ICT4D students: The world is your classroom

It seems courses in business and innovation are getting a hard time these days. First, Peter Jones, a 49-year-old serial entrepreneur in the UK, said he believed that hands-on experience was far more valuable to potential business leaders than several years studying theory in a lecture theatre. Then we had the likes of Peter Thiel, Scott Cook and Elon Musk telling us they believed business school graduates were hurting, rather than helping, innovation.

If we’re overstating the role of education in entrepreneurship and innovation, are we doing the same with social innovation and ICT4D?

Most people working in technology-for-development seem to agree the field isn’t in the best of health, with a whole range of problems persisting since the birth of the discipline decades ago. We have a constant stream of books telling us how we’re failing, without anything really changing. The technology toolkit expands and shifts, sure, but the difficulties we have in applying and implementing it stays the same. Is the way we’re ‘teaching people to do ICT4D’ part of the problem?

Empathy is a key step in the education process, but one we often skip (image via edsi.org.uk)

Empathy is a key step in the education process, but one we often skip (image via edsi.org.uk)

In The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator, I shared my concerns with what I saw as the institutionalisation of social change (which includes the broader global development and technology-for-development fields). The essence of the book began to develop during my time at Stanford University where I became increasingly exposed to social entrepreneurship, social innovation and design thinking as academic disciplines. I found myself meeting increasing numbers of smart young people looking to colleges and universities to equip them with the skills they felt they needed to ‘go out and change the world’.

I was a bit taken aback. You didn’t need qualifications to change the world, did you? Often I’d dig deeper and ask what they wanted to do when they graduated. Answers such as ‘I want to be a social entrepreneur’ perplexed me. Few people I know in the messy, often frustrating world of social entrepreneurship ever set out with the explicit aim of becoming one. Rather, they stumbled across a problem, a wrong or a market inefficiency which bothered them to such an extent that they decided to dedicate much – if not all – of their lives to putting it right. It was rarely, if ever, part of a wider plan.

Many of the students I met were unlikely to experience that problem, wrong, injustice or market inefficiency within the walls of their college or university. And, worse, many had never even stepped foot in the villages and communities they were aspiring to help. I agree that teaching the mechanics of social innovation or ICT4D may be helpful, yes, but only if matched with passion, and a cause, to which people can apply it, and genuine experience and empathy with – and for – the people you wish to help.

What I was witnessing at Stanford, and almost everywhere I have been since, was the increasing institutionalisation of social entrepreneurship and social innovation. This is unhelpful on many fronts, not to mention that it could easily be seen as a barrier by many motivated young people unable to take a course. Worse still, it implied that social change was a well- thought out process, when in reality it isn’t.

Bushbuckridge. Photo: Ken Banks

In ICT4D we’re so fixed on the technology – the ICT bit – that we often forget the ‘D’ – that minor inconvenience we call ‘development’. Fewer and fewer people seem to be making the effort to teach or learn the D, and this is a huge problem. It’s almost arrogant, and certainly disrespectful, to imply you can help people far far away you have never spoken to, and whose country, let alone village, you have never been to.

The first thing we should be teaching ICT4D students is development – the state of the world, how we got there, and what it means for the billions of people who for no fault of their own are on the receiving end of a life in poverty. Sure, getting on a plane and actually going somewhere for a few months (longer ideally) is difficult. But that’s no excuse for not doing it. For people who can’t, there are likely many problems in their own communities they could turn their attention to.

If we’re to fix ICT4D then the best place to start is by properly educating the ICT4D practitioners of tomorrow. If we don’t then little will change, and change is what we need.

Pitching social entrepreneurship in the Den

Earlier this week I was invited to London to spend an hour talking to the twenty-five “Join Our Core” semi-finalists, a social entrepreneurship competition set up through a collaboration between Ben & Jerry’s, Ashoka UK and VSO. It’s vital that we not only continue to encourage and inspire young people into the field, but that we also put support structures in place to enable them to build on – and take – their ideas forward. This event did both.

The location could not have been better – the home of the BBC’s “Dragons Den” – a TV series where entrepreneurs (not usually the social variety) pitch business ideas to five dragons (aka investors) in the hope of walking out with cash in exchange for equity in their fledgling business. Often a daunting scene, it was made less intimidating with the addition of a Ben & Jerry’s banner, more casual seating and a splattering of cow bean bags, plastic cows, bails of hay and, of course, free ice cream.

By the time I arrived in the early afternoon most of the entrepreneurs had pitched their ideas but I did manage to catch the last half-dozen or so. The Den was out of bounds so I joined the other entrepreneurs, and Ashoka and Ben & Jerry’s staff, in one of the other rooms where we all watched intently on a big screen.

It was a real honour to be given the chance to spend time with the entrepreneurs and talk to them about their business ideas. The range of ideas and projects may have been wide and varied, but the maturity, passion and commitment that each showed in their work bound them all. Anyone who reads my blog will know how much emphasis I place on helping young people see through their ideas and dreams, and how important I believe it is that we help them reach their potential. Three years ago, in “Enabling the inspiration generation“, I wrote:

If we can help anyone on their journey, then we should. Whether that be giving advice or a positive critique on an idea, helping raise awareness through blog posts, giving tips on fundraising, making introductions to other projects and people with the same interests, or offering to be a future soundboard as their ideas grow and develop. These are all things I didn’t have when I started out, and using them productively now that I do is one of the biggest contributions I believe I can – and should – make to the future growth of our discipline. Our legacy shouldn’t be measured in the projects or tools we create, but in the people we serve and inspire

My talk, which at an hour is about twice as long as I usually get, focused on a range of topics from reluctant innovation to grassroots innovation, my background, the humble beginnings (and current impact) of FrontlineSMS, things which I feel define me and my work, and lessons I’ve learnt along the way. These included:

  1. Don’t be in a hurry. Grow your organisation on your own terms.
  2. Don’t assume you need money to grow. Do what you can before you reach out to external funders.
  3. Volunteers and Interns may not be the silver bullet to your human resource issues.
  4. Pursue and maximise every opportunity to promote your work.
  5. Remember that your website, for most people, is the primary window to you and your idea.
  6. Know when to say “no”. Manage expectations.
  7. Avoid being dragged down by the politics of the industry you’re in. Save your energy for more important things.
  8. Learn to do what you can’t afford to pay other people to do.
  9. Be open with the values that drive you.
  10. Collaborate if it’s in the best interests of solving your problem, even if it’s not in your best interests.
  11. Make full use of your networks, and remember that the benefits of being in them may not always be immediate.
  12. Remember the bigger picture.

During the early part of the evening the fifteen finalists were announced. In reality, there were no losers – all of the projects and ideas were worthy in their own right, and as I pointed out at the start of my talk, many entrepreneurs I know would have given their right arm to be at “Join Our Core”. By simply taking their ideas and turning them into something tangible, they had already elevated themselves into the top few percent.

The fifteen finalists will be off to Uganda in August to take part in the final challenge. The projects that made it through are:

Archipelago. One of the largest communities of young entrepreneurs in Western Europe. They help young people create sophisticated businesses through events, think tanks and crowd sourced funding initiatives.

Biochar. A product created from burning waste materials such as manure and wood in the absence of oxygen in a process called pyrolysis. The outcome is a charcoal substance but unlike regular charcoal biochar has been proven to enhance soil condition, crop yield and it sequesters carbon for up to 1,000 years making it carbon negative.

Elevation Networks. An award winning youth employment charity that seeks to develop the leadership potential of young people to increase their employability.

Elvis & Kresse. Creators of stunning life-style accessories by re-engineering seemingly useless wastes. The raw material for their principal range is genuine de-commissioned British fire brigade hoses.

FairMail. A social enterprise producing fair-trade greeting cards. The pictures on the cards are taken by at-risk teenagers in Peru, India (and soon Morocco).

FoodCycle. Building communities by combining volunteers, surplus food and a spare kitchen space to create nutritious meals for people at risk from food poverty.

Hackney Pirates. Transforming the who, where and what of learning. They give kids intensive 1-1 support from volunteers, to work on projects that matter, in an unconventional learning environment.

!SYOU. Introducing the new way of walking. Unique sneakers produced in collaboration with DAC-listed nations.

Mattecentrum. Tutors around 70.000 young people in math every month – for free.

