Coming out of this year’s SXSW was almost a relief as the program packed with sessions successfully competing for attention was keeping me on edge to get the most out of it. As the feeling of constantly missing out eases off, I’d like to share my reflections from this year’s event.
SXSW featured many inspiring talks and demos on the latest coolest technologies and their applications; but as Bruce Sterling stated it very well in his keynote: “Just because something is really cool, doesn’t mean it is important.” So I’ll stay focused on what we at Claro feel is important: tech for good, particularly technology in the developing world.
Following last year’s first attempt to include a track on social good, SXSW this year included a track on social impact. And as part of this track Claro’s Chris Massot moderated a panel with panellists from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, PATH, and John Snow, Inc. I also attended a few other panels and talks in the social impact track, focusing particularly on what role technology can play in solving the world’s biggest problems, and the challenges and opportunities it poses for the international development community as well as corporations who want to act in the area. Several themes emerged across these different sessions:
The need to really understand the user
A common theme was the challenge of putting enough effort and resource into truly understanding what is needed on the ground. Stressing the importance of understanding the user’s needs as well as the context on the ground, David Shoultz from PATH shared the challenging case of a molecular TB diagnosis machine. This machine was installed in a setting where high temperatures and the dusty environment was not suitable for its use. Besides not working properly, it turned out that doctors were prescribing medicine to patients even though the diagnosis was negative… which revealed the fact that people didn’t want diagnostics, they wanted medicine. Patients in this context felt safe when given medicine, and doctors often played along with it to keep the good relationship. This case is only one example among many of valuable resources and efforts being invested in technology that ends up not being used, which could have been avoided if the reality on the ground was brought into the picture earlier.
In another panel – this one focused on how to end global hunger – Shamina Singh from Mastercard’s Centre for Inclusive Growth also talked about the importance of understanding context. Through the example of aid in refugee camps, Singh recounted the story of how Mastercard is trying to take out money in the context of refugee camps and turn transactions into a complete commodity based model. Although money might seem like a reasonable solution that allows more flexibility to the users, understanding the context of refugee camps reveals issues around security that undermines the desire for flexibility.
The need to have a system perspective
From a system perspective understanding and responding to the needs of the end beneficiary is a great step, but often not enough. The end beneficiaries are only one part of often complex systems made up of many actors with different objectives, challenges and priorities. Delivering sustainable value in the development context requires a more holistic understanding of the problem, and end to end solution building.
This need to look beyond one time solutions and to make system level changes that have long lasting impact was another dominant topic across sessions. Anne LaFond from John Snow Inc. and Tracy Johnson from the Gates Foundation both stressed the importance of having a wider system perspective. Johnson pointed out that a focus only on product, with a lack of focus on all the other services that need to go along with it – such as instalment, launch, or maintenance – could jeopardise the sustainability of solutions. LaFond, similarly, called for a holistic roadmap, starting from investigation, and then intervention followed up with rigorous monitoring.
In another session discussing how to achieve the UN’s sustainable development goals, Caroline Boudreaux from the Miracle Foundation called for funders, donors and corporations to pay for system development instead of programs that deliver one time products. She gave an example from an Indian village where aid was coming in the form of sacks of rice while neighbouring areas were rich in rice production; and argued that funds would be much better utilised in building a distribution system rather than flying over bags of rice.
The need to bring a business logic into “for good” work
Another key theme and pain point in the ‘for good” world is the lack of strong business logic that would make initiatives more resourceful, efficient and sustainable. Shoultz from PATH called this “a lack of market mechanisms” that match supply and demand, and called out development work to be very much supply driven. He shared experiences working with private sector partners where their brutal pragmatism lead to efficient and effective solutions that allowed them to make business in these low margin, high turnover markets.
Singh echoed this pain in her panel, stating that the development world almost has a reverse business logic. Comparing funding for development initiatives to funding for startups, Singh pointed out that funding for startups increases as the success of the product is proven. In the development world however, funding is cut as the initiative reaches success, jeopardizing the sustainability of initiatives that have proven to be valuable to users.
From our work in the development context, we can clearly recognise these pain points, and strongly believe in the need to bring business thinking into the development world. Business thinking includes approaches that have proven success in the corporate world, such as human-centred and needs driven solution finding, as well as a system perspective that considers not only the end users, but the whole ecosystem of actors and environmental factors around them. By combining a business mindset with the passion and dedication of the international development community, we can achieve usable, implementable and sustainable solutions that have impact.