Business Management

Ken Banks interview: Technology for social good

Ken Banks has spent 25 years in social development with an emphasis on the role of new technology. This has included founding FrontlineSMS - which utilises Open Source software to transform any laptop into an SMS hub. And Means of Exchange which focuses on using technology to rebuild local communities. He has just released The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator, which compiles 10 diverse development stories and includes a foreword by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. We catch up with Ken Banks to learn more. 


Your three businesses, FrontlineSMS and Means of Exchange all use tech to help promote social development on the ground - what are the most innovative ways you have seen these employed?

FrontlineSMS and Means of Exchange are two of the projects that I've started under the 'kiwanja' umbrella ( is the organisation behind most of my work, and my online identity, so-to-speak). FrontlineSMS, which I stepped back from a couple of years ago after running it since its inception in 2005, has been used in many exciting and innovative ways.

To be honest, from the perspective of the individual users, every use is innovative, and every user is solving a very real problem of very real importance to the local communities being served. Because of that I couldn't single any out in particular, but I guess its use by Kubatana in Zimbabwe is worth a mention, since they were the first people to deploy the software, and its use in the 2007 Nigerian elections was critical in getting the platform noticed by the international community.

Means of Exchange was my first venture after stepping back from FrontlineSMS, and it is predominantly focused on how we use everyday technologies to reconnect people with local resources and each other. The first project of Means of Exchange was to organise London's first cash mob, which we carried out in a bookshop in Hackney, not far from the Olympics which were taking place at the time. (A cash mob is where people mobilise over social media, and then 'mob' a locally run or owned shop and agree to spend a certain amount of money while they're there.  It helps raise awareness around the plight of local business, and the importance of supporting them). The event was a great success, and was reported in the Financial Times and a number of other national papers. Cash mobs are taking place around the UK every week now. I have a number of app ideas for Means of Exchange which I hope to work on soon.


Where are you based? And what is your main focus at the moment?

For the past three years I've been based out of St. Ives in Cambridgeshire, where I have a small office above a supermarket on the high street. After years of travelling and living abroad, this is where I eventually settled after being offered my first piece of mobile phone-based consultancy at the end of 2002. Right now, in addition to continuing that consultancy work, I'm running a few projects of my own, carrying out an increasing number of speaking engagements, doing some mentoring and writing, and planning a new book as a follow-up to "The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator". I'm also planning my first conference, and am being pulled into a few interesting socially-focused businesses, but can't say much about any of that at the moment.


Did anything surprise you in collating the 10 stories of reluctant innovators for your book “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator”?

The sheer determination of the people I was focusing on in the book continued to inspire, motivate and amaze me throughout the whole process. And they still do. None of them really had to tackle the problems that confronted them, and in many cases they stepped well outside their comfort zones for the greater good.

"The Rise…" felt like a book that needed to exist, and the stories it tells - of the very raw, challenging nature of social innovation work - needed to be told. I'm very happy with how it's been received, and very happy that a number of universities have picked up on it, and how much it resonates with younger readers who are hungry for these kinds of stories.


How did you select these individuals? Were there any stories you have to reject due to lack the space?

Basically this began life as a 600 word article for Wired Magazine on reluctant, unplanned, accidental innovation. The piece only featured two brief stories because of word count limitations, but I always felt there were more to be told. I approached a few people whose work I felt would be a good fit, and pushed out a call for contributors through my blog, and social media. I did receive more stories than I needed, but not many and, to be honest, the stories ended up self-selecting. We ended up with a nice split of five male and five female contributors, but on the downside we didn't get many from the developing world. I'd like to pull together another book some time focusing on African reluctant innovators, when I have time. There are definitely plenty of stories to be told there.


All the innovators catalogued in your book were Western educated (although many had strong ties to less developed regions) – where are the local reluctant innovators?

They are there, but I guess the real grassroots innovators were less likely to see my tweets and blog posts when I started my search for contributors. And because I didn't have a huge amount of time or funding for the book, I had to go with what came to me, rather than proactively going out in search of stories.


How would you characterise tech-enabled social innovation today and how do you think it is likely to change over the next few years?

I've always maintained that the spread of the World Wide Web, combined with the march of the mobile phone, has given us probably the best opportunity we've ever had to democratise development, and engage everyday people in seeking solutions to pressing problems around the world. Because of this, I think there are more people working to solve these problems today than at any other time in human history.

Anyone, anywhere, can build an app or web service and globally launch it from their bedroom, and this is incredibly empowering. It's what I effectively did with FrontlineSMS all those years back. Although the technology itself isn't always the answer, the reach and use of technology has made it easier, faster and cheaper to develop and launch solutions than ever before. These kinds of opportunities will only increase as internet access spreads, and smart phones begin to replace many of the older legacy handsets in use by many people across much of the developing world today. 


There are a lot of individual companies, along with umbrella organisations that facilitate change, out there – have you been particularly impressed by any?

I really like the work that Paul Polak has been doing, and his recent book - "Business Solutions to Poverty" - is a great read. It's an approach not without controversy. Making money from the poor is immoral to some people, but the charity model isn't sustainable, and many problems might be better served by business. Think solar lighting, for example. More broadly, companies are taking an interest in the social sector, partly because consumers are beginning to shift towards products from businesses that are socially responsible and partly because the companies themselves are looking at the developing world as new market opportunities, so understanding how the bottom billion people who live there is key.


How has your own attitude and perspective changed in the time you have been operating in this field?

It's been a fascinating, and at times frustrating, time. Whilst the technology-for-development sector has certainly matured and made considerable progress, we're still struggling with age-old issues around replication, scale, monitoring and evaluation, appropriate technologies and top-down approaches. Over that time technology has also, for many people, become the silver bullet that will fix everything. In the international aid sector more broadly there are still the age-old challenges of 'big development', with its academic, big budget, expert-driven interventions which often operate to the detriment of local problem solvers. My personal focus has always been on the grassroots non-profits and local innovators, who often punch well above their weight given how few resources they have.

In my 25 years working in development I've become increasingly convinced 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, complex structures around small problems, or they pick a big problem which might be nearly impossible to fix because smaller problems aren’t sexy enough.

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, burns through lots of money and rarely seems to ‘get it’ in the way that those people do. That’s the reason I think this other more 'informal', development-outside-the-system 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 really need to see.


Is there anything you feel Westerners persistently fail to understand about emerging regions?

Outsiders will never understand what it's like to survive on a couple of dollars a day, or to be faced with a failed crop, or to live through severe drought unless they get themselves out there and make an effort to experience and understand it. There are some things that you can't claim to genuinely understand just by reading or writing about them. Empathy for the people you're trying to help is key, yet many people working in development, or technology for development, lack that exposure and understanding and in my mind that's a crucial shortcoming.

Many of the people I've met over the years that I admire have a background in the work they're doing, and some are featured in my book. Laura Stachel, of WE CARE Solar, who is a maternal nurse working on lighting for maternity wards across the developing world. And Joel Selanikio, who's medically qualified and using that knowledge to inform his data collection app (which started off with a primary focus on health). These people built things that work because they understand the context of its use, and its users. I struggle to understand how people can become experts in things they haven't actually done, and then how these experts end up driving development policy. It might explain why so much seems to fail.


Learn more about “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator” here, and read an extract here.


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