A conversation with Ken Banks, author of The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator

Interview with Ken Banks author of The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator

Ken Banks is the author of The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator, the founder of kiwanja.net and FrontlineSMS, an award-winning open source communications solution.

Paul: What activities have you been involved in since our interview with you two years ago?

Ken: The last couple of years have been something of a transition for me, in some ways taking me back to my consultancy roots and in others ways moving me forward. I stepped back from FrontlineSMS in the summer of 2012, handing day-to-day control over to a couple of colleagues based out of our Washington DC and Nairobi offices. It felt like the right time to pass the reigns over to a new team, and I felt I'd taken the project as far as I could. The management transition was something of a rare event in the technology-for-development world I live in, and it was covered in a few places, including the ClearlySo website. FrontlineSMS has gone from strength to strength since, launching new versions of the platform, attracting increasing funding, and attracting some great new team members.

FrontlineSMS took up eight years of my life, so stepping back left a gap. I returned to consultancy to earn a living, and am currently working with the likes of the GSM Association, Ushahidi and PopTech on a range of initiatives, all with a social and/or technology component. I also published a book, The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator, as it became clear that I had an increasing role to play in helping other start-ups and social innovators get their ideas off the ground. The book, which comes with a foreword from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, has been picked up by a number of colleges and universities. It also hit top spot in Amazon's "Development Studies" chart earlier this year. 

Paul: How has your thinking evolved over that period?

Ken: My career in international development spans 21 years, with the more recent focus on technology (in particular mobile phones) covering the last decade. Over that time I've become increasingly despondent with the official aid sector, and frustrated by the lack of progress despite the huge budgets and level of resources available to it. I've regularly written about those frustrations, and tried to give pointers on where I think we're going wrong, and how we might put them right. One thing I didn't want to do was become that grumpy old man sitting in the corner shouting about how rubbish everything was, so I've made a conscious effort to focus my thinking positively. The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator is the result of that focus. The book looks at the contribution that lone rangers, hackers and everyday people are making to solving some of the bigger problems around the world. In stark contrast to the development sector, many of these innovators have few resources, and little money, yet they often produce more meaningful solutions. I find this interesting, and the book seeks to encourage people interested in making the world a better place to take action, and to make meaningful action feel achievable. As Archbishop Tutu writes in his foreword, it is a book of "hope, inspiration, and a beacon of what's possible".

Paul: What is the relevance of your work to small and medium sized charities and social enterprises?

Ken: Many social enterprises are trying to make sense of technology, and make sense of an emerging trend of disruptive individuals building solutions to big problems "outside of the system", often using this technology. Many see this trend as a threat, so understanding where grassroots social innovation comes from, and how they might be able to foster a better environment where innovation can thrive, is important. In parallel, we're seeing a growing trend of 'intrapreneurship', where staff are encouraged to be entrepreneurial in their day-to-day roles. No-one has a monopoly on solving the world's problems, and there's enough poverty to go round, so we need as many people as possible focused on them, and as many young, talented people as possible interested in joining them.

Paul: We ask each of our interviewees to browse our profiles of member causes and choose one to give a few words of advice or a creative idea to – which cause would you like to choose and what advice would you like to give them? 

Ken: I'm a big fan of The Hackney Pirates, whose beliefs in the power of education and youth empowerment closely mirrors my own. I also like Taking on the Giant, which uses stories from young people to help promote entrepreneurship and social change among youth.

Paul: What ideas or suggestions would you give to these causes based on your approach?

Ken: Quite often organisations begin life innovative, and it's often their new approach to a problem which gives them the early traction. After that, continuing the innovation theme gets progressively more difficult. For these organisations, I'd suggest the following tips to help them buck that trend:

1. Give staff the freedom to think, try new things, or come up with new ideas. That could be in time - half a day each week to be creative - or through regular meetings and brainstorming sessions.

2. Try to build a culture of 'intrapreneurship' within your organisation.

3. Encourage staff to take a pen and paper to bed with them. Ideas come at the most unexpected times.

4. Run competitions, or internal events. Bring in external speakers, ideally from different sectors, to educate and inspire.

5. Encourage an atmosphere of collaboration and sharing, not competition between staff members.

6. Run a book club. Produce a reading list for staff (books which ideally touch on innovation, inspiration, entrepreneurship) and hold book discussions/presentations. Subsidise the costs of the books.

7. Allow the staff to shape any 'innovation-themed' initiatives. Let them own it. Engaged staff will always be more productive.

Different things work for different organisations, and there are no quick fixes. Many more can be gleaned from the many books which have been written on the subject, including mine.

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