Explorer Moment of the Week: Ken Banks

Picture of Ken Banks
Ken Banks, Mobile Technology Innovator Photograph courtesy Ken Banks


What does it take to become a social innovator? Not an MBA, a master plan, or even money, says mobile technology pioneer Ken Banks. Helping people help themselves is a strong theme in Banks' work, and that's why he believes that anyone can become an innovator—and change the world for the better.


What project are you working on now?


I like to keep myself busy, so I've got two key projects on the go at the moment. The first—Means of Exchange—is exploring how we can use emerging Web, mobile, and social media-based technologies to help people reconnect with local businesses, local resources, and each other. Globalization, and the spread of technology more broadly, has widened the disconnect between people and their neighbors, and local means of production. We buy things made by people far away who we don't know when there are local providers (who, ironically, we also don't know). In the current economic climate people are suffering because of the breakdown of a system built on global dependence. When one major economy collapses, others follow in a domino effect, causing hardship among people and communities due to no fault of their own. Means of Exchange aims to apply innovative technologies to reconnect people, and help them build resilience into their communities, so when hard times do hit they're less exposed and more able to support each other.


The second project is a book. Titled The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator, it will share the personal stories of ten social innovators from around the world. Ten social innovators—ordinary people—who randomly stumbled across problems, injustices, and wrongs and, armed with little more than determination and self-belief, decided not to turn their backs but to dedicate their lives to solving them. The book is designed to fill a much needed gap in the social innovation/social entrepreneurship market, one which is currently dominated by books that—often at no fault of their own—give the impression that meaningful change is only possible if you have an MBA, or are a technology expert, or have money or influence, or have a carefully laid out five-year master plan, or all five. By highlighting the stories of ten ordinary yet remarkable individuals, and the impact their work is collectively having on hundreds of millions of people around the world, Rise of the Reluctant Innovator will show us that anything is possible, planning isn't everything, and that anyone anywhere can change their world for the better. We're currently raising funds on Kickstarter to allow us to produce the best possible book and to promote it as widely as possible. Details about how people can help—and what they get in return—can be found here.


What's the biggest surprise you've discovered in your work or in the field?


I've been surprised many times during my travels in Africa, most often by how everyday objects and foods—yes, foods—can be used to repair flat tires, or bind things together, or fix complex electronics such as mobile phones. How people carry fridge freezers on their heads while riding a motorbike also continues to surprise, confuse, and amuse me (something I've seen many times in Nigeria). But the most meaningful surprise has to be how amazingly resourceful, proud, and resilient communities are around the world, many of which were dealt a bad hand and face extreme hardship and poverty through little fault of their own. The saying "people don't want charity, they want a chance" rings so true. That's why I spent seven years working on my text-messaging platform, FrontlineSMS. The very ethos behind it is that if you create tools for people to use—people who face problems and challenges on a daily basis—and provide those tools unconditionally, then they're often able to help themselves. There's a quote from a 2007 interview I gave to Africa Journal that sums that up best:


"FrontlineSMS provides the tools necessary for people to create their own projects that make a difference. It empowers innovators and organizers in the developing world to achieve their full potential through their own ingenuity."


Helping people help themselves is a strong theme of my work, enshrined in FrontlineSMS and now core themes of Means of Exchange and The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator.


Picture of mobile technology
Photograph courtesy Ken Banks


How can everyday technologies be used to create social change?


We're witnessing more and more examples of how technology can help drive social change, but we need to remember that fundamentally it's people who do the driving. Technology can help, but there needs to be a desire, a passion, and a need for change in people's minds before anything can happen. Let's not forget, Mubarak left office in Egypt not because a few million people "liked" a page on Facebook telling him to go, but because millions turned out on the streets. Technology use can lead to apathy, with people forwarding messages or tweeting or "liking" things and then thinking they've done their bit. This is now widely known as "slacktivism."


If people have a message, a movement, or an injustice that needs righting then social media is a great way of helping spread that message, to help garner further support and show others, who may be in fear of standing up, that they're not alone. Social media, and the Internet more broadly, have become powerful tools in people's fights against corrupt governments, brutality, and oppression, and this is why many governments who rule on that basis often resort to eliminating or restricting access as movements against them start to take hold. The Arab Spring has been the most talked about example of how tools such as Facebook and Twitter can be used to drive revolutionary movements, but let's not call them "Facebook Revolutions" or "Twitter Revolutions." They're "People Revolutions" at the end of the day.


Have you ever been lost? How'd you get found?


The first time I ever got lost was when I was about five, I think. I somehow ended up out of the house quite late—well, around 9 p.m.—walking around about a mile away from where we lived back then. I ended up in someone's house and my mother had to come and pick me up. The memory is rather faded now.


I did get lost in Washington, D.C., a couple of years ago, getting off a very late night bus after a long day in New York and totally losing my bearings. I wandered around for a couple of hours before I found my way back to my hotel. (Even when I'm lost I stay on foot—you can't beat walking and it's character building if you can work your way out of a tricky "travel malfunction.") Other than that, I've been pretty good at not getting lost. I've thought I've been lost a few times on my travels in Africa—again, always walking—but it turned out I wasn't. I'm pretty good at making mental notes of landmarks and directions. The lesson I've learnt from that is to trust your instincts.


