Author Archives: Ken Banks

A call for sanity – not innovation – in humanitarian tech.

If you’re a socially-focussed tech organisation working with refugees, it’s been a pretty tough few months. Not only have you had to deal with the ever-growing number of people fleeing conflict – now at record levels – but you’ve had to deal with the politics of the ‘humanitarian technology sector’. For those who have been working with refugees for years, often with proven, well-thought out solutions, it must be frustrating to see call after call – through Challenges and Innovation Competitions and the like – for ‘innovative new solutions’ to the crisis. Not only is it madness to imply that every solution already out there isn’t any good (which asking for new ones implicitly does), but it often sidelines the very organisations with the best background and experience – the ones best-placed to build the ‘desperately needed stuff that works’ that we need. Can we agree to stop calling for ‘innovative and new’ solutions to every crisis, and commit to at least first looking at what currently exists

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Time for a top-down bottom-up development challenge?

Earlier last week I stumbled into a post on Chris Blattman’s website provocatively titled ‘Is this the most effective development program in history?‘ It in, he shares the story of how, in 2011, the Nigerian government handed out $60 million to 1,200 Nigerians – that’s about $50,000 each – to help them create, run and/or scale a business. “Three years later there are hundreds more new companies, generating tons of profit, and employing about 7,000 new people”. Not bad for a reasonably modest amount of money. Although I see this as more of an investment program rather than a development initiative, I come to similar conclusions to Chris. What if we channelled more funds to the middle and the bottom, and let market forces and entrepreneurialism in-country take over?

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Revealing inside stories of social innovation

It all started as a casual conversation about a new book idea over coffee last March. Despite being self-published with no marketing budget, my first book, “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator“, had gone down particularly well and I had been encouraged by how well it had been received, particularly in academia. It turns out there aren’t many books like it – ones that give the true, authentic voice of the social innovator and their life, work, achievements and struggles in their own words. I was happy with the book, but the feedback – great as it was – told me I could do better. The end result, exactly one year later, is “Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation: International Case Studies and Practice‘

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R/T ≠ Endorsement

For pretty-much eight years now I’ve been tweeting about international development, technology, social change, innovation, technology, my work, and how we can all help make the world a better place. Some of it is pretty serious stuff. And sometimes it gets the odd retweet, too. So it’s funny that my most popular tweet so far – posted exactly a year ago today – covered none of those. Welcome to the world of social media.

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New idea? Or old idea done better?

Last week I received my yearly mailing of Ashoka’s inspiring ‘Leading Social Entrepreneurs’ publication. It’s always fascinating flicking through the work and lives of some quite extraordinary individuals helping make their part of the world a better place. At the end, it struck me how many solutions there were between the covers of the publication, and how many further answers were out there to the world’s social and environmental ills. I also wondered what was happening with most of those ideas. Were they being implemented in single (or sometimes multiple) locations by single social innovators or organisations?

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2016: A year in preview

2015 started off with more than a little degree of uncertainty. Thirteen years ago I launched kiwanja.net not really knowing whether there was really much of a long-term demand for what I had to offer. But it was worth a go. Apart from my years at the helm of FrontlineSMS, where funding often came in multi-year awards, most of my other work has been short-term, and I’ve ended up combining paid work with pro-bono support to grassroots innovators.

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You might not change the world. But you can make it a better place.

One of the perks of my job is that I get to meet some of the most talented innovators and entrepreneurs from all over the world. I even get to mentor and support some of them. But they’re the exception, not the rule. Not everyone who sets out to make the world a better place is going to come up with a new, groundbreaking, innovative idea that achieves their goal. Not everyone is going to end up running their own social venture

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Joining CARE as their Entrepreneur in Residence

This post first appeared on the CARE International ‘Insights’ website and is republished here with permission. Welcome to CARE International’s first ever Entrepreneur in Residence, Ken Banks. Ken will be spending time with us over the next year to help make sense of the increasingly complex world of social innovation and technology-for-development. So, what exactly is an Entrepreneur in Residence, and why might we need one at CARE?

