Angelica Valeria Ospina recently wrote about the role of social memory and ICTs in building climate change resilience. She refers to Carl Folke’s definition of social memory as “captured experience with change and successful adaptations embedded in a deeper level of values, and actualized through community debate and decision-making processes into appropriate strategies for dealing with ongoing change.”
Ospina suggests that social memory is “key for linking past experience with present and future adaptation actions, and in turn allows for novelty and innovation.” She comments that “Although the role of memory tends to be overshadowed by that of innovation, the two are in fact important foundations for change, and are equally relevant within contexts that are struggling to adapt to uncertainty….”
I really like this idea of balancing memory and innovation, and it’s not only valid within the framework of resilience and climate change. Social memory is also useful for those of us working in ICT4D and m4D because we find ourselves at the intersection of development and technology, where methodologies and mindsets can be in opposition at times and where change is happening at a rapid frequency.
A quick characterization of the mindsets
Development Organization Mindset: How can we work with our existing resources and work around our challenges to reach our goals? How can we build on experience?
Those who work with grassroots community development are schooled to look at assets, to help communities and local organizations look at what exists already, what is within their reach, and how to identify their existing resources before looking outside for support or help. This helps a program to be more locally owned and sustainable. Those in this field are trained to look for potential obstacles and limitations and see how to go around them or to work within them. There is a sense that lives and livelihoods are on the line, this is nothing to play around with and failure carries a high price both for community members and for organizations. This mindset can be really frustrating for for-profit or marketing consultants who come in to get people to do ‘blue sky thinking’ and to forget about limitations.
This is the group that people would describe using that Henry Ford quote: ‘If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have asked for a faster horse.’ But this kind of thinking does have its place – local context, perceived limitations, and local experience, eg. social memory, are important in design and sustainability and impact. In addition, innovations don’t only happen in terms of ‘products’, there are process, position and paradigm innovations also which happen all the time in non-profit organizations and communities.
(Note: Certainly some will say that in aid work, no one does evaluations, and no one learns and it’s all a waste of time and resources, but that’s not been my personal experience at this point, and the work I’ve been involved in has been community development focused, not top down delivery of services and goods.)
Design Student/Technology Innovator Mindset: What can we make? What can we build that’s like nothing that’s come before? What solutions can we offer?
Innovation thinking pushes for a different kind of visioning. For throwing aside conventions and ignoring limitations so that the chains are completely off. It urges people to move quickly, to try and fail fast and often. A lot of innovation and tech thinking is product focused – What can we make? What can we build? What solution do we have that people might need? What tech can we invent and then let people figure out uses for? Those in this group are trained to move forward without thinking so much about the challenges and limitations, to move at a quick pace, and without engaging a thousand people in the process. This enables new ideas to flourish unfettered by endless rounds of consultations and participation by too many people bringing you to the fabled and unfortunate “a camel is a horse designed by a committee” result. It allows totally new ideas and processes as well as products to spring up. Lots of trying might equal lots of failing, but it also brings about those few amazing and game changing innovations that allow huge leaps forward. Many within this field are amazingly bright and creative. At this point few have long-term experience living in poor communities in developing countries, and there are few opportunities for gaining enough of that experience.
The middle ground
Both of these mindsets have advantages and limitations and seem to have a very hard time coming to a middle ground to work together effectively, though some initiatives are overcoming this challenge. Potential collaboration can be compromised when people address each other in snarky or accusatory ways, without sufficient knowledge of the other’s work and experience. For example, this series of blog posts around crowdsourcing and humanitarian aid between Patrick Meier (here, here and here) and Paul Currion (here and here). Unfortunately I don’t have a audio recording to post of the conversation where someone told me that Paul is quite well-known for innovations in the field of humanitarian aid and technology, and would be an excellent person to collaborate with on innovations in humanitarian aid — I really hope people like Patrick and Paul will work together, as the results could be fantastic.
Ken Banks has also raised this issue of m(obile) vs d(evelopment); most recently in his post Dissecting m4d: back to basics, where he asks: Do the majority of people working in “mobiles for development” work in mobile, or development? It may seem like an odd question, but how people approach “m4d” may have more of an impact on success or failure than we think.
An example of collaboration
There are some good examples of collaboration however. One I saw most recently is MIT’s Department of Play’s Summer Institute in early August, where a team of incredible innovators and students from MIT working on community youth engagement tools spent 2 days in discussions with folks with years of experience working on child participation and youth engagement, including UNICEF; CUNY Children’s Environments Research Group; Project Vision Design and Research Collective at Srishti School of Art Design and Technology Bangalore; and the Program in Education, Afterschool & Resiliency (and me :-D)
I think eventually these gaps will smooth out as the younger generation moves in and up the chain at development organizations and some of the newer technology becomes ubiquitous within organizations. It’s quite possible also that the current and new generations of design and tech students will spend more time ‘in the field’. And I am not only talking about ‘Western’ folks here, I’m also talking about young people and design students from the so-called ‘underdeveloped countries’, many of whom use technology at a dizzying pace and who are already re-shaping how development is viewed and carried out in their countries.
By lowering the fences that we are all working behind, and finding ways to combine our different skills, ICT4D and m4d can come up with even better solutions and achieve better impact in areas like accountability, health, education, livelihood, governance, emergency response and disaster preparedness. We can build teams that capitalize on the different kinds of knowledge, skills and mindsets. We can harness social memory and strive for a balance between experience and innovation.
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