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Social Change Is What Happens When You're Busy Making Other Plans

BY Jessica McKenzie | Tuesday, November 19 2013

Cover image courtesy of Ken Banks

During his time as a fellow at Stanford University in 2007, Ken Banks noticed a growing number of students going to school to study social innovation and social entrepreneurship. “Then they leave the gates of the building and go 'Right, what can I fix?'”

Unfortunately, most of the successful innovators Banks has met over the course of his career did not go out intending to fix things, but instead let the problems, or rather the solutions, find them.

These are the stories that Banks wants to tell in his book The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator, which he conceived, shaped and edited. It goes on sale this Wednesday, November 20.

As Banks writes in the introduction to the book, "It is my hope that The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator will show the way, or at least one way, and prove that the only qualifications you need to change the world are a little faith, hope and determination.”

Banks has been working on the book for the past 18 months. It is an expansion or elaboration, of sorts, on an article he wrote for Wired U.K. The editor had asked Banks to write something that people would talk about “down at the pub,” not just a “techie, development-speak piece.” His article “Genius happens when you plan something else” appeared in the June 2012 print edition of Wired.

In that article, Banks introduces the term “reluctant innovator”:

The field of ICT4D -- information and communication technologies for development -- tasks itself with figuring out how to apply many of our everyday technologies for the greater social good, often in the developing world. Ironically, despite the tens of billions spent each year in official aid, some of the more promising ICT4D innovations also happen to have come about by chance. Many of the people behind them didn't consciously set out to solve anything, but they did. Welcome to the world of the "reluctant innovator".

In a phone interview, Banks told techPresident that he had had several people in mind who could illustrate the idea: Erik Hersman of Ushahidi, Brij Kothari of Planet Read, Laura Stachel of WE CARE Solar, and Josh Nesbit of Medic Mobile. Due to space constraints, Banks could only highlight two people in his Wired article: Kothari, who came up with the idea for reading practice through same-language subtitles of music videos while watching a Spanish-language movie with friends, and Stachel, who realized the need for an energy alternative during her work in Nigerian maternity wards where poor lighting was the cause of a shocking number of maternal deaths.

All four were obvious choices then, when Banks began to put together Reluctant Innovator. Their stories are joined by a number of others including that of Joel Selanikio and DataDyne. Earlier this year, techPresident covered social enterprise DataDyne's popular mobile data collection service Magpi, which is disrupting the traditional development project model.

As for Banks' own “reluctant innovation,” FrontlineSMS? He gives it a quick mention in the introduction, but nothing more. He didn't want the book to be about him.

Although Banks hopes the book will be used in classrooms—and says there has been interest from teachers and professors—the case studies are far from academic. The stories told are “deeply personal,” according to Banks.

It seems like a risky line to walk: personal and engaging enough for an everyman reader on the subway, but also meaty and relevant enough for the classroom and the social innovation scholar.

Banks closes the introduction as many of the book's contributors close their chapters: a long list of “Advice for Social Innovators at Heart.”

For a book about innovation, much of the advice is good, old fashioned common sense:

“Suppress your ego. Stay humble. Remain curious.”

“Learn to do what you can't afford to pay other people to do.”

“Don't be competitive. There's plenty of poverty to go around.”

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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