Meeting the Challenge of Sustainable Design

By Ryan Jones, FrontlineSMS Grants and Fundraising Manager You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

The above quote, from famed designer Buckminster Fuller, sums up the motivation behind ‘Architecting the Future,’ three days of learning, sharing, and celebrating innovation for social change. I was proud to represent FrontlineSMS as one of four finalists for this year’s Buckminster Fuller Challenge, an award recognising ‘bold, visionary’ initiatives that are trying to solve humanity’s most pressing challenges.  While we didn’t come away with the prize, it was certainly an honor to know the jury considered our work ‘a truly comprehensive, anticipatory, integrated approach to solving the world's complex problems.’

FrontlineSMS was certainly in good company alongside the other extraordinary finalists, who all demonstrated comprehensive, specific design solutions to important problems. The overall winner of the Challenge, Blue Ventures, take a multifaceted approach to conservation and community development in Madagascar’s coastal communities, by tackling root causes of overfishing and poverty in the region. The remaining two finalists, the Rainforest Foundation’s participatory mapping project in the Congo basin and Tara Ashkar+, a creative technology-driven literacy program in India, take similar approaches, engaging whole communities and systems to maximize the impact, durability, and sustainability of their work.

Here at FrontlineSMS, you could say that we approach whole-systems thinking in a slightly different way. Our work identifies with a common context in which NGOs around the economically developing world work; recognising both the incredible rise of mobile phones and the concomitant challenge that poor infrastructure can still pose. Within this context FrontlineSMS provides a tool that skillfully and elegantly ‘just works’, and thus we can leverage the power of existing tools and the work of existing organisations many times over. Buckminster Fuller would have called a tool like FrontlineSMS a ‘trimtab,’ after the small flaps on ships and planes that can help create large changes in direction with very little force.

One particular Challenge juror noted the appeal of FrontlineSMS software was in its ubiquitous utility as opposed to what it actually is; and we agree. Today, FrontlineSMS is being used in many more ways than we ever could have imagined, and the dedicated people using it are a source of boundless inspiration.

That same inspiration was on display during the conference, serving as a reminder of why I love our work so much. While Al Harris, the founder of Blue Ventures, presented his work, my mind starting racing with ways he could use mobile phones and FrontlineSMS: better data collection of fish and octopus stocks, better community engagement on conservation issues, the list goes on and on. I hoped to convince him of their value after the event ended. Turned out Al didn’t take much convincing. Once I finished our presentation, he leaned over to me and said, “I’m downloading your software tonight.”

For more information on the Buckminster Fuller Challenge visit: