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.

Going… Going… Gone.

I’m not the kind of person who tends to get easily attached to material things, but this was a little different. Since my second month at Stanford – way back in October 2006 – this particular “material thing” has been my home, kiwanja’s North American HQ and my Sunday morning ride to Trader Joes, Peets Coffee and the laundrette. Until today, that is.

I decided soon after arriving in California to get a VW camper, not just because it was going to work out better on my finances but because I felt that living the simple life in the complex Stanford environment would keep me focussed and “real”. It became apparent after my first few days here that it would be very easy to get caught up in a place like this, very easy to lose focus and forget why I was here, and I didn’t want that to happen to me. I blogged about my thoughts last summer, as my Fellowship came to an end and many of my friends returned to their own particular corners of the globe.

Now, with just two weeks left here at Stanford myself, it was time to move on. The van had to go. I didn’t realise it, but last night literally was my last night.

This was the van I retired to late at night after a long day working on my – and the other Fellows – projects. It was the van which kept me warm during one of the coldest winters in California for a century, and the van in which I read numerous Africa and technology books, strategising my future direction. It was the van that brought me NPR radio and an hour of the BBC World Service each evening, and the van in which I lay while I edited and re-edited my proposal for the new FrontlineSMS. It was my home when I got my first ever grant, from the MacArthur Foundation last summer, and pretty-much the only home I have known since moving here.

This old van has been very much a part of my life here as have the people, the places, the coffee and the Fellowship. I had dreams of keeping it, storing it away somewhere and coming back for it some day, or shipping it over to England. But none of this was ever really that sensible, because at the end of the day this van was only really meant to keep me real, right?

Job done, I’d say.

Walking the walk

“It’ll never work…”
“What a fantastic idea!”
“Masterstroke – we should all do that”
“You’ll freeze”
“I wouldn’t admit to doing that, if I were you…”

So it was, back in late October 2006, that I moved out of my $750-a-month rented room in Los Altos into a 1983 VW Westfalia Camper Van. Swapping a very comfortable room in a million dollar-plus home for a small van, as winter approached, could have ranked anywhere between “Crazy” and “Masterstroke”, but it was something I felt I had to do. I never really intended talking about it, but I’ve been prompted by many friends and a Knight Fellow who decided to write about it for a Brazilian newspaper.

So, as I enter my ninth month in the van (and my final week at Stanford), now seems a good-a-time as any to explain myself. And for someone who’s generally not short of words this has been a surprisingly difficult blog entry to write.

The initial catalyst for the move was purely financial, something few of us can ever escape. Each of the Fellows on my Program were required to fund their own living expenses, estimated at somewhere around $20,000 over the nine months. I was never going to let a lack of money stop me from taking up this huge opportunity, but when it became clear in early October that funds might become tight, using my hard-earned cash to acquire an asset (rather than paying off someone else’s mortgage) made sense. I could then sell it at the end and live almost rent-free. A search through Craigslist followed by a highly eventful bank holiday weekend drive down to Long Beach, California – the subject of another Blog entry sometime – turned my vision into reality. I handed in notice to my landlord the Sunday morning I left to collect the van, and lead a double-life for three weeks before finally moving out later that month.

The second reason – and part of the third, come to that – are a little less clear-cut, and maybe trickier to explain or understand because of it. For those of you who haven’t had the opportunity to visit Silicon Valley or Stanford campus, it is a place of extreme privilege. It’s clean, everything works, it’s all fantastically resourced, everything seems new, the architecture is stunning, the place is awash with amazingly clever people, and it looks rich. And why shouldn’t it? Last year they managed to raise close to a billion dollars and it ranks among one of the top universities in the world. It’s a real privilege to be here among only a couple of hundred Visiting Fellows, make no mistake. But when you put it all together it makes for something which doesn’t quite seem real to me at all. Just as I’ve always found it difficult discussing third world development issues in posh five-star hotels and conference rooms, coming to a place like this can easily make you lose focus. I didn’t want to. My way of keeping it real was to live a more basic, lean existence. It’s important to remember why you’re in a place like this, what got you here, and who and what it is you’re ultimately working to achieve. It’s not about how comfortable I can make my life, after all. Rightly or wrongly I struggle with rich pop stars banging on about the immorality of world poverty when they simply head back to hill-top mansions in their chauffeur driven cars when they’re done. kiwanja has made many fans over the past year, and I strongly believe this is because of its down-to-earth philosophy. Actions speak louder than words, and people can relate to what I believe in and what I do, and how I do it.

