Paul Braund Interview: The Business of Technology and Development
Paul Braund is Co-Founder of RIOS Institute (Research and Innovation for Organizations and Societies Institute) in Berkeley and Silicon Valley, California. He has worked as an architect and award-winning industrial designer and has developed numerous patents. He has spent 20 years working in technology research and development in Silicon Valley.
He has spent the past 5 years working on social development and finding appropriate technology transfers for developing countries, particularly in communications technology. He has supported and represented the UN-World Bank at conferences and various fact finding trips and workshops in developing countries, while maintaining independent work with numerous NGOs, small community groups and academic institutions who are helping to bring more human-centered innovation to development.I had the pleasure of speaking with Paul in advance of the Silicon Valley Challenge Summit, which will bring together Silicon Valley’s unique pool of talent, creativity and ambitions to further transform the region into a hub of the international network around the use of ICT for global development.
Rob Katz: How has your background in architecture and design prepared you to work in the field of international development?
Paul Braund: Staying focused on the social challenges – the human factor, the human interaction, the human scale, no matter how complex the technology, process or system – is one of the first things I learned as a designer. In addition, designers work collaboratively with many specialists to create appropriate solutions. Both of these things are crucial for development work.
In a world dominated by the thinking and processes of technologists and scientific specialists on the one hand, and commercial and government practice on the other, it is sometimes easy to forget that societies are usually judged by how they help support the underserved.
Exploring how ICT (Information Communications Technology) can help the underserved, as set out in the Millennium Development Goals, and rising to the challenge set forth by Kofi Annan to utilize best practices of public-private partnership is the agenda of the Silicon Valley Challenge Summit, which is co-presented by RiOS and our partner, the Center for Science, Technology, and Society at Santa Clara University. At the Summit, RiOS will lead a workshop that shows concretely how using design practices and techniques, along with social science methodologies, can address the human experience and social needs of development, by supporting appropriate innovation that make a real and meaningful difference in the lives of project recipients. There is a natural connection here to what we call universal design, whereby designers learn early on to critique, to be natural innovators and to move beyond codified practice and technique in search of better solutions for many different segments of society.
Development is complex, but like good design and architecture, it comes down to people and improving the quality of someone’s life. Bringing people together and making things work is what it is all about, while working in collaboration with government policies or development programs, and taking into account cultural contexts. Being involved with anthropologists, and on-the-ground ethnographers helps localize projects – so we?re talking about subtleties within both their design and their implementation phases. Participation on the ground is crucial to successful outcomes, and it is also a key principle of design. RiOS builds this participatory environment through human-driven development and research workshops. The fact is that there are many smaller solutions but no big easy fixes, and that development has to happen one community at a time.
RK: How do you respond to critics who say that these types of solutions cannot scale up?
PB: Well that’s a big buzzword at the moment, scaleability. I think we need different and new models for development. We have the for-profit and the non-profit model. What we need is a combination using the best practices of both that allows us to gage social capital and gain. I am thinking about the no-loss company; great examples of this model would be the original Grameen phone concept, Aravind Eye hospital and some of the women and children initiatives established by NIIT. When we were in India working with the World Bank Institute, NGOs, the National Institutes of Technology, we saw a lot of smaller pilot projects. Many corporations and governments at local, state and national level were trying to find new ICT approaches to old development issues, particularly in education and it wasn?t going that well. When we started to ask villagers how the projects were going from their point of view, and created more buy-in, things started moving.
Also, coming from the Silicon Valley perspective, failure is OK, it’s something we can learn from. We want to learn from the mistakes of existing projects. We want to bring an entrepreneurial process, much like that of Silicon Valley, to developing countries.
RK: What sets the RiOS Institute apart from other NGOs in the ICT for Development field?
PB: Everyone’s doing what they can to affect change. In our small way, we bring an interesting mix to the table – scholarship (long-term, 5-year research and ethnography) combined with my design and research and development work. Putting the R&D (research and design) with ethnography has created an important focus on the end-users of technology, who are the people projects are supposed to serve. However, rather than being at the center, they are often secondary to technological innovation, market development efforts or development planning. RiOS refocuses projects and thereby helps assure that they make a real difference and are sustainable in the long term. We then translate this knowledge for decision makers to help them make more informed decisions about what really works. Not only that, but being in the Bay Area, connecting to Stanford University, UC Berkeley and other partners in the ICTD area – that puts us in a good position to be unique. To this we add our work with the United Nations and the World Bank Institute, which creates conversations that do not usually happen but are necessary. The Summit reflects this range of our capacity.
RK: In your opinion, which factor is holding back technology development in low-income markets?
PB: For business, there’s a lack of supportive policy and a supporting business environment that’s conducive to investment. Before you start talking about knowledge for society and the MDGs, you need the right frameworks – as Kofi Annan has said, without business involvement you can’t do it, so for business to be involved, you have to create the enabling environment.
Once we have a clear agenda between the public and private sectors, then things can really start to move ahead and achieve targets. The truth is that our system actually works quite well despite the flaws that are often apparent. In developing countries, it really just doesn?t work a lot of the time.
On the other hand, simply regarding societies as markets, and people as consumers, does not work. This view, which is widespread in the BOP movement and among corporations in the ICTD area, neglects many of people’s other needs that cannot be converted in financial value but contribute to the success of technology development.
RK: Tell me more about Participatory Rural Appraisal
PB: From our experience, these appraisals are often not working because they employ a form of rapid ethnography that cannot grasp the social, cultural and political complexities of a particular place. It is these complexities that often contribute to the success and failure of a project. What we are doing in our workshops, based on the human-driven design and research methodology we have developed, is to give people working in ICTD better tools to understand their unexamined assumptions as a starting point for possible collaborations that work for all parties involved because they are based on mutual understanding and clarity about needs and objectives.
RK: You’ve recruited a slew of futurists for the Summit – John Seely Brown, Paul Saffo, James Fruchterman – how do you plan to disseminate the outcomes of the summit, including their scenarios?
PB: The Summit is a call to action and is structured in an interactive way such that participants can get involved to the fullest extent possible. The aim is to develop the beginnings of concrete projects and initiatives, also by bringing different people and institutions together. Findings will be disseminated through the usual reports and articles, but we are also thinking about blogs, more visual maps etc. What is achievable by 2050 is the key question the Summit seeks to answer. We want to be a location for the intersection between the corporate, MLO, NGO, and academic worlds, as well as an inter-generational meeting space. These are not just dreamers; they understand the limits of technology and the fact that ICT alone is not enough. We want to balance the program between the concrete and the abstract, between those who challenge assumptions and those who seek to realign and energize the work.
It is an exciting time – Jim Fruchterman won the MacArthur Genius Award, Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize, Bill Gates will be talking and receiving an award recognizing his contribution at the Tech Awards. But most important to us will be the younger Tech Award winners from all over the world sharing time and space with the next generation of social entrepreneurs from from the Bay Area and showing their work at the Summit. It is an idea whose time has come. Our hope is the Summit is just one more step forward to keep the momentum going.