, check out the Means of Exchange website, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.

You can watch more talks and listen to a selection of radio interviews on the kiwanja.net website.