Author Archives: Ken Banks

Farming or scratching? An innovation dilemma.

A basketball referee almost gets lynched at a match in Brazil when his pea whistle breaks at a crucial point in a game. A real estate agent drops hot coffee over himself after the serviette wrapped around the cup by the barista slips off while he’s driving. And a young man going bald who decides he might as well shave his head completely gets frustrated after finding that traditional razors just can’t do the job. Meet Ron Foxcroft, inventor of the Fox 40 Whistle; Jay Sorensen, inventor of the Java Jacket; and Todd Greene, inventor of the Headblade. I came across the inspiring stories of these three inventors during my flight to Boston earlier today

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Planet Earth: Desperately Seeking Moral Leadership

It’s not every day that you get the chance to spar with a Nobel Peace Prize winner on how to make the world a better place, but that’s exactly what happened to me three years ago. Tori Hogan invited me to sit on a panel she was organizing with Archbishop Desmond Tutu – who was 85 last week – aboard the MV Explorer, a ship sailing the world with hundreds of students aboard along with a dozen tech startups which I was invited to help mentor. I’d already had the chance to sit down with the Archbishop over breakfast a few times during my few weeks aboard, and soon discovered that his optimism and hope for the world was immense. I’m a little more cautious, and our slight differences of opinion came out early in the discussion.

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The Innovation/Permission Paradox

On a recent trip to Dar Es Salaam I got talking to an entrepreneur at one of those many technology pitching events popping up across the continent. After a few minutes of the usual small talk (which, of course, included a full review of the English Premiere League season ahead) I asked him what idea he and his team were working on. He explained to me that he was the CEO of a Tanzanian start-up that had developed a new gamification technique which, integrated within a new mobile app they were building, helped tackle childhood obesity. “Is that a problem here in Tanzania?” I asked him.

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Happy birthday to me: On half centuries and legacies

This time tomorrow, fifty years ago, I came into the world and spent the proceeding twenty-seven years trying to figure out what the hell I was doing here. With the summer of 1993 came something of a rebirth, one that put me on the path to where I am today. But the years before were dominated by prolonged spells of frustration, searching and disappointment. It feels, at times, that I’ve only lived half a life, which is probably why I don’t feel anything like the fifty I’ll be tomorrow. Birthdays with significant numbers often bring with them periods of reflection, although reflecting is something I tend to do on a regular basis

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Everyday Problems: Are you paying attention?

On what would have been Nelson Mandela‘s 98th birthday, today seems like a better time than any to launch a new website I’ve been working on… You shouldn’t need anyone to tell you that there were refugees long before the Syrian crisis brought their horror further into the public consciousness. There was famine before recent announcements of severe food shortages in Yemen, Malawi and Nigeria, too. And, today, with over fifty countries run by dictatorships, oppression isn’t in short supply, either. As heartening as it is to see the public response to the latest humanitarian crisis or injustice, it’s a shame that in so many cases it takes a major news event to bring a particular concept of suffering to people’s attention. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people were always paying attention, always aware of the inequalities in the world, and always willing to help chip away at it, wherever it may be? How many of these events might never have happened if we all paid more attention and supported those working to fix their root causes

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Due diligence? We need an app for that.

The ubiquity of mobile phones, the reach of the Internet, the shear number of problems facing the planet, competitions and challenges galore, pots of money and strong media interest in tech-for-good projects has today created the perfect storm. Not a day goes by without the release of an app hoping to solve something, and the fact so many people are building so many apps to fix so many problems can only be a good thing. Right? The only problem is this. It’s become impossible to tell good from bad, even real from fake

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Breakfast with explorers

I’m sitting on the top deck of a 747 after British Airways kindly decided to upgrade me to First Class. After a week in Washington DC it feels like a fitting – if not fortunate – end to a crazy and hugely productive, thought-provoking few days. The main purpose of my trip was to attend the National Geographic Explorers Symposium, but that ended up being sandwiched between various meetings for the Global eHealth Foundation, a CARE International workshop, and coffee with a number of old friends and colleagues. There’s nothing like a bit of diversity in your working week.

