1. Start with the problem, not the technology


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Start with the problem, not the technology

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about how ICT is transforming the way the developing world is being educated. To add to this conversation, I will publish three shortened Q&As that were carried out by Ericsson Business Review. In each interview, a prominent thinker involved in the ICT and education sector will share their opinion on the future of education.

Let’s start with Ken Banks, founder of kiwanja.net and creator of FrontlineSMS, a mobile messaging application aimed at the grassroots nonprofit community.

Banks argues that development issues such as education require us to start with the problem, not the technology. He says that in developing countries most high-tech solutions just don’t work.

What role can mobile technology play in development?

Mobile networks open up the possibility of reaching communities that would otherwise miss out on any meaningful connection with the rest of the world, and allow them to engage, make themselves heard and to be empowered by information.

You have been involved in many fruitful mobile-centered development initiatives. What separates the successful projects from the unsuccessful ones?

The single most important thing is starting with the problem and not the technology. It is quite common for people to grab the latest smartphone or iPad or whatever happens to be hot at the moment and try to figure out how it could be used in a development context.

I think that the correct sequence should instead be problem-people-technology. By “people” I mean the individuals at the grassroots who usually understand the problem better than anybody else. Pick just about any development project and there will be a local organization or group that is already trying to achieve the same goals. Gaining a full understanding of conditions on the ground – and properly defining the role that technology can and should play – is really important and the projects that do not make the effort to do this have a much harder time in the long run.

Photo taken by Ken Banks, kiwanja.net

You referred earlier to the crucial role played by private enterprise in bringing mobility to the developing world. How do you see this role evolving in the future?

Operators are doing a better job than anybody else of meeting the insatiable demand for mobile technology, and the development sector has many more opportunities to make a positive difference as a result. In fact, there is probably space for operators to get even more involved in development issues. Especially now that we know that mobile technology can have a real impact on learning and health care and agriculture, operators should think about taking a bigger role in helping these projects get off the ground. It certainly wouldn’t hurt for operators and nonprofit organizations to speak with each other more regularly.

Until developing countries are in a position to develop their own solutions, is mobile technology not just another form of aid from the West?

Sometimes it is, yes. But if we take Africa as an example, there is more local innovation today than ever before. The numbers are still low, but three or four years ago there was practically nothing at all. The historical brain-drain is being reversed as more and more individuals see the potential to develop homegrown innovation that can be applied to education or agriculture or any of the most important issues that affect the people and societies closest to them.


The complete interviews will be made available once the final Q&A has been published.


Written by Erik Kruse

Erik´s specialties are future consumer demands, industry dynamics and how the ICT world will evolve over the next 10 years. At Ericsson, he has worked on company strategies and research into future trends and requirements.

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