Unreasonable Impact | Innovation: Sexy, But Not Always Right

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Unreasonable Impact | Innovation: Sexy, But Not Always Right

by Ken Banks

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Friday, August 25, 2017 - 8:35am

CAMPAIGN: Entrepreneurs


For much of the past 25 years, I’ve dedicated my time to figuring out how mobile technology might help support positive social and environmental change in the developing world. During that time, I created FrontlineSMS, an open source software for grassroots organizations to distribute and collect information via text messages, and it was built from the ground up to reach global scale. Along the way, I spent time living and working in many communities where I both led and witnessed development projects firsthand. I’ve seen attempts at innovation go well, and I’ve seen others crash and burn.

In its Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Agenda for 2030, the United Nations recognizes the importance of building resilient infrastructure and fostering innovation. The vast majority of my work over the years falls under the umbrella of this particular SDG. However, my entry point comes not from technology, but rather from the intersection of anthropology, development and conservation.

In fact, the most important thing I’ve learned over the years is not how to implement a technology; it’s that you need to spend time with real people to understand their real needs. Too often in the development sector, I still see this critical step overlooked. In human development, assumptions are dangerous. If we’re going to make progress toward this SDG by 2030, then we need to slow down, drop our innovation fetish, and lead first with the people and the problem.

Building Appropriate Technology

To seriously tackle the problems we face as a society at scale – such as the billions of people without access to financial services or who live far away from medical facilities – we’re likely going to need to adopt some form of technology. We simply won’t reach the numbers we need if we don’t. It’s also fair to say that it’ll be hard to meet almost all the other SDGs if we don’t focus on innovative engineering and problem solving to some degree.

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