ONEforONE. A social enterprise in The Netherlands that sells water bottles, health insurances and green energy on a ‘buy one give one’-basis.

Play31. Using the unifying power of football to bring together people who have been torn apart by war.

Retoy. Creating experiences and places where children learn about the environment, sustainable consumption and children’s rights in a joyful way through toys and play.

Rubies in the Rubble. Making the tastiest chutney and the fruitiest jam in the nicest possible way at the same time as addressing social issues of unemployment, social exclusion and waste.

Ruby Cup. Improving menstrual hygiene and raising the quality of life of women and girls worldwide.

SuperHoney. Putting beehives into schools to teach kids about bees, the environment and food, and providing much-needed homes for millions of British bees.

You can find out more on each of these projects, and the competition itself, on the “Join Our Core” website, or follow on Twitter via the #JoinOurCore hashtag.

In search of reluctant innovators

After returning from the 2011 Global Competitiveness Forum in Riyad last January, I started pulling together a few thoughts on something I’d been pondering for some time – “reluctant innovation”. That first post paved the way for further work, and more recently a guest article in Wired Magazine in the UK called “Genius happens when you plan something else”. You can read that here.

Reluctant innovators are people who unexpectedly come up with an innovative solution to a problem they’ve experienced or witnessed, one which has angered, bugged, disturbed or frustrated them so much that they end up dedicating much of their lives to solving it. They’re innovators, but not through choice, since they never set out to innovate.

In my Wired article I give two examples of reluctant innovators:

One evening in 1996, Brij Kothari was watching a DVD of Pedro Almodóvar’s “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” with friends in Ithaca, New York. The dialogue was in Spanish and the subtitles in English. Out of nowhere an idea popped into his head. As a Spanish language learner, he wished the subtitles were also in Spanish. Turning his attention home, he wondered whether India could become literate if Bollywood-made Hindi films and songs were shown with the lyrics subtitled in Hindi.

The idea behind same language subtitling – or SLS – was born. Today, thanks to Brij’s organization Planet Read, Indian primary school children numbering in the hundreds of millions are learning basic literacy by simply watching their favourite television programmes. Not bad for something conjured up in front of a Saturday night movie.

Then there’s Laura Stachel, whose organisation – WE CARE Solar – designs portable solar lighting kits for maternity wards in developing countries. When she first headed out to Nigeria she planned to work on a different problem altogether, but quickly realised that a simple lack of lighting was responsible for an unacceptable number of mother and child deaths. Maternal mortality rates in Nigeria are among the highest in the world, with a ratio of 1,100 maternal deaths occurring for every 100,000 live births, so she turned her attention to helping design, build and distribute solar kits to solve it. “As an American doctor, it was inconceivable that a hospital could function without reliable electricity. The lack of lighting for a cesarean section was a problem I had never imagined”.

Laura never intended to build and run an organisation, and never chose to become a solar innovator, but seeing a problem she felt compelled to fix, she reluctantly became one. Solar Suitcases are now saving the lives of mothers and babies in hundreds of delivery rooms throughout the developing world.

The more I read about innovation the more I wonder how rare – or ubiquitous – reluctant innovators are. Not only that, I’m beginning to realise how inspiring many of these stories are – ordinary people with little or no track record in innovation or product development beating all the odds to not only create a truly innovative solution to a social ill, but also a successful organisation to effectively deliver it.

Do you know a reluctant innovator? Are you one yourself? If the answer to either question is yes, I’d love to include theirs (or your) story in a new book I’m pulling together. If you’d like to talk, leave a comment below or reach out to me directly through the kiwanja.net website.


Business by numbers: Entrepreneurship

Late Tuesday afternoon, while I was strolling through Ottawa International Airport on my way back from a conference, a magazine title jumped out at me from one of the airport newsagents. It was called Inc.

If I were asked to describe it, I’d say it was a bit like “Wired for entrepreneurs”. If you’re into business, startups, entrepreneurship (and, yes, social entrepreneurship) I’d say it’s a must-read. You can check out Inc.’s website here.

One of the many gems in the current March edition is this infographic, which I thought was well worth sharing.

Click here for a larger version, and while you’re at it go on over to the Inc. website and subscribe. I will be.