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A Six-Point Plan for Change

Late last year I was in South Africa attending Buntwani 2015. As always, it was great meeting new people and catching up with old friends. Sadly, some of those old ‘friends’ included many of the issues we seem to continually face in the development sector, issues which don’t seem to ever want to go away. I wrote about this in “Retweet, recycle, repeat” and “What to do when the yelling stops?” recently. One of the sessions I proposed was aimed at kickstarting discussion around some of these historical issues

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What to do when the yelling stops?

I’m reading two books in parallel right now – Ben Ramalingam‘s ‘Aid on the Edge of Chaos‘ and Kentaro Toyama‘s ‘Geek Heresy‘. With both books I’m finding myself regularly pausing for a nod of approval or a wry smile. Both books are spot on in their identification of the issues – Ben in global development more broadly, and Kentaro in ICT4D, a sector/field/discipline/specialism of global development. A while back when Bill Easterly published his ‘Tyranny of Experts‘ I started to wonder what impact his previous book – ‘The White Man’s Burden‘ – has had on the practice and policy of global development.

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We’re (part-time) hiring!

Late last year we secured angel investment for an exciting new kind of mobile giving app. Called altruly, we’re looking to reimagine how people give, manage and monitor their personal giving portfolios. App development started last month and we’re looking at early summer onwards for an official launch. There’s a holding page up on the altruly website, but we’re holding back on releasing more information until nearer the time. As part of our preparations for the earlier Beta release, we’re looking for some help building a database of projects and causes people will be able to support through the app.

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Problems as symptoms

When I started out in development I had no idea what I’d be able to do to help solve the huge, complex problems out there. That lack of certainty – and an absence of obvious answers – turned out to be a far better starting point than I imagined.  After a trip to Zambia in 1993 to help build a school, I knew immediately that my work in IT and finance in Jersey wasn’t the right career for me and that I wanted to spend the rest of my working life doing something more meaningful. But that was all I knew. At that stage I didn’t have a skill set that was particularly useful to international development, so there was no obvious quick and easy way in. Instead I set out on an extended period of learning, one where I spent as much time as I could living with, working with, and supporting the communities and causes I wanted to help – everything from a few weeks helping build a local hospital in Uganda to a year working in rural conservation in Nigeria.

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Life in full circle

In both my books – The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator from 2013 and Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation published this March – I make no secret of my early struggles to find meaning and purpose. Back home in Jersey, for a period approaching a decade from my mid-teens, I went through the motions doing what most people around me were doing – working in a well-paid but totally unfulfilling job. It was a fairly dark time, but one which I thankfully stumbled my way through. Part of my strategy at the time was to go on long drives in my beloved TR7 – quite a feat on an island the size of Jersey. As most people my age did I’d play my music loud, putting together compilation tapes of some of my favourite thought-provoking, sometimes gloomy, music. In 1986, like many people, I found myself caught up in the buzz and excitement of a new album called So by Peter Gabriel (famous for a number of hits including Sledgehammer, Don’t Give Up and Big Time)

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Best practice begins in the classroom

In The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator and my more recent book, Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation, I dedicate more than a few pages to emerging best practice in technology-for-development projects. While we certainly need as many bright minds as possible turning their skills, energy and attention to solving many of the problems in the world, their efforts should be respectful to the communities they seek to help, and properly guided in order for those efforts to have the greatest possible impact and chance of success. But if you step back for a moment, it defies logic that someone should try to solve a problem they’ve never seen, or don’t fully understand, from tens of thousands of miles away. It’s hard to argue that they have the knowledge or qualifications – even the right – to attempt such an audacious feat. Yet that’s precisely what’s happening in many universities across much of the developed world multiple times each academic year.

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