Buckminster Fuller Challenge

Rethinking socially responsible design in a mobile world

"The Curry Stone Design Prize was created to champion designers as a force for social change. Now in its fourth year, the Prize recognizes innovators who address critical issues involving clean air, food and water, shelter, health care, energy, education, social justice or peace". Yesterday was an exciting day for us as we announced FrontlineSMS had won the prestigious 2011 Curry Stone Design Prize. This award follows closely on the heels of the 2011 Pizzigati Prize, an honourable mention at the Buckminster Fuller Challenge and our National Geographic "Explorer" Award last summer. It goes without saying these are exciting times not just for FrontlineSMS but for our growing user base and the rapidly expanding team behind it. When I think back to the roots of our work in the spring of 2005, FrontlineSMS almost comes across as "the little piece of software that dared to dream big".

With the exception of the Pizzigati Prize - which specifically focuses on open source software for public good - our other recent awards are particularly revealing. Last summer we began something of a trend by being awarded things which weren't traditionally won by socially-focused mobile technology organisations.

Being named a 2010 National Geographic Emerging Explorer is a case in point, and last summer while I was in Washington DC collecting the prize I wrote down my thoughts in a blog post:

On reflection, it was a very bold move by the Selection Committee. Almost all of the other Emerging Explorers are either climbing, diving, scaling, digging or building, and what I do hardly fits into your typical adventurer job description. But in a way it does. As mobile technology continues its global advance, figuring out ways of applying the technology in socially and environmentally meaningful ways is a kind of 21st century exploring. The public reaction to the Award has been incredible, and once people see the connection they tend to think differently about tools like FrontlineSMS and their place in the world.

More recently we've begun receiving recognition from more traditional socially-responsible design organisations - Buckminster Fuller and Clifford Curry/Delight Stone. If you ask the man or woman on the street what "socially responsible design" meant to them, most would associate it with physical design - the building or construction of things, more-to-the-point. Water containers, purifiers, prefabricated buildings, emergency shelters, storage containers and so on. Design is so much easier to recognise, explain and appreciate if you can see it. Software is a different beast altogether, and that's what makes our Curry Stone Design Prize most interesting. As the prize website itself puts it:

Design has always been concerned with built environment and the place of people within it, but too often has limited its effective reach to narrow segments of society. The Curry Stone Design Prize is intended to support the expansion of the reach of designers to a wider segment of humanity around the globe, making talents of leading designers available to broader sections of society.

Over the past few years FrontlineSMS has become so much more than just a piece of software. Our core values are hard-coded into how the software works, how it's deployed, the things it can do, how users connect, and the way it allows all this to happen. We've worked hard to build a tool which anyone can take and, without us needing to get involved, applied to any problem anywhere. How this is done is entirely up to the user, and it's this flexibility that sits at the core of the platform. It's also arguably at the heart of it's success:

We trust our users - rely on them, in fact - to be imaginative and innovative with the platform. If they succeed, we succeed. If they fail, we fail. We're all very much in this together. We focus on the people and not the technology because it's people who own the problems, and by default they're often the ones best-placed to solve them. When you lead with people, technology is relegated to the position of being a tool. Our approach to empowering our users isn't rocket science. As I've written many times before, it's usually quite subtle, but it works:

My belief is that users don’t want access to tools – they want to be given the tools. There’s a subtle but significant difference. They want to have their own system, something which works with them to solve their problem. They want to see it, to have it there with them, not in some "cloud". This may sound petty – people wanting something of their own – but I believe that this is one way that works.

What recognition from the likes of the Curry Stone Design Prize tells us is that socially responsible design can be increasingly applied to the solutions, people and ecosystems built around lines of code - but only if those solutions are user-focused, sensitive to their needs, deploy appropriate technologies and allow communities to influence how these tools are applied to the problems they own.

Further reading FrontlineSMS is featured in the upcoming book "Design Like You Give a Damn 2: Building Change From The Ground Up", available now on pre-order from Amazon.

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: http://challenge.bfi.org/

FrontlineSMS Semi-Finalists in 2011 Buckminster Fuller Challenge

We announced a few weeks ago that FrontlineSMS is 'rising to the Buckminster Fuller Challenge.' Now, after a rigorous vetting process, FrontlineSMS has been selected from a pool of hundreds of entries from over 35 counties to become 2011 Semi-Finalists! Named "Socially-Responsible Design's Highest Award" by Metropolis Magazine, the Challenge awards $100,000 to support the development and implementation of a whole systems-based solution that has significant potential to solve humanity’s most pressing problems.

FrontlineSMS was recognized for our work to bring the communication revolution to poor and remote regions, by harnessing the power and reach of mobile phones. Our software works without the internet, is easy to implement, simple to operate, and free to download. Results from a recent FrontlineSMS user survey help to illustrate our efforts to  design software to work for "100% of humanity." In the survey 84% of users said they found our software easy to use.* Results also demonstrated that FrontlineSMS is being used in over 70 countries, and is particularly useful in areas of the world where other forms of communication can be difficult to access. One FrontlineSMS user said,

"I was using Frontline SMS to communicate with administrators, principals, and teachers in 50 secondary schools. In the area I was working landlines and faxes were largely unheard of, postal services unreliable, and even road access was poor. FrontlineSMS allowed me to coordinate communication between these schools to organise various school events and programs."

At its core, FrontlineSMS software turns a laptop computer and a mobile phone or modem into a mass messaging platform, empowering users to gather and share information of any kind, in any place. We see FrontlineSMS as part of a strategy that grassroots organizations around the world can adopt to leverage mobile technology for the greater good.We focus on reaching the “last mile” by designing the platform to take advantage of basic mobile phones already in the hands of billions of people throughout the developing world.

While the core platform is use-agnostic, our team is committed to incubating sector specific solutions. For example, our sister projects work with FrontlineSMS to confront challenges in access to healthcare, education, financial credit, legal representation, and media. There are clearly many other sectors in which FrontlineSMS can be utilized too. In our user survey examples emerged from over 15 sectors, including conservation, human rights, and agriculture, amongst others.

For FrontlineSMS, winning the $100,000 Buckminster Fuller prize would provide critical support for developing Version 2 of the software; an upgrade that will improve and extend core functionalities, making the software even more user friendly and interactive. Version 2 will help users of FrontlineSMS do more with the software than ever before.

As one of the 21 Semi-Finalists, FrontlineSMS will be featured as a top tier project in BFI’s Idea Index for the remainder of the program cycle. Semi-Finalists will be reviewed and discussed by 11 distinguished jurors including Valerie Casey, founder of Design Accord; David Orr, writer and professor of Environmental Studies and Politics at Oberlin College; Andrew Zolli, producer of PopTech and Danielle Nierenberg, Project Director of State of World 2011; and Sim Vanderyn, visionary ecological design pioneer.

Finalists will be announced in May and the winner, runner up, and honorable mention will be announced at the conferring ceremony in New York in early June.

About the Buckminster Fuller Challenge

The Buckminster Fuller Challenge is the premier international competition recognizing initiatives which take a comprehensive, anticipatory, design approach to radically advance human well being and the health of our planet’s ecosystems. The 2011 Semi-finalists are providing workable solutions to some of the world’s most significant challenges including water scarcity, food supply, health, energy consumption and shelter. The Challenge is a program of The Buckminster Fuller Institute which aims to deeply influence the ascendance of a new generation of design-science pioneers who are leading the creation of an abundant and restorative world economy that benefits all humanity. For more information visit: http://challenge.bfi.org/

*Our FrontlineSMS user survey received responses from 174 people