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In Your Network: Ken Banks

Ken Banks FRSA, the founder of and FrontlineSMS, devotes himself to the application of mobile technology for positive social and environmental change in the developing world. Ken is also an Ashoka Fellow and recently crowdfunded with the RSA’s support to publish his first edited book, The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator which was released on Wednesday 20 November. Find out what inspires him:

1) Please give a brief explanation of what it is you do and why?
For the past eleven years I've spent most of my time trying to figure out how grassroots non-profits in the developing world can make best use of mobile phones, a technology with huge potential for human development. My background is a mixture of IT, anthropology, conservation and development which gives me a sometimes unique multidisciplinary view on how we might tackle some of the bigger problems. I’m also an author and have just published my first book – The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator – which looks at how some of the more interesting and promising social innovations tend to happen when they’re least planned or expected. 

Why do I do all of this? Because life sucks for a large percentage of people on the planet and it only seems right to spend what little time I have here trying to make things slightly more bearable for them, if only in the smallest way.

2) Why did you join the Fellowship?
I’m always looking for opportunities to meet, and work with, interesting people doing interesting things, and the RSA seemed to have plenty of them. I was also drawn to the history, and the legacy of both the work that had gone before, and the potential of what was to come.

3) In what capacity do you think you could contribute to society/the Fellowship?
I've been involved in the social sector in some shape or form for over twenty years, and have a lot of experience in the developing world (I've been fortunate to live and work in a number of countries across the continent, from short two to five week spells all the way up to a year). I've also got a strong technology background, having learnt to program in my early teens and then spending a number of years developing systems and operating mainframe computers for the finance industry in Jersey. I think it’s my blend of technology, anthropology, conservation and development which gives me a different way of looking at problems, or what some people may perceive as problems. My experience conceiving and developing a text messaging platform, FrontlineSMS – today in use in over 170 countries – also helps me understand what it takes to innovate and take an idea to market.

4) What would you change in society given the chance?
One of many things I’d like to change (if given the chance) is how we value family (or not, as the case may be). When you see how they operate in much of the developing world, and how they stick together and support one another throughout their lives, and then compare that to how the value and importance of the extended family has been eroded in much of the ‘developed world’, it’s quite sad. In the UK we don’t take as much responsibility as we used to. If we move far away from elderly parents then someone else, or the state, will look after them, for example. The opportunities that living in an affluent society bring are often at great social expense – we just don’t always see them.

5) What recent bit of news have you heard which inspires you?
I think it still counts as recent, but I’d say it had to be the decision by the EU to ban a pesticide linked to bee deaths during the summer. Despite considerable lobbying by the chemical industry the ban was upheld, a rare glimpse of common sense politics. In conservation they have this thing they call the ‘precautionary principle’, where you err on the side of caution while you prove (or not) that something may be doing damage. This makes so much sense, yet so many political decisions are based on business as usual until someone can conclusively prove a negative effect, which in some cases can take forever. If we applied the precautionary principle to climate change then we’d cut right back on carbon emissions while we figured out what the problem really was. If we did that today then problem solved.

6) What did you learn last week?
That publishing a book is ten times more effort than I ever imagined, if you plan on doing it properly that is.

7) What would you like to connect with Fellows about? Please tell us if there is anything you would like from other Fellows.
One project which I've had on hold while I worked on my book is called Means of Exchange, an initiative that looks at how we might use emerging technology to reconnect people to local businesses, local resources, and each other. In recent years we've lost our way as communities, and few of us know our neighbours, and even fewer of us contribute to our local economies. At the same time we’re seeing the loss of the high street, and people feeling increasingly helpless as the prices of goods and services – many of which may have at some time been available locally – increasing beyond reach. In the meantime we hit bust after bust. Increasing numbers of people are beginning to realise that things can’t go on as they are, and Means of Exchange hopes to connect these people, including many of the RSA Fellows working on local issues of sustainability and resilience.

Ken Banks

Ken Banks



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