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What technology-for-conservation might learn from technology-for-development

Although the majority of my more recent work has sat in the ‘global development’ bucket, much of my early interest lay in conservation. Before I stumbled into the world of mobiles-for-development (m4d) I was helping with biodiversity surveys in Uganda and running primate sanctuaries in Nigeria, and focusing my academic studies on the role of anthropologists in the creation of national parks. My first m4d project looked at the potential of mobile technology in conservation, and it was my work around Kruger National Park over 2003 and 2004 that lead to the idea behind FrontlineSMS. Conservation is still one of my biggest passions, and I returned to my roots a couple of years ago when I was asked to speak about the potential for, and use of, emerging technology in the global conservation effort at the 2013 WWF Kathryn Fuller Symposium. You can watch that talk below (it’s also available, along with other talks, in the Audio & Video section of this website).

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The case of We Care Solar and our failure to spot winners

“The first ever US$1 million UN-DESA Energy Grant has been awarded to We Care Solar, a non-profit organisation, to enhance and expand the use of its ‘Solar Suitcase’. By making solar power simple, accessible and affordable, this device allows for the provision of electricity for medical procedures during childbirth in many developing countries, helping to avoid life-threatening complications for mothers and children” – UN website Yesterday afternoon at United Nations HQ in New York, Laura Stachel and her organisation, We Care Solar, picked up the inaugural UN-DESA award. It’s the latest in a string of awards and accolades for a project I’ve known and admired for many years. You can read more about what happened yesterday on the UN website. Liberian Health Workers receiving their Solar Suitcase (Photo: We Care Solar) I was already a fan of simple, appropriate technology solutions to problems before I met Laura in 2009

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Halting the push-push of global development

“On 29th August 1965, an article was published in The Observer entitled “How to help them help themselves”, written by Fritz Schumacher the distinguished economist with support from his close friend Observer editor, David Astor. In it, Schumacher pointed out the inadequacies of aid based on the transfer of large scale, capital-intensive technologies and argued for a shift towards “intermediate technologies”, based on the needs and skills possessed by poor people themselves. This article helped shape the future of development.” – Simon Trace, CEO, Practical Action I came across Schmacher’s writing almost 20 years ago during my time at Sussex University. I was only three years into my global development journey, having spent a decade working in the technology sector until everything changed after a trip to Zambia in 1993. Shumacher’s call for appropriate technologies resonated on so many levels, and seemed to sit in stark contrast to many of the active – and failed – policies of the development system. Sadly, despite the rhetoric, little has really changed, and many ICT4D projects simply follow big brother’s bad practice.

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Lone innovators of the world unite

Conventional wisdom among much of the investor community might have you believe that only projects borne out of teams have the potential to succeed. People that work alone are an awkward fit. Maybe they’re considered anti-social, giving a sign that they’re not able (or willing) to work with others? Or they’re considered too introvert?

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Want a holistic view of the world of social innovation? Try these four books.

We’re seeing a steady stream of great books hitting the shelves at the moment, each focusing on a different aspect of the technology/social innovation debate. While some offer hardcore theory and research, others offer softer inspiration and advice. One day we’ll have a book which captures and weaves together all four – that would be the ideal book – but for now we’ll have to read them all as separate volumes. So, what are they?

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1995. 2005. 2015. Two decades of code

Precisely ten years ago this morning I sat down at a kitchen table in Finland and started coding. Armed with a Visual Basic.net manual, a laptop and GSM modem, a couple of SIMs and a Nokia 6100 and cable – and plenty of coffee – I delved into the world of Windows programming for the very first time. I’d already done a fair amount of professional software development over the years, designing and building a membership/fundraising system for Jersey Zoo, and a range of accounting and amortisation systems for a legal firm, but that was ten years earlier in the mid-1990’s when QuickBASIC was my weapon of choice. Ten years had passed, and I’d never written anything event-driven before. I was on a steep learning curve, but was motivated.

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