A few months ago, I was at a dinner at Erik Hersman’s (also behind Ushahidi). His team has started a new project called iHub, basically a technology (web and mobile) incubator in a great new office building in Nairobi. Fledgling programers submit an application for membership and, if accepted, are given free & fast wireless internet and a great place to work with like-minded people.
The goal is not the quantitative, time-bound results as we know in development. Despite receiving financial support from HIVOS, an organization that often funds NGOs, there will be no traditional monitoring and evaluation to measure success. Instead, success will be measured by how the iHub environment facilitates their work – not the number of softwares they churn out or the number of programers who come through the office.
We need to recognize the value of information and communication technology in allowing grassroots innovation. Technology may be produced in the West, but it is unfailingly adapted for a variety of purposes elsewhere. An NGO in rural Uganda takes Frontline SMS, developed by a European, and applies it to crowd sourcing events (Uganda Witness); Ushahidi is transplanted to Haiti and supports aid efforts after the earthquake. Flexibility is key to technology, and one of the main reasons it is so successful in generating change.
Can development learn from this model? What about a development incubator? Young Kenyans, Ugandans or otherwise, with a history of community involvement are given the space, tools, contacts and guidance to successfully launch their own projects. Success is not measured by the number of people they reach, but by the ingenuity of the project and the long-term difference in quality of life this project allows. Flexibility and adaptation to circumstances are encouraged, not punished, by funders.
What do you think? How can development learn from the way technology is adopted and used in developing countries?