It seems that there’s a search on right now in our field for the holy grail of tech tools that are simple, attractive, affordable, easy to operate, and just so filled with awesomeness that their use spreads “social change” like wildfire, with minimal work or engagement required.
As a blogger for Ashoka Tech, I read and hear many stories about tech innovation in the realm of social entrepreneurship. Some are instant success stories, like that of Ushahidi or of Ashoka-Lemelson Fellow Mohammad Bah Abba who invented an affordable clay pot “refrigerator” for Nigerian farmers. More often though, they are stories of trial and error: cases like the Ashoka Fellow who realized that giving educational CDs to rural kids resulted not in more learning, but in more mirrors for the community.
Even with great tech, few get it right on the first try. As one guy I know puts it, the story of a social entrepreneur’s success often reads like a scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail:
“When I first came here, this was all swamp. Everyone said I was daft to build a castle on a swamp, but I built it all the same… It sank into the swamp. So I built a second one. That sank into the swamp. So I built a third. That burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp. But the fourth one stayed up.”
As tech continues to take over our lives and the field of social entrepreneurship, it’s easy to forget that the process of creating social change doesn’t end with the creation of a tech tool. At the risk of taking this holy grail theme too far, I think sometimes we confuse the tools used to build the castle with the process of building –and rebuilding – it. At the end of the day, technology, no matter how seemingly appropriate or inappropriate, is only as powerful as the person wielding it.
Several months ago, I had the privilege of visiting Jamii Bora in Nairobi and meeting its 73-year-old founder, Ingrid Munro. Full disclosure: I have a huge social change crush on Jamii Bora. The organization is, in my opinion, Kenya’s best kept secret. It’s a microfinance organization, health and disaster insurance provider, and real estate developer for former prostitutes, beggars, thieves and other marginalized individuals.
Jamii Bora is inspiring in too many ways to count, but often it’s the organization’s state-of-the-art biometric and Point of Service (POS) technology that first gets people interested. Rather than using a traditional microfinance passbook, Jamii Bora members instead receive biometric bank cards. When a member wants to make a deposit, withdrawal, or check their account, a Jamii Bora staffer simply swipes their card on a hand-held POS machine connected wirelessly to the bank’s central server. The member receives a printed receipt of their transaction instantly.
I’ve seen the POS system in action, and it’s truly amazing, but even more amazing to me was the foresight and dedication of the Jamii Bora staff. The high-tech system works in a low tech environment because Ingrid and her staff realized the benefits it would bring to their members, and then took the time to train themselves, familiarize their members, and make the adjustments necessary.
I think sometimes in our quest for new technologies and silver bullet solutions, we get a bit caught up in debates over the “techiness” of the tools; are they too high-tech, not high-tech enough? Are they appropriate? These are important questions but sometimes the reality can surprise us, especially when there are social entrepreneurs and changemakers involved. Few of Jamii Bora’s staffers have more than a few years of primary education and many of their members are illiterate; but, for them, the effort it took to put in place the high-tech system made sense. In the right hands, who knows how many other useful technologies are out there that can bring real social change?
People are the magic sauce, the real x factor. Technological innovation provides awesome tools, but open-minded, dedicated inventors, social entrepreneurs, and end users — those people are the real game-changers. The power of technology is amazing but it pales in comparison to the power of a person or a group of people totally dedicated to creating social change.
I’m one of those tech junkies who can’t wait to see what cool social tech innovations are coming next, whether its HIV-prevention gels, water pumps, or SMS software, I love it all. But, when I think about the future of social entrepreneurship, I hope we don’t forget that innovation doesn’t always equal implementation. We need both, along with some really awesome, determined people, in order to change the world.