When starting a new blog, it is critical to attract a little bit of attention. That’s why I start my first real blog post with a buzzword. Sustainability is indeed one of the few words that you find in absolutely all requests for proposal, all grants, all NGO mission and vision, all project descriptions, and even in the domain name now, as we are all involved in “Sustainable Development”. The problem with buzzwords is that everybody are using them, everybody know their meaning, but most of the time, we are not sharing the same meaning. The aim of this post is to describe my own personal view of what sustainability in mobile or ICTD is in general.
First of all, I believe that sustainability is a multidimensional concept. Very roughly it means “a system that will last over time”. There are definitely many factors that can break a system, and only one state, when all factors are ok, that makes it running. So Let’s explore here in details the majors factors that I presented briefly last year during a keynote I gave at UNESCO 1st Mobile learning Week.
For me, there are at least three major dimensions:
- The financial sustainability
- The technology sustainability
- The human sustainability
The financial dimension is the obvious perspective that most people consider when they talk about sustainability. For me it is a close synonym of business modeling. Here, this is all about money, but despite this clear focus, there is a lot of misunderstanding and lots of different approaches. I’ve read lots of interesting papers about this, but there is a recurrent problem which is that people are usually mixing very different things. I believe that the financial sustainability highly depends on your point of view. I will probably repeat a bit what I said a while ago in another post on a similar topic but for me there are at least 3 very distinct cases:
- you are an organization with a specific objectives that you want to accomplish better
- You are an organization that wants to put in place a self-sustainable service that can pay for itself
- You are a commercial entity or an entrepreneur that want to get a profit out of the service
In the first case, the only important thing is the impact per dollar. Organizations introduce mobile or ICTD applications because they improve their impact in the field. It costs money: sending SMS costs money, using mobile data services costs money, etc. but if at the end of the day the overall situation has improved, then this is totally sustainable even if from a pure financial perspective the system needs money in. The overall development sector works that way: there are donors with money that want impact for their $$. There are NGOs or other organizations willing to realize this impact. This is the model of the development sector since ages. So if, as an organization, for the same amount of $$, by using mobile instead of e.g. paper you can have a better impact than others, you will get the grant and do the job. It is exactly the same for state budget: governments dedicate budget to specific domains. E.g. Education. If for the same amount of money you improve the education system, this is perfect and sustainable, even if instead of giving millions to book publishers, you give millions to mobile operators and ICT firms or entrepreneurs. This is an essential point for me and quite often overlooked. There are lots of cases where mainstreaming technology cost money on the long run, but is still perfectly sustainable.
In the second case, the situation is totally different. Here the objective is to insure that the system is auto-financing after the front costs are covered and the service in place. This is very tricky obviously and it is not the aim of this post to talk about how to develop a business model (I will dedicate another post one on the usual mistake I’ve witnessed in my life). However, I can surely describe few characteristics for such models. The first and most important thing for me is about not focusing on the absolute value of the cost. I’ve seen lots of papers, particularly about mobile money, that explain that a system that costs half dollar to people who are earning in average 1 dollar cannot work. This is totally irrelevant imho (even if most of the time such a high cost provides an insane benefit to a particular actor like e.g. a mobile operator, and this definitely deserves to be fought). The most important thing, the only one that is important is the Return on Investment (ROI). If one saves half a day of work plus 2 liters of fuel or a return bus ticket, then he would be very happy to pay “only” half a day of salary. In the same way, and this is more related to the first case, in many developing countries, the primary reason why a teacher is not in his classroom is because he is traveling to get paid (if anybody has a reference to illustrate this I heard in many places, that would be awesome). So if using mobile money can solve this, and save money for the teacher as well as allow him to deliver a better edu. results, then this is all perfect.
The second key dimension or challenges in this area is the implementation. You may have a perfect theoretical model about who should pay for what, but the implementation totally fails. The major issue, as I’ve experienced it, is usually the payment. The overall system may be perfectly ok, but money always needs to be transferred from one actor to the other and in most cases it is the point of failure. Despite the buzz around mobile money, it is still not a real option in most countries, particularly in very rural areas at the end-user (e.g. farmer) level. So how the money will be collected and at what time is essential to be sure that the overall system work.
