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Want to Do Good? Don't Go Looking for Problems

The best fixes for social ills come from reluctant innovators.

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Ken Banks's new book explores how some innovators are moved to change the world—despite their reluctance.

When it comes to making the world a better place, Ken Banks, a mobile technology pioneer and 2010 National Geographic Emerging Explorer, favors reluctance.

By reluctance, he doesn't mean a lack of enthusiasm. In his new book, The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator, Banks gathers ten first-person stories from people who unexpectedly—and, he argues, reluctantly—felt compelled to solve problems they never expected to encounter. An American doctor with a comfortable U.S. practice ended up bringing solar power to Nigerian maternity clinics; an Indian Ph.D. student in New York launched a literacy-boosting effort to add same-language subtitles to Indian TV shows; a suburban mother became a pioneer in health advocacy and helped discover the gene responsible for a rare disease afflicting her own children.

In all these cases, Banks says, the problems found the people, not the other way around. Embracing the search for solutions complicated their lives—hence the reluctance. But, Banks believes, meaningful change is most likely to come about, and stick, when it emerges this way.

What exactly is social innovation?

I'd define social innovation as the development of a new idea, or a new way of doing things, which specifically sets out to solve a social or environmental problem. Improving the human condition is the primary objective rather than profit or a desire to blindly invent or develop technology for technology's sake.

Do you perceive a qualitative difference between social innovation that's reluctant and innovation that isn't?

Over the course of my career I've witnessed firsthand both types of innovator and come to the conclusion that people with a vested interest in solving a particular problem are more likely to see it through and stick with it when they hit troubled waters. And they almost certainly will be hitting problems! One of the underlying themes behind many of the stories in my book is how tough it can be getting traction and support for an idea. An innovator who has seen, touched, smelled, or tasted the problem they've ended up dedicating their lives to will draw on those personal experiences when things get tough, and because of that, they rarely quit. When you're simply solving a problem because market research has shown a need or because you need to in order to obtain a qualification of some kind, or because a competition you've entered requires you to tackle it, it's much easier and far more common for people to call it a day and move on to something else.

Tell me about some of your favorite examples of reluctant innovation.

If I had to pick one, it would be Laura Stachel, an American doctor whose organization, WE CARE Solar, designs portable solar lighting kits for maternity wards in developing countries. When she first went to Nigeria, she planned to work on a different problem altogether, but quickly learned that a simple lack of lighting was responsible for a significant number of mother and child deaths. With maternal mortality rates in Nigeria among the highest in the world, with a ratio of 11 maternal deaths occurring for every 1,000 live births, she turned her attention to helping design, build, and distribute solar kits to solve it. She never intended to build an organization and never chose to become a solar innovator. But she saw a problem she felt compelled to fix, and she reluctantly became one. Solar Suitcases now save the lives of mothers and babies throughout the developing world.

You also define yourself as a reluctant innovator. Why?

My story follows a similar pattern to the ten we feature in the book. I wasn't looking for anything to solve, and the problem I experienced ate away at me for some time before I came up with a solution. In 2003 and 2004 I found myself working on the fringes of Kruger National Park in South Africa, trying to help the authorities improve communication with local communities. Mobile phones were beginning to appear, and we considered using SMS [short message service] to send group text messages to community members. The problem was that no group-SMS technology worked in those kinds of hard-to-reach places. A few months later, the idea for a text-messaging platform was born one Saturday night over a bottle of beer and Match of the Day. The result, FrontlineSMS, today helps nonprofit organizations in over 170 countries communicate critical messages with millions of the most marginalized and vulnerable people. I only felt remotely qualified to help solve this because I'd spent the best part of 20 years living and working with the same kinds of grassroots organizations, mostly across Africa. It gave me an insight that was not only crucial for FrontlineSMS to work, but it also gave me credibility among the people I was trying to help.

Your book includes many examples of innovation in health care—has that field especially benefited from social innovation?

This is a very good question. I think health, generally, does have a disproportionate amount of attention, but it's such a wide topic and obviously a crucial area of focus across much of the developing world. Although health is covered more than any other topic in the book, I think the entry point is quite different in each case. One tackles it from a data collection perspective, one focuses on massage, another on genetic disorders, another on communications between community health workers and their hospital, one on patents and access to medicines, and another on solar as a lighting solution for maternity wards.

In the final chapter of the book, architect Wes Janz's first advice to people wanting to start out in social innovation is "Don't do anything." Is that your advice, too? What does Janz mean by this?

Wes's thoughts do chime closely with my own. I frequently argue that we shouldn't develop solutions to problems we don't understand, that we shouldn't take ownership of a problem that isn't ours, and we certainly shouldn't build "solutions" from thousands of miles away and then jump on a plane in search of a home for them. This, in the "technology for development" world I spend most of my time in these days, is generally what tends to happen—good intentions, often poorly executed.

It's crucial that we encourage people to take an interest in the world and in the realities of life for those less fortunate. But that doesn't mean we have all the answers. The first step is, as far as I'm concerned, for people to get out into the world to try and simply understand it, not to try and fix it. Wes's concerns center around people who go out determined to help regardless of whether or not they're the best person to do that, or regardless of whether or not they're qualified to do so. The book gives plenty of helpful advice for people interested in making a positive impact on the world. My main purpose in pulling it all together is to inspire and guide people, and to help them make better decisions on how they apply their passion for social change.

What do you imagine social innovation might look like in the future?

If things continue as they are, I'd expect the future of social innovation to be dominated by individual change-makers, with more and more people taking on the problems that bigger institutions or systems have failed to—or simply decided not to—focus on. And technology will be a big enabler of this. As more and more people become connected, tools for online collaboration improve, smartphones become ubiquitous, and people look to alternative careers as traditional ones decline, we'll see significantly more people choosing their own path. And for the same reasons we'll see increasing numbers of problem-solvers emerge in the places where those problems exist, leading to a huge rise in indigenous solutions. This is already starting to happen. And I would hope that the aid sector would cease to exist—or at least not exist in its current form—as people realize that problems can't be solved by aging institutions or models, and that things don't get fixed just by throwing large amounts of money at them.

National Geographic News readers are eligible for a 20 percent discount on the book through December 1, 2013, using the code BANKSNATGEO20 here:

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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