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Bicycles fueling change in Kenya. Thomas Mukoya/Reuters

Can innovators build a future that’s both disruptive and just?

Today – October 30 – MIT’s Media Lab celebrates its 30th anniversary.

The Media Lab is a place that takes very seriously the idea that we can invent a better future and have it spread around the globe. It’s a place that’s helped invent things that are very serious, like Hugh Herr’s work on artificial limbs, but also a place that helps bring to life the very playful – Guitar Hero came out of Tod Machover’s lab and its work on the future of music.

It’s also a place that’s helped invent technologies where the jury’s still out about their utility, like the wearable technology movement. Precursors to Google Glass were developed at the Media Lab.

My work at the Media Lab is about civic media, the idea that citizens can make and share media and use the media they make to make change in the world.

We work on projects like Media Cloud that help online activists figure out if their work is having impact, studying movements like Black Lives Matter. We build tools that let communities use mobile phone-based information gathering to monitor infrastructures in their neighborhood – the sidewalks, the streets, sanitation – and combine that information to make rich “crowdmaps” that they can use to improve sanitation in a market and identify new play spaces in poor neighborhoods. And we build platforms that let people make and share rich media, with a focus on amplifying voices that aren’t usually heard from, with projects like international citizen media news site Global Voices, FOLD – a platform for publishing complex, media-rich stories online – and Deepstream, a new tool that lets users curate and add context to livestream video.

I’m persuaded, in other words, by the power of innovation to improve the world. But I also want to offer some cautions, and I suspect these cautions apply as much to innovators here in the US as much as they do to innovators in the rest of the world.

Technology and development: don’t forget the people

I’ve worked on tech and economic development in sub-Saharan Africa since the late 1990s, when I helped build a network of technology volunteers who worked with businesses across the continent, called Geekcorps.

Since working on that project 15 years ago, I’ve seen a lot of trends in development come and go.

Before I was active in international development, the fashion was to support massive infrastructure projects and offer governments big loans to support them. The hot topic when I started Geekcorps was anticorruption, and that was followed by an emphasis on democratic governance and then microentrepreneurship.

Now the emphasis is on innovation.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with Kenyan nonprofit crowdmapping software company Ushahidi for many years, which founded the iHub, Nairobi’s leading coworking and innovation space, and the model for many of these spaces that are springing up on the continent.

But as excited as I am about “hacking and making,” I think it’s important to take a critical look at these other chapters in the history of international development.

None of these ideas – building infrastructure, fighting corruption, ensuring clean elections, building small businesses – were bad ideas. But none of them were silver bullets.

They’re all important, but they’re even more important when we work on them together. And that’s true for innovations in technology as well.

Despite amazing work done at the Media Lab on One Laptop Per Child, an ambitious project to provide children in developing nations with their own laptop computers, the problems of education on the African continent are complicated.

Even if we could get laptops into every school, we’d still have problems with ensuring schools had trained teachers who were sufficiently well-paid to show up for work, with providing safe school buildings – including separate toilets for girls, which have been shown to be essential to ensuring equal access to education – with ensuring that children are fed so they can learn, with ensuring that graduates have access to good jobs.

This doesn’t mean we should stop trying to solve social problems with technology. But it does mean we should understand that when the problems we’re trying to solve with tech are social, we need “sociotechnical” solutions that look at the interaction between people and technology.

It’s not a responsible stance for people who want to change the world with technology to think only about the tech they’re building.

This brings me to a second point, which centers on a term we’re hearing a lot in US tech communities right now: disruption.

Just who is doing the disrupting?

Uber is disrupting the taxi business; airbnb is disrupting the hotel business.

There are lots of systems in the world today that are broken and could use some disrupting. But it’s important to ask who benefits and who gets hurt when these systems are disrupted.

In the US, the taxi medallion system is grossly unfair, and most drivers are poorly paid recent immigrants who take on sometimes dangerous work because they have few other options. That’s a system worthy of disruption.

But if the system we replace it with puts less money in drivers’ hands than the current system and more money in the hands of the venture capital-backed dispatcher, we’ve disrupted an unjust system with a worse system.