In the last case, the situation is very close to the second case, even it does not really focus on the same type of domains and applications imho. For instance, there are domains that are more generally non-commercial (e.g. education/health) than others (finance, entertainment, etc.). The major difference here with the previous case is the scale that is usually required in order to transform a self-sustainable system in a cash cow. Scalability is a slightly different topic than sustainability (even if it is as a buzzword as sustainability!) and it would need a dedicated post. That said, to the best of my knowledge there isn’t much examples yet of commercial success for development services targeted at the base of the pyramid
The technology dimension is the second key dimension to consider. I believe that everybody would agree that technology is evolving at an amazing pace. At a macro level, few examples: 20 years ago or so, the Web was a topic for crazy researchers! 6 years ago, nobody was talking about mobile for development… This is crazy, but it is a fact that one has to integrate while designing interventions that integrate technology. What is true today, will be irrelevant tomorrow but at the same time, what looks promising for tomorrow (e.g. tablet, smartphone, etc.), is irrelevant/inaccessible today. What I call “technology sustainability” is a way to design an information system so that it can adapt to the evolution of the technology and the technology context. It is not an utopia, it is a way to design systems. For me, there are two pillars: open standards, and differentiating content and delivery channels.
Let’s start with open standards. It is essential to use open standards as much as possible to ensure a smooth transition as technology and hardware evolve. Few examples, that are not necessarily from the ICTD domain, but to give a sense of the problem: if you have a very important word document, you have to save it every 2 or 3 new version of word otherwise, after a while, old formats are not recognized anymore. At the opposite, you can still open in all browsers the first HTML page that Tim wrote in 1989. I believe one has always the choice to design a system with open standards or with a proprietary approach. E.g. Voice-based applications is another example I blogged about a couple of years ago. There tons of other examples, like those who wrote symbian apps or palmpilot apps instead of mobile web or HTML5 apps today etc. I think this point is easy to understand even if I’m sure lots of people would disagree with it. For instance, it is true that functionalities are usually less developed in open standards then with proprietary approaches, but the trade-off is very rarely a good deal.
The second point I want to make concerned content vs. delivery channel. When designing an information system, it is critical to abstract it in terms of input and output, and then consider how best you can implement your input and output. In software development, it is called MVC (Model View Controller). In few words, you don’t go for a SMS system or voice-based/IVR system to answer a survey, but you design your survey in terms of input and output and then implement the input and output in a relevant technology. The beauty of that approach is that as new channels are available you expand your system without the need to replace it completely and restart from scratch. Just to give you a very specific field example: I’m working on a set of community radio services in Mali. First time I was there in January 2011, none of the radio stations I visited (both national radios like ORTM and small community radios) had internet, and some of them had computer. So we designed our system based on this situation: a voice-based interface for the listeners, and a voice-based interface for the radio stations. I came back and redid the same visit few weeks ago: almost all radio stations had a USB dongle that was giving them internet access and had a computer. Only few very remote stations (in e.g. Bankass or Bandiagara) still cannot access any mobile data service. For me it was very easy and I developed in few days a Web site for the radio stations, giving them a far more powerful interface with a far cheaper access, without even touching anything in the listener interface, which is still much needed. If I had used an all-in-one IVR system that would have solved my problem in 2011, but would have required major rework to fit with the 2012 state.
Finally, the last dimension that I believe is essential is the human sustainability. Nowadays, lots of donors are promoting partnerships between organizations in the North and organizations in the South. This is great. However, in technology and particularly in mobile, I often observe that the technology partner is the northern organization which brings a set of tech. experts to design, develop, and deploy a beautiful system. This is great, but this is also problematic. What happens when the project is completed? How can the local organization maintain the system? How can the local organizations afford calling international expertise to expand or maintain the system? This is a key problem. The answer fits in two mantras: Build capacities and/or use local resources/expertise. First of all, there are more and more mobile capacities available in e.g. sub-Saharan Africa, in e.g. Ghana, Kenya, Senegal, etc. It is a very very good option to use these local resources: they are cheaper than international experts, they are available on long terms, and they surely know far better the challenges and the context in which applications will be used. So if a mobile community or a mobile lab exists in your country, start looking for help there.
Then, such initiatives are not present everywhere, or some capacities are missing so that external experts are required. In that case, it is essential that they are used both for developing an application but also to train local ICT resources so that maintenance and further development can happen locally. This is all about creating or ensuring that a local ecosystem exists that is essential for the long term use of a given application.
Obviously, I’m sure I’m not exhaustive in this list of dimensions to consider. I welcome any further contributions on this topic. I also hope that this will help clarifying and easing the task of those writing RFPs, those answering them, those reviewing the final proposals, and above all, all the organizations, small or big, that are considering mainstreaming technology in their work.