Business Technology Optimization

Extract: The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator

The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator” tells 10 individuals’ stories about social innovation in emerging regions. In this short extract Ken Banks describes how the idea came about.

This book has the unlikeliest of origins.

It all started at 37,000 feet with a chance meeting with David Rowan, Editor of Wired Magazine’s UK edition, in the aisle of a chartered flight to Johannesburg. It was June 2011. Dozens of journalists mulled around, plotting in the back of the plane, with Prime Minister David Cameron and his ministerial colleagues camped up front. We sat in the middle, part of a fifty-strong British government business delegation set to visit South Africa, Nigeria, Rwanda and South Sudan over four days. We spent more time in the air than we did on the ground, and didn’t even make it to our last two destinations. It turns out that four days, however well planned, is a long time in politics.

A few months after our return, David recounted our high-altitude conversations and decided to get back in touch. He wanted me to write an article for their ‘Ideas Bank’, something that “people would want to talk about down the pub”. This somewhat limited my options. I dug deep into my drawer of half-thought-out ideas and dusted one down from several years earlier which sketched out what I’d begun calling ‘reluctant innovation’. Things that people had either fixed or discovered by accident, or reluctantly, struck a chord with the ‘Ideas Bank’ theme and “Genius Happens When You Plan Something Else” appeared in the May 2012 edition of the magazine.

The original article was short, so I was only able to briefly highlight the stories of two innovators. But the seed of an idea was reborn, and the concept of 'reluctant innovation' grabbed my imagination once again. I felt there was a much bigger story to tell, and many more reluctant innovators to seek out. Numerous calls for contributors, hundreds of emails, masses of editing and reading, cover and chapter design sessions, failed funding campaigns and eighteen months later, 600 words became 70,000 and the book you are holding in your hands today was born.

The half-baked idea that somehow turned into this book began to emerge several years earlier during my time at Stanford University - a whole story in itself - 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 in the walls of their college or university. Teaching the mechanics of social innovation may be helpful, yes, but only if matched with passion, and a cause, to which people can apply it. Desperately seeking that one thing that switches you on can be a lonely, difficult journey. I speak from personal experience. But more of that later.

What I was witnessing was the increasing institutionalisation of social entrepreneurship. I thought it unhelpful on many fronts, not to mention that it could easily be seen as a barrier by many motivated young people. Not only that, it implied that social change was a well-thought out process, when in reality it is far messier and random than that, as many of the stories here testify. It’s an important message that I hope this book manages to get across.

Of course, it is far easier to learn the mechanics of social entrepreneurship – business plans and elevator pitches among them - than to manufacture a passion or a calling in life. You may be the person best-qualified to solve a particular problem in the world, but that's of little use if you don't find it. Finding purpose is often the toughest part of the process, and there are few short cuts other than to leave your comfort zone and get yourself out there. One of the first bits of advice I give anyone who wants to make a difference in the world? It's to “go out and make a difference in the world”. Find your passion first. The rest you can learn later - if and when you need it.

Each of the ten authors in this book did just that. And, in many cases, they weren’t even aware that the particular problem they ended up experiencing - and fixing - even existed. In other words, the problem or solution found them. And that can only happen if you’re somewhere it can find you. You won’t, after all, get to experience ‘Third World’ maternal care in London, Paris or New York but you will if you follow Laura Stachel’s lead and spend hard time on the ground in maternity wards in West Africa.


Discover more about “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator” here.

Read an interview with Ken Banks here.


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Ken Banks

Ken Banks, Founder of and FrontlineSMS, devotes himself to the application of mobile technology for positive social and environmental change in the developing world. He has worked at the intersection of technology, anthropology, conservation and development for the past twenty years and, during that time, has lived and worked across the African continent.

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