Q&A: Why ‘reluctant innovators’ offer development hope
Ken Banks might, in some respects, be described as a reluctant innovator. In 2005, he created FrontlineSMS, a simple piece of software that enables a cheap laptop to use a mobile phone to send, receive and collate group text messages, effectively creating a communication network. It’s an idea that has helped many NGOs connect with isolated populations.
But what is a reluctant innovator? It’s a term Banks has popularised — he has edited a book on the subject. He describes such people as individuals who encounter a problem in the developing world and become so frustrated and angered by it that they have almost no choice but to embark on a quest to solve it, often at great personal cost.
Banks says that when he came up with the idea for FrontlineSMS, armed as he was with his years of development experience in Africa and his expertise in IT, he felt he had almost no choice but to solve the communications problem no one else seemed aware of, or motivated, to fix.
“Reluctant innovators typically have no money, no log frame, no permission — they just get out there and do it,” he says.
Banks, who is originally from Jersey, an island that lies between England and France, spoke about developing FrontlineSMS and his thoughts on reluctant innovation at this year’s Warwick International Development Summit (21-23 November). Afterwards, SciDev.Net caught up with him to ask how the open access platform has been doing and why he thinks reluctant innovators are the future of development.
How does FrontlineSMS work?
It’s a piece of software that you install on a low-cost laptop and it acts as a kind of Outlook [email management service] for text messages. You can put phone numbers and names in there, put them in groups and basically create a communication network. So you can then send and receive text messages from small to medium-sized groups of people. The information can be about anything from healthcare to human rights, or collecting reports on election rigging or illegal logging.
It works by attaching a mobile phone to the laptop with a cable, and the software communicates directly through the mobile network. So, as long as you just have one bar of signal, it will allow you to run a communication network. The beauty of it is that it doesn’t require the Internet, so once you have it on your laptop, you can go nearly anywhere you want. There’s mobile phone coverage in many, many places now — the coverage is really growing across rural Africa for example. FrontlineSMS unlocks the power of that communication channel.
Are there any other services like it?
There’s no obvious competitor anywhere, possibly because there’s little money in it. There’s more money in building web-based solutions. But, of course, those products exclude grassroots NGOs operating in rural areas because many don’t have the internet. Those are the kind of services that airlines use to send texts automatically that remind you of the time of your flight.
The platform was used during the 2007 Nigerian elections in an effort to curb vote rigging. How did that work?
The elections were in April 2007. At that time, I was contacted by a coalition of Nigerian NGOs. They were interested in monitoring their own election, rather than having the job done solely by the international community, which often consisted of groups of outsiders. So they set up a FrontlineSMS system in the capital Lagos and advertised the number around the country as best they could. They were telling everyone who went to vote: ‘If you see something wrong when you go to vote, or you’re harassed or bullied, or a gun is put to your head, or the ballot box doesn’t have a lock on it, then text in a report. We will send these reports to international NGOs that are also collecting their own data, to give a much fuller picture of how the election went, a Nigerian perspective.
It’s generally accepted that, since that happened, when you go to vote, the person standing behind you in the queue — who’s not an official monitor — could still report anything that happens. So it’s making people think a little bit more before they get involved in fraudulent activity. Anyone could be a monitor.
The way you got involved in developing this tool seems to match your description of a ‘reluctant innovator’. How would you define this type of person?
A reluctant innovator is somebody who stumbles across a problem, or a problem finds them, which disturbs, angers, upsets or frustrates them to such a degree that their life basically changes course and they set out to find a solution for it. The easy option would just be to carry on, to not touch it and to be really comfortable with everyday life. But, instead, they decided the problem was too big, and that if they didn’t tackle it probably nobody else would. This is where the reluctance comes in: they have to make a tough decision to step out of a comfortable situation and focus on solving the problem.
And you would argue that these people are the future of development, or at least the future of technology for development?
I just think that individuals who are driven and passionate, who are personally affected by the problems that they see, who make the effort to get out there and get to grips with the problems on the ground are best placed to find solutions to those problems.
Most of us would agree that the big international aid structures that are built around finding answers to these problems are generally failing. They either try to build massive structures around small problems. Or they pick a big problem which might be nearly impossible to fix because smaller problems aren’t sexy enough.
In my experience — 22 years in development and, more recently, as technology has been democratised, spreading the opportunity to be a change-maker or problem-solver — almost everything I’ve seen that is exciting and works comes from individual citizens who often live in the country with the problem. They’re just getting on with it. The development sector does lots of talking, lots of report writing, lots of strategising, uses lots of money and rarely seems to ‘get it’ in the way that those people do. That’s the reason I think this other model is the future. And it’s the right future. Although many people work in the development sector for very good reasons, it’s become the wrong vehicle to effect the sort of change we want to see.
Q&As are edited for clarity and length.