“Mechanics vs. Motivation” in Social Innovation

Ken Banks is a noteworthy thought leader in the field of ICT4D. For our recent short paper I chose to profile him because I used his work often in our sector presentation – he does a lot of work with conservation organizations and develops mobile platforms for them (including Frontline SMS). When prompted about what he looks for in recent ICT4D/IDEV graduates, he referred me to a blog post he wrote back in 2009 after meeting students and faculty from various universities on the west coast. He wrote that he enjoys talking to people who aren’t tech experts, and that he’s noticed that what these young people generally look for are stories – the experiences, what brought professionals to where they are now, what inspired them, etc. He complains that too often programs and academia focus too tiredly on metrics – “This world centres on business models, the quest for data, for metrics and an obsession on measuring impact”. He says that we need to foster passion and big ideas- the creative juices that build the foundations of powerful initiatives, because the technical stuff can always be worked out later.

Luckily my interview subject was someone who believes strongly and passionately in helping other people, and that includes young start-ups; in a different blog post he writes, “In the mobile world we talk a lot about project sustainability, but little about human sustainability. If we’re to have any chance of ongoing success then we need to attract the brightest young minds to the ‘mobile for development’ field, and then give them all the support they need to keep them there. Empowerment isn’t just something we do in a distant land. There’s plenty we can be doing on our own doorstep.”

So if this guy believes more in passion and big ideas to get off the ground than logistics, is he right? Recently we’ve been discussing about emotions driving the platforms of some organizations, whether it’s ethical, whether it works, etc. I think that discussion is so reasonable! I find that I have to be a bit of a pessimist in response to Ken’s words because so many people have big ideas, but sometimes for the wrong or misguided end-results. Do we want a professional field saturated with dreamers whose dreams might run short? I can’t say much in argument to a guy who literally invented Frontline SMS, but I do wonder if, academically, passion is the highest focus.

Mechanics vs. Motivation

Enabling the Inspiration Generation


One response to ““Mechanics vs. Motivation” in Social Innovation

  • laurenholtzman

    I think this is a very thought-provoking blog post, and I appreciate your insight and questions! First of all, I really like Ken Banks’ understanding that there are many things we can all do “right on our doorstep.” However, I’m a bit confused about whether he means empowering people “here” on OUR doorsteps to do work “there” on THEIR doorsteps or to do work in our own backyards. (Sorry for the caps, but there’s no bold feature.) I’m thinking more along the lines of there’s plenty of work to be doing in our own countries, cities, towns, neighborhoods, etc in terms of development. I definitely do not agree that we should be empowering people here to save the world there — kind of going back to the white savior industrial complex.

    I’m also slightly concerned about his focus on people having to be involved in mobile development. I don’t think it is useful to put such a strict box around one area of development and one technology specifically.

    I enjoyed his comments about people not always having to be techies. (Yay – there’s room for me!) I think storytelling and story sharing has become an incredible tool in community organizing for change which can only continue to be useful in the development field.

    I do agree, as always, that we do need to be careful about just going along with any, big idea. It is imperative that we not only look at the intention of a program/development project, but the also the outcome and impact. Many programs that intend well, do a great deal of harm. I think that a balance between dreamers and realists is needed really for any type of social change.

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