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.

Technology and the democratisation of development

I was recently invited to contribute an article to BBC Future‘s A Matter of Life and Tech, a series which features a “range of voices from people helping to build Africa’s tech future”. In the article, I argue that technology has become a vital tool in the fight against poverty, allowing people to participate in development in ways never previously possible. The original article is not available in the UK due to licensing restrictions.

Twenty years ago, if you were information technology-literate and interested in international development, your options were limited.

That’s how things were for me when, in 1993, armed with ten years programming and networking experience I began turning my attention to the developing world.

My efforts didn’t get me far. The information technology revolution we see today had barely started at home, let alone in many of the developing nations. If you weren’t an English teacher, a doctor, a policy maker, an economist or a dam builder, careers in development seemed somewhat limited.

How things have changed. Driven largely by the spread of the world wide web and the burgeoning mobile phone sector, opportunities to develop solutions to many of the world’s social and environmental problems have reached almost every bedroom and garden shed in the land.

The irony today is that arguably the greatest developmental tool we have in our hands isn’t a product of the tens of billons of developmental aid spent over the years, but a by-product of private sector investment. Putting the debate around costs and coverage to one side, the development sector has a lot to thank the mobile industry for.

In 1993 the number of mobile subscribers in Africa numbered in the hundreds of thousands. By 1998 that had crept to four million. Today there are an estimated 735 million with penetration running at around the 70% mark. Not bad in less than 20 years.

Everyday innovation

The result of this growth is that many Africans now experience their first phone call on a mobile, and their first experience of the world wide web comes on the same small screen. And it’s been that way for a while. Mobile phones are to most Africans what our laptops, tablet computers and landlines are to us, combined.

They’re also their banks. Today, as they pay bills and transfer money to friends and family with the press of a few key strokes, tens of millions of Africans will be doing something  most of us in the west  can only dream of.

But this rise in mobile phone ownership, and the slower but still significant rise in access to the internet, doesn’t just represent a significant business opportunity. A few short years ago, non-profit organisations working on the ground suddenly found themselves with a new tool in their fight against poverty.

Mobile phone ownership among the communities many of them serve presents new opportunities to increase the reach and efficiency of their work. Simply being able to send messages to coordinate meetings, or to remind people of key messages, can save hours – even days – on the road.

Community healthcare workers can also stay in better touch with the hospital when they’re back in their villages. Farmers can access advice and market information directly from their fields. Citizens can report corruption, or engage in debate. Births can be registered. Illegal logging can be recorded and reported. It’s safe to say that mobile phones have touched every sector of development in one way or another. It has become so ubiquitous that, in just a few short years, many development workers can hardly imagine life without them.

The beauty of mobile technology is that, unlike larger development efforts, it doesn’t discriminate against the smaller, grassroots organisations. As we’ve found with the countless number of FrontlineSMS users over the years, if you give people the right tools and conditions to work in they’re capable of innovating as well as anyone. Some of the most exciting technology-based development work going in Africa today is African. Barriers to entry are as low as they’ve ever been.

This “democratisation of development” isn’t just taking place in cities, towns and villages across Africa. With the internet as the distribution mechanism, and the mobile phone as the target device, anyone anywhere can today build a tool and make it available to a global audience with the minimum of funding and the minimum of effort. This is exactly how FrontlineSMS came about almost seven years ago.

‘Extreme affordability’

How to go about developing the right tools is, of course, an ongoing debate but at least the phones are in the hands of the end users, and by-and-large the delivery mechanism is in place. The next stage of the communications revolution will come in the shape of smart phones, presenting yet more opportunity. What we see happening today is exciting, but we haven’t seen anything yet.

Prestigious universities and colleges around the world now devote entire courses to technology-for-development, many wrapped up with subjects such as design and entrepreneurship. Stanford University helps “design for extreme affordability”, while MIT initiatives aim to “educate students in science and technology that will best serve the world in the 21st century”.

There are likely more people working on solving social and environmental problems in the world today than ever before in human history.

Since starting out working with mobiles almost ten years ago, I’ve seen at first hand this shift in focus. Designing mobile applications for the next billion, or the bottom of the pyramid, or the other 90% – whatever you choose to call it – is now big business. You only have to look at cites like Nairobi, where companies like Google, IBM, Microsoft, Nokia, Hewlett Packard and Samsung have set up shop.

Their mission, in many cases, is to help to get the best African minds thinking about African problems. Clearly, if this trend continues then Africans are less likely to be left behind in designing solutions for their own continent than they were before. It would be hard for anyone to argue that this is not a positive step.

