The folly of “finding what works”

Tuesday 9th November, 2010
Over the past few weeks I’ve found myself drawn into an increasing number of conversations around how we apply models of growth and sustainability to m4d projects. A few early thoughts were posted last week in “Wrong model. Wrong place“. One symptom of “wrong model wrong place” is the number of pilots which fail to mature into full-blown projects. Another is an obsession with re-inventing wheels and rampant innovation. This post, originally written last June, tackles this issue specifically – and in light of current discussions seemed worth re-posting.
“At what point in the social mobile world do we stop building new things and take stock of what we already have? Is it time to do as we say – “find what works and get it into more hands”, or are we just saying what conference attendees and donors want to hear?

There are more parallels between the approach of “mobiles for development” practitioners and our “traditional development” counterparts than we care to admit. It seems that in a blind rush to innovate we’re borrowing a few too many bad habits from our developmental colleagues when we ought to be identifying and applying best practices. Some time ago, I raised a number of these issues in a challenging blog post entitled “Time to eat our own dog food?“.
Little has changed since then, and many people are already well into their second bowl.
Image courtesy MontanaRaven on Flickr
As with the confusion caused by multiple interpretations of sustainable development, the social mobile space is struggling with its own definitions of  concepts such as collaboration, empowerment, scale, “enabling environment” and “finding what works”. We hear these terms on a daily basis, yet we never stop to ask what they really mean. What does an “enabling environment” really look like, and do we really need one like people say we do? Who decides what scale really means, and how important scaling really is? We all nod in agreement when people use these terms at conferences, but refrain from questioning them through fear of appearing ignorant.
The “folly of finding what works” strikes particular resonance. Although mobiles for development has only been around for a few short years, surely by now we’ve identified at least a few things that work? Isn’t that the purpose of all these reports, blog posts, tweets, projects, conferences, workshops, barcamps and academic studies?

Without a shadow of a doubt we have fairly strong evidence that certain approaches and tools create real social change. The problem is that, once we identify them, rather than collaborate and “get what works out into more places” like we say we need to, we see a flurry of activity to build copy-cat tools and services. Very soon we’re going to have more crowd-sourcing tools, or SMS hubs, or community sites, or data collection tools, or toolkits, or fancy reports, or in-depth studies than we can throw a mobile at. Calls for ‘competition’ and a rich ecosystem are all very well, but not if it comes at the expense of the communities where these kinds of tools are desperately needed today.
After six years-or-so of social mobile, we’re surely at the point where we can throw some real resources around at least a few tools? Surely we can pool our collective skills, knowledge and resources into helping at least a few reach their full social change potential? Instead of sitting around talking about our commitment to social mobile, we need to show our true colours and act, regardless of who gets credit for those actions.
At the end of the day it comes down to this. If mobiles truly are as revolutionary and empowering as they appear to be – particularly in the lives of some of the poorest members of society – then it’s hard to argue against us having a moral duty – competition, ego and status aside – to see that they fulfill that potential.
Quite rightly we will ultimately be judged on what we do, not what we say. I, for one, spent the best part of my university years critiquing the efforts of those who went before me. Countless others have done the same. Looking to the future, how favourably will the students and academics of tomorrow reflect on our efforts? A wasted, or unnecessarily delayed opportunity?
Let’s hope not. The clock is ticking, though.”