At the same time – and this is part of the third and final reason – I also wanted to show that anything is possible if you remain true to your vision, focus, passion and goals. That you don’t necessarily need tens of thousands of dollars to make a place like this work for you, or a privileged upbringing, or friends in high places. Why, you can even choose not to conform and still make it. Doors which seem shut are usually just ajar. A little confident nudge is often all it takes. But first you have to find the door.

I’ve always maintained that true change in the world will come through the collective action of the masses, driven not by high profile international charities, or film stars, or musicians or politicians but by everyday people themselves. I’ve blogged about this in the past. People just need to know that things are possible. Interviews with the BBC, industry award nominations, invitations to speak at conferences, specialist panel invitations and a major MacArthur grant.

Yes, anything is possible.

Analogy of a Fellowship

I’ve never done a real marathon – I find jogging mind-numbingly boring – but metaphorically speaking I’ve been running one for the past fourteen years. A journey which started accidentally back in 1993 reaches a major milestone tomorrow as this year’s Reuters Digital Vision Program winds down. The pace will then slow a little for the next few weeks, but picks up again after a short summer break back home in the UK. Thanks to a generous MacArthur Foundation grant work begins on the next stage of FrontlineSMS in the autumn, returning me to Stanford.

It’s been an incredible nine months, and it’s exceeded all expectations. My top five moments? Well, let me see. In no particular order…

1. Before leaving Cambridge last September I took out a ‘single-trip’ health insurance policy, not expecting to be going anywhere else for the foreseeable future. How wrong I was. A conference invitation in Bangalore came up just three months into my Fellowship, to be closely followed by a workshop in New Delhi, another conference in Canada and then a final workshop in Kenya last month. In the middle of all of that was a visit to the University of Arizona but, being in the States, that doesn’t count. Positive change number one: An increase in invitations to ‘industry’ events. Lesson number one: Take out multiple trip insurance policies in future.

2. Having the opportunity to learn from some of the most talented people around has to be Positive change number two. The great thing about this Program is that it brings in some of the brightest stars from developing countries and gives them full access to the ‘Stanford machine’. The opportunity is huge and those who get invited along are the very people best suited to take advantage of it. Me, for my part, crashed the party under the guise of a support person (or Collaboration Fellow, in Program-speak) but have been helpful enough for no-one to really notice or mind!

3. Without doubt the increase in visibility of my work has been enormous, and ‘Positive change number one’ is testament to that. My website has been around for over four years, and in true organic fashion has been gradually stumbled upon by numerous ICT practitioners, the mobile industry, NGOs, academics and the general public. Positive change number three is therefore my website, which has shot from an average of under 1,000 hits per day to 4,000 now. Not quite a YouTube, I know, but it’s a start…

4. Positive change number four was having my ‘Erik moment’ back in April. An ‘Erik moment’, in the context of the Digital Vision Program, is “a sudden and unexpected event which elevates exposure, and interest, in your project to international level”. (By the way, the phenomenon is named after Erik Sundelof, a 2006 Fellow and now good friend who was working on his citizen blog/journalism site when Israel invaded Lebanon after the seizure of a couple of their soldiers. Erik’s site became an avenue for Lebanese civilians to report what was happening, via their mobile phones, and let the world know how the war was affecting them personally). My ‘Erik moment’ came on Friday 20th April when the BBC announced to the world that my FrontlineSMS system was to be used that weekend to help monitor the Nigerian Presidential elections. Very few people, however hard they work at something, are lucky enough to get 15 minutes of fame, never mind courtesy of the BBC. I was, and will be eternally grateful for it (and the work of the Nigerian NGO, NMEM, who carried out the project on the ground). FrontlineSMS has since been used to help monitor the Philippine elections, and discussions are underway for it to be used in Kenya later this year.

5. Last, but not least, funding becomes Positive change number five. Through the increased exposure in my work, the chance to mix with some great people on this Program and, of course my ‘Erik moment’, the MacArthur Foundation now take my work to a whole new level by announcing a $200,000 grant for FrontlineSMS. Coming as it did, during the last week of the Program, it’s been the icing on the cake of an amazing nine months here.

The challenge now is to match this when I return in September. Sadly, it won’t be with Marvin, Cathy, Shashank, Isha, John, Edgardo, Nam, Netika, Steve, Adam, Hernan, Fabiana, Neil, Neerja and Atif.

But a Fellowship is forever, right? And we always have Facebook