On Monday, I went to TEDxLondon, the London sibling of TEDxChange New York, an independently organised TED event convened by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The aim of the event was to mark the 10th anniversary of the 8 Millennium Development Goals. Entitled ‘the future we make’, the tone was firmly celebratory and optimistic…perhaps a little too optimistic for those of us for whom a question mark hangs over the common interpretation of aid and development.
The day begins…
Hosted by Wired UK editor David Rowan (who looks uncannily like the third Miliband brother – are you hiding something from us David?), the London event was a marathon session. It included live cover speakers in New York, followed by an additional set of speakers in London, and was interspersed with some all-important networking time. Not one for the faint of heart or ADHD prone.
Kicking off proceedings in New York was Hans Rosling – my data hero and the only person who can make stats exciting. If you haven’t seen them already, now is the time to take in one of his many wonderful TED talks.
Hans introduced the theme which ran through all the talks: we need to stop talking about Africa as a single entity. As he pointed out to much hilarity from the New York audience, you wouldn’t suggest that Greece and Sweden had the same economy. Secondly, he argued that we should measure progress towards goals such as decreasing child mortality as we would measure economic growth: look to the long-term. He pointed out the obvious, that it takes more than five years to see the impact of an initiative. I wholeheartedly agree. It’s madness to prejudge projects before they have had a chance to succeed.
Development: “like bowling in the dark”
Melinda Gates’ talk focused on what lessons international development can take from successful businesses. Using Coca Cola as her model, she broke down what she’d learnt into three key findings:
- Coke uses real-time data and feeds it quickly back into product management
- The brand makes use of entrepreneurial talent to ensure that Coca Cola is available everywhere
- Coke employs an incredibly aspirational marketing campaign built on the concept of happiness
Gates pointed out the value real-time data could provide to development workers. One aid worker described working on a project as like “bowling in the dark”: the project is carried out with no real understanding of its effect until an evaluation is completed, sometimes months after the project ends. Where real-time information is available, it can dramatically increase the effectiveness of development work.
Across the world, increased access to the internet, and more importantly to mobile networks, is undoubtedly opening up exciting possibilities for the use of real-time data. This has been most impressively demonstrated through Ushahidi but there are certainly many other valuable ways this technology could be put into practice.
Finishing up in New York, we heard from Mechai Viravaidya, affectionately known as Mr Condom, who regaled us with his winsome tale of running one of the greatest 20th Century marketing campaigns: making “weapons of mass protection” ubiquitous in Thailand. Highlights include condoms blessed by Monks (I kid you not), teachers engaging in condom blowing competitions and policeman participating in Cops and Rubbers.
Finally, Graça Machel gave a powerful and uncompromising speech where she drove home the idea that we need to stop talking about “Africa”. We are long overdue a cognitive shift that acknowledges Africa as a diverse continent made up of 53 countries with strong individual identities. Not only different countries, but countries with widely varying opportunities and difficulties.
Back in London, after a short and much needed breather, we cracked on with more talks.
Riders for Health: passion with purpose
Andrea Coleman, CEO of Riders for Health, explained how her love of motorcycles inspired her to set up a social enterprise to ensure health workers across Africa have reliable access to transportation. The photo above is what happened to ambulances before Riders for Health arrived on the scene. Andrea was clearly passionate about her work. Her organisation, which also trains health workers and fleet managers to maintain their vehicles, felt truly collaborative. It was an example of charity at its best: being used as a springboard rather than a bandaid.
Wendy Hanamura: my favourite speaker (sorry Hans)
Wendy Hanamura was a refreshing voice advocating an exciting new project, viewchange.org. Motivated by a desire to tell stories, she was frustrated by the way that a few iconic images of poverty had come to define an entire continent. ViewChange is a hugely interesting project currently in beta which puts the storytelling power back in the hands of the people who live those stories. The site makes use of the semantic web to categorise video content focused on global development, and surfaces related video, articles and actions.
Chimamanda Adichie, a novelist from Nigeria and a judge in the ViewChange film-makers competition, added her voice to the call to stop categorising Africa as a single story of catastrophe. As she said:
Now is the time to hear stories of what we can do.
I couldn’t agree more. Lastly, Paul Hilder from Avaaz wove a tale around alimentary metaphors which explored the pressing issue of global food, and possible solutions to finding a “better recipe” for the future.
Overall, TEDxLondon was an inspirational event and I’m very glad I had the opportunity to attend. My one disappointment was that for a set of talks which focused almost exclusively on Africa, there were surprisingly few representatives from African countries amongst the speakers. I would have liked to hear more from some of the exciting social enterprises and businesses which are transforming African countries from within. Appfrica and the aforementioned Ushahidi are two I know of already. If you can point me to any others I’d love to hear from you in the comments.
Thoughts on the way home
So what did I take away from the event? The themes of labelling, names and perception ran through all of the talks. It’s inspirational that a combination of motivated people and new tools is beginning to challenge these established ideas and reflect subtler, far more complex realities. Collaboration, autonomy, empowerment, community: these are concepts which technology has taken, shaken up, and given a new lease of life. I, for one, look forward to seeing the disruptive innovation that is undoubtedly coming our way from countries we are used to ‘helping’. And I also hope we won’t see many more conferences dominated by well-intentioned, well-off individuals from more developed countries. Now that really will be progress.