If you could trade places with one explorer at National Geographic, who would it be and why?


Picture of Ken Banks and Meave Leakey
Ken Banks and Meave Leakey Photograph courtesy Ken Banks


That's got to be one of the toughest questions you could ask. There are, of course, many. I have a long-standing interest in primates, having helped run a sanctuary in Nigeria in 2001, so Jane Goodall would be high up my list (assuming I could be any gender!). Michael Fay would also be up there. His Megatransects really capture the spirit of exploration for me—pushing human endurance, facing the unknown, the extreme conditions and adversity you need to battle against. I've also been a long-standing fan of the Leakeys’ work in East Africa, and was honored to bump into Meave at National Geographic a couple of years ago. And I absolutely love walking, so I'm ridiculously envious of Paul Salopek and his extraordinary Out of Eden Walk at the moment.


But, at the risk of listing almost everyone at National Geographic, I'd probably say Spencer Wells. He's unlocking the past and tracing the very roots of our race, a subject that's always fascinated me (my degree is in social anthropology). The fact that he's using some of the most advanced DNA testing technologies to do it also helps, of course. And there's a strong walking theme, too. I've been lucky to meet Spencer on a number of occasions and hear him speak. He's a great explorer and communicator—a real inspiration.


What do you think National Geographic explorers will be exploring in 100 years?


There's still going to be plenty to explore, I think, but we may have to rethink what "exploring" means. Treasures and relics from past civilizations will continue to tell their stories, and new technologies and methods of analysis will allow us to ask increasingly complex questions of them. Technology will emerge as a new field of exploration in itself—how it impacts on society, helps us rethink and reshape our existence as a race, and how it can be applied to solve some of the growing environmental and developmental challenges we face. Although many people think most of the planet has been explored, we only know a fraction of what there is to know about what lies within and beneath our oceans, for example, and it wasn't so long ago that a forest was discovered in Mozambique using Google Earth. We could, of course, also be well into populating other planets in our universe by the start of the next century. That will open up a whole new field of exploration.


Where is your favorite place that you've traveled?


My first website, from about 13 years ago, was named after a place called Igisi Hill in Uganda. In 1998 I spent three months in Karuma Wildlife Reserve helping carry out biodiversity survey work. We traveled into Murchison Falls National Park on a number of occasions (Karuma was a buffer zone for the main park). Igisi Hill was one of a pair of hills we camped next to for a short while, and it took a good half an hour or so to climb from what I can remember. But from the top you could see all across the park, including Lake Albert shimmering in the distance. It was peaceful and cool, and gave me a chance to truly reflect on where I was, who I was, and the vastness of the place. I always imagined hunters from hundreds of years ago conveying messages to their fellow tribesman on the location and direction of the wildlife below. This was one of the things that made it magical. In a world of constant change, the view around me had likely remained almost constant for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. That's got to be special.


What advice would you give to someone looking to develop a new idea?


Probably to make sure they fully understand the problem they're trying to solve, to ask themselves (even if they do understand it) whether they're the right (or best) person to be fixing it, to take their time, build slowly on their own terms, not look for money straight away, and to only start building a team or organization around their work when they know their idea works. I've seen too much energy, effort, money, and resources wasted on things that were doomed to fail from the start.


If you were to meet your eight-year-old self, what would you say?


From what I can remember I was a pretty mixed up kid at that age (but not in a bad way). I probably already knew that I wanted to work with animals, or for conservation, or work outside—I was born in Jersey so regularly visited Gerald Durrell's zoo and my mother was a very keen walker and amateur naturalist. My life and career flip-flopped a lot during the first 20 years or so, but I'd probably have told my eight-year-old self to stick to your dreams, stay curious, respect everyone, don't underestimate the power of humility, and question everything. Oh, and that anything is possible. Okay, I never did get to become a train driver, but I'm pretty happy where I am now. And there's still time for that.


If you had unlimited funds, what project would you work on?


If I were to be honest, I'd say Means of Exchange because the time feels very right for an initiative like it. Millions of people around the world have lost jobs, homes, businesses, independence, and purpose. Millions more face growing uncertainty and insecurity. Many hardworking people have been hard hit. In the greater scheme of things they’re simply collateral damage in the rebalancing of a larger, broken world economic system. While it’s impossible for most of us to remove ourselves entirely from this system, there is a lot we can do to lessen our dependence on it. Some of the most exciting innovation often comes about in times of scarcity, and today people are becoming increasingly innovative in order to survive, trade, and maintain a reasonable standard of living. Self-sufficiency is the order of the day, and in austerity-hit countries such as Greece citizens are turning to age-old means of exchange such as bartering, as cash becomes an increasingly scarce commodity. As Greeks and others around the world in similar situations are showing, more meaningful economic self-sufficiency is possible if people are creative in how they earn, trade, and share with one another. As money has taken over as our primary means of exchange, other more traditional methods have been lost. What we’ve been left with is an economic system we have little control over, a loss of community, and a drift away from the consumption of locally produced goods and services. If we get this right there are positive benefits to be had economically, environmentally, and socially, which is why I'm so motivated to work on it.



Follow Ken's wider work at kiwanja.net or on Twitter.


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