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Inspiring stories of everyday people who, when stumbling on a problem didn't turn their back, but dedicated their life to solving it.

When problems find people, amazing things can happen.

This book will highlight the personal stories of ten social innovators from around the world. Ten social innovators - ordinary people - who randomly stumbled across problems, injustices and wrongs and, armed with little more than determination and belief, decided not to turn their back but to dedicate their lives to solving them.

Despite the tens of billions spent each year in international aid, some of the most promising and exciting social innovations and businesses have come about by chance. Many of the people behind them didn't consciously set out to solve anything, but they did.

Welcome to the world of the "reluctant innovator".

Why do we need this book?

This publication will fill a much-needed gap in the social innovation/social entrepreneurship market, one which is currently dominated by books which - often at no fault of their own - give the impression that meaningful change is only possible if you're an MBA, or a geek, or have money or influence, or a carefully laid out five-year master plan, or all five. By highlighting the stories of ten ordinary yet remarkable individuals, and the impact their work is collectively having on hundreds of millions of people around the world, "Rise of the Reluctant Innovator" will show us that anything is possible, planning isn't everything, and that anyone anywhere can change their world for the better.

What kind of stories will be told?

Take Brij Kothari, for example. One evening in 1996 he was watching a DVD of Pedro Almodóvar's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown with friends in Ithaca, New York. The dialogue was in Spanish and the subtitles in English. Out of nowhere an idea popped into his head. As a Spanish-language learner, he wished the subtitles were also in Spanish. Turning his attention home, he wondered whether India could become literate if Bollywood-made Hindi films and songs were shown with the lyrics subtitled in Hindi.

Children following along with SLS (Photo: Planet Read)
Children following along with SLS (Photo: Planet Read)

The idea behind same-language subtitling - or SLS - was born. Today, thanks to Brij Kothari's organisation Planet Read, Indian primary-school children numbering in the hundreds of millions have learnt or are learning basic literacy simply by watching their favourite television programmes. Not bad for something conjured up in front of a Saturday-night movie.

Then there's Laura Stachel, whose organisation - WE CARE Solar - designs portable solar lighting kits for maternity wards in developing countries. When she first went to Nigeria she planned to work on a different problem altogether, but quickly realised that a simple lack of lighting was responsible for an unacceptable number of mother and child deaths. With maternal mortality rates in Nigeria among the highest in the world, with a ratio of 11 maternal deaths occurring for every 1,000 live births, she turned her attention to helping design, build and distribute solar kits to solve it. "As an American doctor, it was inconceivable that a hospital could function without reliable electricity," she says. "The lack of lighting for a caesarean section was a problem I had never imagined."

Solar Suitcase at work in a Liberian health centre (Photo: WE CARE Solar)
Solar Suitcase at work in a Liberian health centre (Photo: WE CARE Solar)

She never intended to build an organisation, and never chose to become a solar innovator, but seeing a problem she felt compelled to fix, she reluctantly became one. Solar Suitcases now save the lives of mothers and babies throughout the developing world.

There are many more stories like these that need to be told.

Why am I the best person to tell them?

Great question. For the past twenty years I've worked at the intersection of technology, anthropology, conservation and development and, during that time, have lived and worked across the African continent. My non-profit work has been internationally recognised with numerous awards:

  • Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (2012)
  • Cambridge News Award for Social Entrepreneurship (2012)
  • Pizzigati Prize for Software in the Public Interest (2011)
  • Curry Stone Design Prize (2011)
  • Ashoka Fellowship (2011)
  • Member of the UK Prime Minister's Delegation to Africa (2011)
  • National Geographic Emerging Explorer (2010)
  • Tech Awards Laureate (2009)
  • Pop!Tech Social Innovation Fellow (2008) and Faculty Member
  • Reuters Digital Vision Fellow at Stanford University (2006)

Over the years I've been fortunate to meet, collaborate with, and mentor some of the most talented social entrepreneurs. I believe we need to motivate and inspire people everywhere to believe that they too can make meaningful change in their worlds.

As I wrote on my blog four years ago:

"If we can help anyone on their journey, then we should. Whether that be giving advice or a positive critique on an idea, helping raise awareness through blog posts, giving tips on fundraising, making introductions to other projects and people with the same interests, or offering to be a future soundboard as their ideas grow and develop. These are all things I didn’t have when I started out, and using them productively now that I do is one of the biggest contributions I believe I can – and should – make to the future growth of our discipline. Our legacy shouldn’t be measured in the projects or tools we create, but in the people we serve and inspire".

This book is testament to that continued commitment.

What's my story?

I would count myself as a reluctant innovator. In 2004 I found myself working on the fringes of Kruger National Park in South Africa, trying to help the authorities improve communications with the local communities. Mobile phones were beginning to appear there and we considered using SMS to send group texts to community members. The problem was that no group-SMS technology worked in those kinds of hard-to-reach places. A few months later, the idea for a text-messaging platform was born one Saturday night over a bottle of beer and Match of the Day. The result, FrontlineSMS, today helps non-profit organisations in over 70 countries communicate critical messages with millions of the most marginalised and vulnerable people.

FrontlineSMS has won a number of international awards since, including the 2011 Curry Stone Design Prize. You can learn a little more about the ethos, background and impact of the project here:

And if you're curious about how that football and beer fit in, National Geographic made a fun one minute film about it here.

These examples suggest more and more technological innovation will come about in unconventional ways - solutions created not by "traditional" innovators or technologists, but regular people who find themselves on the front line of a challenge, and who decide not to turn their backs but to take it on.

The concept has already been featured in Wired Magazine in an article they invited me to contribute last summer.

What will the money be used for?

We'll use the funds to:

  • Cover Kickstarter's commission and payment fees
  • Hire a professional copy editor
  • Hire a book designer
  • Hire a typesetter
  • Hire a web developer (for the official website)
  • Pay for book marketing
  • Pay for promotional merchandise
  • Create a digital version of the book
  • Do an initial print run to cover the pledges and initial sales/promotion needs. (Proceeds of future sales and print runs will be used to fund additional social innovation-themed books, and the wider socially-focused work of kiwanja.net)

Please note that I'm working on this for nothing.

All-in-all any pledges you make will stretch a long way. So a very big thank you for your support!

A final word...

"Good inventions are often born out of need. Great ones are accidental".

Partha Dasgupta
Faculty member
Computer Science and Engineering Department
Arizona State University

Risks and challenges Learn about accountability on Kickstarter

Given we already have eight of the proposed ten chapter contributions for the book, the main risk may be delays in hiring a professional editor, and possible further delays to final chapter edits given how busy each of the authors are. Print delays are also common with self-published books, although we'll be doing everything we can to mitigate against them.

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