Can more open conversations accelerate the spread of good ideas in global development? That’s the idea behind two new online salons designed to move discussions out of institutional silos and spark participation from a diverse network of change agents.
Striking Poverty, hosted by the World Bank Institute, is an online discussion platform that invites expert panelists to join featured conversations about timely, tightly focused topics. The first conversation kicked off in October—hurricane season—with a discussion of how to use open data mapping to improve disaster response. In November, the focus shifted to carbon and climate change. For two weeks, experts debated the pros and cons of clean cookstoves, solar lighting kits, and other examples of low-emission development.
The hope is to use these rolling topics to “shine a light and lend a megaphone” to innovations in the development sector, explains Aleem Walji, practice manager of World Bank Institute’s Innovation Team and former head of global development initiatives at Google.org. By encouraging debate and discussion among diverse stakeholders, the World Bank wants to compress the time required to experiment, learn from failure, share lessons, and get promising solutions to scale up. As Walji puts it, the goal is to generate “a ‘portfolio of hunches’ that we believe could be transformative in ending extreme poverty in our lifetime.”
Meanwhile, the Ford Foundation aims to accelerate problem solving around issues affecting the urban poor with the new online community Urb.im. The site connects contributors from six mega-cities—Lagos, Nairobi, Mumbai, Jakarta, Mexico City, and Rio de Janeiro—and more locations are expected to join soon. Discussions focus on shared issues such as how to overcome employment barriers facing urban youth.
To keep these global conversations humming, social media expert Victor d’Allant and his team at Dallant Networks are working behind the scenes to build robust online communities. It’s familiar territory for d’Allant, who previously managed Social Edge, the Skoll Foundation’s widely used online community for the social change sector.
To find out how to make the new digital communities most useful, d’Allant and company have gone offline for field work around the globe. “We discovered there’s a big need for platforms to help urban planners, policy makers, and other practitioners find out what’s happening in other cities,” d’Allant says. “Rio has no idea what’s happening in the slums of Mumbai,” he adds, even though the two cities are facing similar issues.
Urb.im has enlisted local bureau chiefs, who are contributing multimedia content to make the site timely and inviting. “That’s just part one,” d’Allant promises. “Eventually, we want to be able to engage the urban poor themselves.” High illiteracy rates and low penetration of technology among the urban poor mean that, for now, online conversations are attracting policymakers and practitioners instead of those at the bottom of the pyramid. “Five years from now,” he adds, “it could be a different story.”
These nascent multimedia platforms are evolving quickly, applying agile development practices more common in Silicon Valley than in traditional global development work. Mark Durham, CTO for Dallant Networks, likens the process to “writing jazz versus writing a symphony. A symphony is the classic way of writing software or doing a big project. You have a plan and stick to it. Agile development,” he counters, “recognizes that things change as you learn in the process. It’s like jazz. As you’re building, you listen. You learn. Your assumptions might be 50 percent correct or only 20 percent right. You adjust course accordingly.”
D’Allant applauds organizations like the World Bank for using digital tools to advance openness and transparency. By using social media to generate global conversations, he says, “they’re asking everyone in the world, what would it take to eradicate poverty? What ideas do you have to contribute?” Foundations and development organizations, he adds, “sometimes need to grab the microphone and describe what they do, and sometimes they need to pass the mic to the rest of the community.”
In a recent World Bank blog post about the launch of Striking Poverty, Walji said, “I believe that asking the right question is more than half of what it takes to find effective solutions. You can’t solve really big problems on your own. By being open to ideas and solutions from unexpected [sources], we will be stronger in the fight to eradicate poverty and boost shared prosperity globally.”