Bjelkeman's travel notes

Travels with the cloud in my pocket.

You need guts to innovate in old structures

Tim O'Reilly

When @timoreilly says he talks to the World Food Programme about “reviewing their plans to create next gen IT infrastructure for emergencies. They need help. Plan to connect geeks”, then I sincerely hope that they understand that they have to let go of some of the control of how they are running their organisations. True change and innovation often needs more than incremental improvement and setting out to radically change how you do things requires guts, and a lot of it.

When we started we made a specific point of having people from different backgrounds working on the project together. Early on we included people who are software engineers, communicators, water/sanitation and development aid specialists, entrepreneurs and designers. And we didn’t pull these people of the street either, we brought in an entrepreneurial team that could start a new internet business from scratch.

A lot of development aid does not have a good reputation, and there are plenty of examples in the water and sanitation sector where we are still making the same mistakes as we did 30 years ago. But there is also an aversion towards innovation. People are truly hesitant to try that which is new. So when we started Akvo, we didn’t want to repeat these mistakes, but we also wanted to make sure innovation and new thinking was at the top of the agenda. We did this by adding entrepreneurial people from all these different areas to the team, and we didn’t start before we had a team which we were convinced could pull off what we are working on.

Often when information technology and communications (ITC) tools are brought into an organisation they are brought in by the management who think they need the standard tools, like email, internet access, document handling, mobile phones etc. But they don’t know how to really ask for innovation. Improved ITC ends up being: “can you get the email spam filter to work better?” Not changes that will turn the whole sector upside down. The kind of changes which the music industry is going through because of the internet or the book selling industry.

25%-50% of all deaths in the world happen because of abject poverty (ref: @leashless, great bit of video if you have some time) and development aid does a poor job of improving that. We really need to change how we do things.

At Akvo we think we have a small component of the solution, which we are working on. What we are trying to achieve is actually quite a lot bigger than what you can see us working on. But we believe in delivering stuff that works, and less talk. As, like most others, we will be wrong in many of the things we think are the solutions to our problems, but it isn’t until we actually build and try it out that we find out. Build a little, test a little. (Old engineering mantra, hijacked by the open source crowd.)

But doing that takes belief in the process. Belief in the idea that you can create whole new ways of working from scratch in just years. For us who have actively taken part in the Internet revolution, we have seen this happen, close up on a massive scale. For us it isn’t a leap of faith. But for a lot of people, even those that use the Internet on a daily basis, don’t really understand or truly believe with their gut, that it can be done.

So my advice to the World Food Programmes team is:

– Team up with “geek” entrepreneurs on an equal basis, you need to share control
– Team them up with food aid “geeks”, but those that dare to innovate and throw away the old
– Be brave, you can change things for the better

Good luck!

– Thomas


Filed under: Development aid, Open source

About Bjelkeman

Co-director: Akvo Foundation

+46-8-626 7609

More about Thomas Bjelkeman-Pettersson

@bjelkeman on Twitter

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