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7 Ways We Can Scale ICT4D Pilotitis

By Wayan Vota on October 9, 2013


One overarching theme from the recent Mobiles! Conference was the need to get past pilotitis – the too many small projects that never scale, dying the day the original funding dries up. Now how we can do that is a matter of some debate, and there are even folks who say we need more pilots.

Regardless if you think we have enough pilots or not, I know exactly how we can scale pilotitis in ICT4D. After extensive cross-sectoral research in everything from FM radio, to laptops, to mobile phones, here are the 7 simple ways I’ve learned to ensure pilotitis spreads well beyond ICT4D into every aspect of development:

1. Have more hackathons and contests

What says transitory impact more than a one-day hackathon that brings together those not immersed in the real needs of a program to build beta versions of one-off applications without buy-in from end users? Having a low/no prize money contest via Facebook “Likes” so more people can make flashy demo software never meant to scale! That’s the best way to make compreneurs instead of entrepreneurs.

2. Only give out small grants

When you really want a lot of pilots that die the day the funding ends, make sure to start with small amounts of one-off funding with no pathway to future financial support. Grants of $50,000 or less are perfect seed capital that will not give a project enough room to grow into something lasting, especially if you demand that the funding lasts 2 years, require that any revenue generated reduces the initial funding, yet don’t ask for business plans, regardless of grant amount.

3. Focus on small organizations, or no organization at all

Why bother with large companies or organization with international reach and a history of stability – that’s just a nice way of saying “overhead”. Better is to focus on individuals, small companies, “local” organizations, or better yet, start-ups that don’t even have a track record of existence, much less success. That way, you know the idea will die when they get bored or the funding ends.

4. Only fund innovation

Being the second person to fund or work on an idea is no fun. Worse is replicating an idea that already works. There is no fame in implementation. So don’t do it. Real pilotitis can only scale when everyone focuses just on the newest new innovation, the bleeding edge of change – unique ideas launched without any history of prior efforts or existing constituencies to quicken adoption. “Transience” is the new “resilience”!

5. Build new software

Why share code? We can spread pilotitis faster when we make sure that every project builds its own bespoke, proprietary software solution – because we need more software options. Oh, and don’t hire reputable software development firms to code innovative solutions, that’s not building capacity. Recruit inexperienced volunteers or hire lone coders who always brag how they won a recent contest but never seem to show up on GitHub.

6. Evaluate via photography

Why stick around for maintenance, support, or the f-word in development to appear? None of that is sexy. Nor is reading long, boring evaluation reports listing all the lessons (re)learned. The best way of all to scale pilotitis is to evaluate success through pretty pictures of children holding gadgets. That way we can reinvent the flat tire, again, and look good doing it.

7. ___

In honor of Michael Trucano’s Worst Practices in ICT4E, I’ll leave #7 blank for you to fill in. I know you have your own ideas on how to scale pilotitis and I’d love to hear them in the comments below or on Twitter.

Together, we can scale ICT4D pilotitis!

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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of his employer, any of its entities, or any ICTWorks sponsor.
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8 Comments to “7 Ways We Can Scale ICT4D Pilotitis”

  1. This gave me a chuckle. For number 7 I would add “Preserve original product/code.” Don’t allow for any product changes to be made for the lifespan of the pilot. Despite repetitive mistakes users may make, product changes or “iterations” would disrupt a randomized control trial and put the consumers instead of the producers in charge of the product’s design. 🙂

  2. You know I totally agree with most of this on the one hand. On the other, I’m not totally convinced about the definition of scale, or that large INGOs are the only mechanism for doing good work. There must be a way to support indigenous, smaller organizations doing something impactful… how then? Or is the role of large bi-laterals elsewhere, and they should not concern themselves with smaller efforts?

    I know (as you mentioned via Twitter, Wayan) that the Making All Voices Count fund is out there and the grant amounts are very small, thus perhaps they are aimed at smaller organizations. I do wonder though how MAVC will reach these smaller organizations, and if the smaller orgs will have the bandwidth to meet large bilateral requirements on reporting, and if there is also the type of mentoring and support needed for long-term and sustainable efforts with these small grant amounts that only last for 2 years. I also just saw a call from another large-ish entity that is funding amounts of $70k for 6 months, and you have to have a private sector MNO as a partner. How can you do something meaningful in 6 months that lasts beyond the grant cycle, especially if you’re expected to secure a partnership with a MNO? It’s all very interesting.

    Innovation, yes it’s good, but I’m not sure that the aid / development sector has figured out how to support and encourage it and take it beyond “invention” to diffusion and sustainable change, whether at small, medium or large scale. There must be something besides “challenges” and “apps,” and I think a lot of us know this, so why don’t we do something different then?

    • Wayan Vota says:

      Large iNGOs are not the only way mechanism to do good work – note my career in small iNGOs – but I do worry that the constant focus on supporting small local organizations leads to a lot of duplication, distorts what civil society should be, and incentivizes the creation of even more small orgs, many of which are really too small to have any impact.

      I remember meeting with over a dozen different local orgs when working on a RFP in Lebanon. Each of them claimed to be the leader in their sector, and said all the right key words to prove it. Several orgs had formed expressly for that tender by staff of previous projects. They all knew that the RFP called for local partners and were playing the local partner game deftly.

      In countries where there isn’t a culture of supporting NGOs (which is many we work in), the entire civil society sector is often seen as agents of international donors/orgs as that’s where they get all their funding. This of course makes it even harder to establish an independent culture of civil participation in every sector.

      Just how effective is an organization with only 1 or 2 full time program staff? Yes, from small acorns do large orgs grow, but bigger bets on established and sizable firms arguably have more impact. In Tanzania for example, Twaweza is the most effective civil society org I’ve seen (maybe in all of East Africa). A big bet with them will have way more impact than any number of small orgs.

  3. Manuel Acevedo says:

    Great post, Wayan!

    My nº7 would be:

    “Start fresh – Be creative”
    In order to provide novel approaches to the development problem or situation at hand, it’s better to avoid exploring previous work or experiences. Even if they’re documented, and today with the Internet and the social networks n’ all it’s easier to identify related previous work, building on top of existing knowledge takes away the element of creativity and freshness which often makes a good pilot shine. It also takes a lot of time to research on prior work. Finally, if the results of our new and inspired pilot coincides with those from other latitudes, fantastic, it´ll be a good sign we’re on the right track. At that time, when ready to move on to larger scales, then it would make sense to check how others have done it (because scaling is the tough part…!).

    • Wayan Vota says:

      Oui! I totally agree with you. Research is no fun. Leave that to academics. Better is to be lean, to be quick, and implement with out looking.

      Just one disagreement, why look at other’s work when you scale? You know its not going to be relevant – it was done in some other context, and as we all know context matters most.

      I heard this a lot in education – those kids over there (in the next town, district, region, country)are nothing like our kids here, we need our own, locally relevant pedagogy.

  4. Great post, Wayan!

  5. Chris Jansen says:

    Thanks for this Rx as I’m suffering from ‘Pilotitis’ at the moment. Working in a large iNGO has a number of benefits for all stakeholders but green space for innovation is not one of them. Pilotitis as you write is the proper diagnosis and I fully agree with Toni Maraviglia about maintaining the product/code. Like any illness, it needs to run its course, and changing the product/code removes any chance of a baseline or foundation to launch from. As I approach being an intrapreneur in a large iNGO, I’m looking for lean thinkers with completely different perspectives to disrupt the iNGO assumptions and increase value to all stakeholders.