At the same time as this influx of big business, there are increasing numbers of homegrown initiatives. Innovation and technology labs have been springing up over the continent for at least the last three years. According to Erik Hersman, Founder of the iHub, there are now more than 50 tech hubs, labs, incubators and accelerators in Africa, covering more than 20 countries. Mobile phones will be at the centre of the majority of solutions their tenants develop.

I’ve always maintained that one of the best things about the use of mobile phones as a development tool is that it was never planned. The development sector has shown that, historically, it’s not been overly successful at delivering on those.

Instead, anyone anywhere with an internet connection and a software development kit can help tackle some of the bigger problems of our time. What we are witnessing is the democratisation of development.

Today, you don’t need to be a doctor, teacher, economist or dam builder to make a positive impact on your – or any other – country’s development. And that can only be a good thing.

ICT4D postcards

“Luxury Travel Stories is about the idea of connecting the world via ‘stories’ in postcard format. A photo with accompanying text no more than what would fit on the back of a postcard”.

Last month I was invited to contribute a postcard to the Luxury Travel Stories project, and chose the photo – and text – below. You can view the post, and those from other contributors, here. The whole site is based on the idea of “connecting the world via ‘stories’ in postcard format. A photo with accompanying text no more than what would fit on the back of a postcard”. Like “Dear Photograph” (which I blogged about here), it’s a simple but compelling idea.

It was 2004, and I was working on a project which took me to the intersection of technology and international development. Much to many people’s surprise, mobile phones were beginning to make their way into parts of rural Africa, including areas like that in the photo. This is Bushbuckridge – an area which straddles Kruger National Park in South Africa. These women spend most of their days queueing for water, and we pulled up one morning when I took this shot. I use it a lot in my work. It highlights the challenges we face in the development community, and challenges me to think hard about the role of technology – if any – in improving people’s lives.

One of the things I’ve always maintained is that we often know little about the background and motivation of people working in our field, and how they came to work in it. So, in part as a way to rectify this I thought it would be great to put together a slideshow of ICT4D-related postcards to share online.

If you’d like to take part I’ll need the following:

1. A photo (high resolution if possible) – one you’ve taken, please. All it needs to qualify is to have a technology theme – radio, mobile phone, computer, solar lamp and so on.
2. Details of where it was taken and the year (if you remember).
3. A short description of what it is, and why it means something to you. Keep it short – think back of a postcard! We want personal stories – how you connect with the picture – not just a description of what it is.
4. A link to your website, blog or Twitter handle (or all three) so I can point people back to you and your work.

You can email all of this to postcards@kiwanja.net

Once I have enough I’ll pull everything together and drop it into Slideshare. If enough people contribute it might be fun to map the photos, and stories, on Ushahidi.

Looking forward to seeing where this goes…

Predicting Africa’s multiple futures

“Amid all the uncertainty surrounding disruptive technologies, managers can always count on one thing: Expert forecasts will always be wrong. It is simply impossible to predict with any useful degree of precision how disruptive products will be used, or how large their markets will be”

“The Innovator’s Dilemma”, Clayton M. Christensen

Predicting the future of one of the most disruptive technologies of recent times – the mobile phone – was precisely what Rudy de Waele asked twenty-eight mobile technologists to do earlier this year. And to make things a little more interesting, these predictions were meant to focus on Africa alone. Good friend Erik Hersman and I were asked to help ensure that people we felt were best placed to contribute – African technologists, or people with considerable practical experience working with mobile technology on the continent – were represented.

The result is here.

As Clayton Christensen points out in his excellent book, predicting the future is never easy, and almost always ends in failure. During a workshop at Stanford University back in 2006, it became abundantly clear that one of the biggest challenges facing predictors was “breaking the shackles of current thinking”. 80% of people get caught out here, and to a large extent this is reflected in Rudy’s paper:

1. Pick a technology or service currently in use.
2. Predict that in xx years time there will be more of it.

The easiest way to obtain a “shackles-free” out-of-this-world prediction is to ask children, and you’ll find they have just as much chance of being right as an adult (or an expert). Quoting a PC World article I wrote on the subject a couple of years ago:

Ask people what that mobile future might look like, and we’ll likely get answers that take us in one of two directions. Adults will probably be constrained by the parameters of what they see around them today, so predictions on what a mobile phone might look like in, say, ten years, would most likely center around smaller, lighter and faster. Children, on the other hand, would probably let their imaginations run riot and talk about phones that are invisible, implanted in our brains, or both

One thing that particularly struck me about Rudy’s “Mobile Trends 2020 Africa” exercise lies in the title. Are we assuming that mobile technology in Africa will have a very different future to mobile technology in the rest of the world? Perhaps so – I’ve previously argued that “many future mobile innovations will be borne out of the realities of the developing world”.

If that were the case then that would be a future I could get excited about.