Disrupters always like to see themselves as revolutionaries. But they can very quickly become the entrenched power.

In the late 1990s, no one in West Africa was sad to see state-owned monopoly phone companies disrupted by mobile phone providers. But now, more than 15 years later, those companies are some of the most powerful economic actors in many developing nations, and there’s lots of debate about whether their pricing and service is fair, or whether they might not need some disruption.

Now Facebook is talking about disrupting mobile phone data plans with, making access to some parts of the interent via mobile phone free. It’s worth asking whether this disruption would make Facebook a new hegemon, the designated on-ramp to the internet, and whether this is a disruption we want to encourage.

Who gets to disrupt? Right now, it’s usually technologists paired with businesspeople, a team that brings to the table a new way to solve a particular problem and the capital to bring that new method to scale.

But what if different groups of people could upend industries and disrupt the unjust systems they face?

My MIT colleague Sasha Costanza-Chock is working this spring with worker-owned cooperatives to see what sorts of disruptive innovations they can put into place that are designed to tilt the playing field in favor of workers.

Stellenbosch, South Africa, October 2015. Mike Hutchings/Reuters

I’m watching the #FeesMustFall protests in South Africa closely and wondering whether there’s a way the students marching for affordable tuition for all students could become part of a movement that disrupts higher education and builds a new system that’s accessible, affordable and designed to disrupt persistent inequities in South Africa.

Motivation matters

In other words, tech matters but so do the motivations of people who bring that technology into the world.

One of my favorite companies in Kenya is M-Kopa Solar, which makes pay-as-you-go solar systems that include LED lighting, and outlets that can charge your mobile phone or power a radio.

Instead of costing hundreds of dollars to set up a home solar system, it’s around US$35 to start, and then weekly payments under $0.50 a day. The system is currently used by 150,000 households in Kenya and Tanzania.

The model of rent-to-own, where payments are made via the mobile phone, is both key to M-Kopa’s success and likely the most valuable part of the business. You can imagine it being used to power lots of other businesses that make important infrastructures affordable to middle income customers.

But rent-to-own, empowered by tech, can also be a negative, predatory business – as we know from experience in the US.

It’s not a good idea to declare a technology positive and transformative without considering how it gets used – nor is it a good idea to see it as unambiguously negative.

The combination of new technologies and how we choose to use them is critical in understanding how innovation can lead to social good.

What makes technology transformative? Consider the bicycle

Some technologies are more transformative than others. More specifically, tech that people can build on top of is the most transformative of all.

Consider, once again, M-Kopa Solar. It’s built on top of M-Pesa, Kenya’s mobile money system. That, in turn, is built on the mobile phone system – not just the technical system of towers and receivers, but the sociotechnical system of the sellers of phone cards. Many of these sellers became microbanks, turning cash money into M-Pesa credit and pulling money off phones and into cash.

There’s a very good reason we have seen a long wave of entrepreneurship around the internet – the internet enables a near-infinity of new business ideas. But its high-tech nature tends to obscure what’s really special about the net as a platform for innovation: the fact that it is pervasive, cheap enough to hack, and open enough that we can innovate on top of it.

So I want to invite you to think about a different technology, the bicycle.

In the African countries where I’ve lived and worked, a bicycle is inexpensive enough that people are able to modify it and hack it. You’ll see people using bicycles to power knife sharpeners, to charge mobile phones, to carry heavy loads, to outfit them with stretchers on wheels to use them as ambulances on very bad roads.

These days, the mobile phone is becoming the bicycle.

Need to charge your phone? Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters

Two-thirds of sub-Saharan Africa households own a mobile phone. Some include systems that remind HIV patients to take their medications. Others help customers verify the drugs they take, weeding out counterfeit medicines.

Let’s by all means look for ways to disrupt existing broken systems, but let’s not forget to ask who benefits and who is hurt by these disruptions. And while making change through innovation and technology is an exciting prospect, innovating by changing how people and technology interact is even more powerful.

More bicycles, please!

This article is an edited version of a speech given on October 22 to a gathering of innovators from South Africa and from Massachusetts, hosted by South Africa Partners, a nonprofit organization that builds partnerships for development between South Africa and the US.

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