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A 6 Step Guide to Platforms in International Development

By Guest Writer on May 20, 2015


Platform seems to be one of the biggest buzzwords in the field of international development these days. Popping up worldwide, platforms bring opportunities, challenges and questions with them. The biggest of all being: what do we mean when we say platform? In the view of Butterfly Works, it is not simply a website or a new technology that supports sharing. The platform concept offers a new form of co-creation and collaboration, with less hierarchy, more open innovation and new possibilities to activate participants.

At Butterfly Works we strongly believe that platforms in international development are best served by smart on- and offline mixtures. This is partly because change needs the reach of online communication and the impact of real life interaction, and partly because reliable internet access cannot be assumed everywhere. Drawing from our own experiences and a recently held inspiration session on the matter, we would like to share some useful insights on how to mix on- and offline media for a platform.

First of all, a platform is an instrument: it handles exchange of information, services, money or something else. It is never a goal in itself. In international development we often meet three bigger goals that platforms contribute to: knowledge development – aiming at the exchange of knowledge, experiences and education; campaigning – aiming to mobilise people and to create movements; and production – bundling developers and makers, connecting producers, suppliers and consumers. All three categories need both digital and real life communication, especially in regions where reliable internet access cannot be assumed.

Secondly, self-organisation is the driving principle of a platform. This means that people do not contribute because they are told to do so, but because they want to themselves. Their contributions are not being controlled by a project manager, but are being appreciated by the platform community. For the initiator of a platform this means a lot of ‘letting go’, and adapting to a new role: being a facilitator rather than a project manager. This is something quite difficult in a sector of logframes and activity plans, but it will definitely pay off. Loose some control, but gain new partners – and all the insights and expertise they bring to the table.

Thirdly, seemingly contradictory to the second notion, a platform needs focus and content. Without a clear communal aim and some boundaries and preconditions, it lacks the power to mobilise people. The platforms’ members need to understand what they become a part of and join out of their own conviction. Good preparations, made together with end users, are key. The first content, the first members, the first actions and campaigns – those are the things that give a platform its profile. This is a condition ‘sine qua non’: if you do not have something to offer, if there are no first steps, how should people get interested and motivated?

Now, how to put these notions into action? At Butterfly Works we recently developed Wajenzi, a platform putting the spotlight on young change makers (Wajenzi in Swahili) from the Kivu area in the Democratic Republic of Congo. We provide them with an audience through a website and via local media. By crowd voting the ‘Wajenzi’ can win entrance to a next stage, in which we will support them with a private mobile network, enabling them to interact and join forces. We made you a six step guide in platform development, concisely illustrated with this Wajenzi example:

  1. Research talents and possibilities. Be sure to include communication technologies, community members and end-users. Our most important findings for the Wajenzi case: a first set of young motivated change-makers with inspiring stories; a need to exchange knowledge and experiences and get support from a peer-to-peer network; the notion that most people do not have internet access but most people do listen to the radio.
  2. Think about ownership. Who are the first community partners, ‘owning’ the platform and reaching new members? How do they want to use the platform? For Wajenzi we mobilised both changemakers and media partners, especially journalists and radio stations. We regard collaboration and co-ownership with them the most important part of our preparations.
  3. Produce the first content. Besides of course building the website to support the platform, we started doing what the platform is meant for. Journalists made written, video and audio profiles of the changemakers and we published them online. This way the changemakers are giving Wajenzi a face, but we are also simply offering people something nice so read, see or listen to – a reason to join.
  4. Make a smart mix of on- and offline media. In our case, knowing that the users have low internet coverage, we co-created the platform in such a way that it allows for on- and offline use. Radio stations can download interviews and other materials and use it in their shows – guaranteed to reach a larger audience in the region. In the second stage we will add mobile networks to the mix, as this is the best feasible way to facilitate interaction amongst the changemakers.
  5. Formulate an appealing call to action. Why would people join a platform? What is their added value? People want to know how they can contribute, so make the new users important. In the Wajenzi case: people can support their Wajenzi in reaching new audiences and help them win entrance to the next stage. The radio shows will ask people to join in real life, for example by doing poster campaigns, and by eventually giving their votes.
  6. Let go. In the beginning, somebody has to connect all partners and make sure the platform has a good start. Guide the process from idea to a thought through concept and then develop it. For Wajenzi, the changemakers or perhaps one of the media partners take over and might tweak it. One might regard this as a risk, but it is a necessity as the platform belongs to the community, and the initiators should let go.

To conclude: these six steps may provide a guideline, but make sure not to think of a design process as something linear. Design, especially in co-creation, is always best done iteratively. Ask around, sketch a first idea, test it, attract new partners and make a better prototype, publish some first content and check for reactions, improve, change, polish and keep doing that. Platforms are not only serving co-creation, they are also best served by co-creation.

Merel van der Woude, creative director at Butterfly Works, social innovation studio that works with NGOs, governments, embassies and companies in over 20 emerging economies worldwide, to co-create brighter futures. 

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One Comment to “A 6 Step Guide to Platforms in International Development”

  1. It would be great if ICTWorks authors could consistently go beyond advertising their own products. It is transparently self-serving to claim to be speaking to a major trends in the field of ICT4D but to then only reference your own work. it would have been great to have learnt about which platforms have achieved most in the field and why. Which platforms do the authors think are the best global examples of this genre? What contributed to the success? What have we learnt from experience worldwide so far and what problems remain -requiring further attention?