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Global Health, Farming, Education or Climate Change: What Would Apple Do?

What if we took an Apple approach to solving the world’s environment and development problems? The California-based technology company have had phenomenal success of late by intuitively unpicking the needs of their users, using innovative design and keeping their systems simple and integrated. In today’s Digital Diversity, Ken Banks takes a look at what might happen if we took a “Steve Jobs approach” to conservation and development.

Digital Diversity is a series of blog posts from FrontlineSMS about how mobile phones and other appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. This article was curated by Olivia O’Sullivan, our Media and Research Assistant.

By Ken Banks

“Two weeks ago, I was staying at a working dairy farm sixty kilometers north of Bogotá, Colombia. I was fiddling around with my iPad when one of the kids that worked in the stables came up to me and started staring at it. He couldn’t have been more than six years old, and I’d bet dollars to donuts that he had never used a computer or even a cellular telephone before (Colombia has many attractions. The vast pool of illiterate poor is not one of them)

Curious, I handed him the device and a very small miracle happened. He started using it. I mean, really using it. Almost instantly, he was sliding around, opening and closing applications, playing a pinball game I had downloaded. All without a single word of instruction from me”

Michael Noer, The Stable Boy and the iPad

Two questions scream out at me when I read this. Firstly, what would happen if Apple turned a fraction of its attention to solving conservation or development problems? And secondly, why don’t Apple work in conservation or development? They’re both sectors where technology has become such an important tool they’ve even given it its own name (development practitioners refer to it as ICT4D – Information and Communications Technology for Development). Over the years many ICT4D tools and solutions have failed because they’re either too complex, poorly designed, unusable or inappropriate. Who better to show us how it should be done than Apple, the masters of usability and design?

The answer to the second question – the why – is a little easier to answer than the first. As Walter Isaacson pointed out in his recent biography, Steve Jobs felt he could contribute more to the world by ‘simply’ making brilliant products. He seemed to have little time for philanthropy, at least publicly, and his laser focus meant he saw almost everything other than Apple’s mission as a distraction. Ironically, had he decided to give away some of his ballooning wealth, he’d most likely have funded programmes which worked in nutrition and vegetarianism, not technology, according to Mark Vermilion (who Steve Jobs hired back in 1986 to run the Steven P. Jobs Foundation, which he was destined to shut down a year later).

Had Steve Jobs decided to pursue his Foundation, and had he decided to fund technology-based initiatives in the developing world, how well might he have done, and what might Apple have been able to contribute to our discipline?

Here’s five initial thoughts on where an Apple approach to ICT4D might be different – or problematic.

1. Consult the user

One of the central tenets of using information and communications technology to solve conservation or development problems is to consult the user before designing or building anything. In business, at least, Apple don’t do this. They certainly didn’t speak to Colombian farm children, yet they managed to intuitively build something that worked for the six year old Michael Noer met. As Steve Jobs famously said:

Our job is to figure out what users are going to want before they do. People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.

An Apple ICT4D project would unlikely spend much time, if any, speaking with the target audience, an approach entirely at odds with the one we all champion right now.

2. Customer vs. beneficiary

Part of the problem with the largely subsidised ICT4D “give away technology” model is that no-one is ultimately accountable if things don’t work out, and regular business rules do not apply. Would an Apple approach help with this? Apple would see people as customers, and they’d be carrying out what they’d see as a commercial transaction with them. This approach would mean they’d have to build something the customer wanted, and that worked (and worked well). Since it would have to sell, if successful it would by default be financially sustainable, something many ‘traditional’ ICT4D projects struggle with.

3. Open vs. closed

Most ICT4D projects are ‘open-source’ – meaning users can access and develop the code behind the technology themselves. Steve Jobs was against this approach. He was a strong believer in controlling all aspects of the user experience, all the way from hardware through to software, and would see an open source product as one open to interference. To him, closed systems were better “integrated” and open systems “fragmented”:

What is best for the customer – integrated versus fragmented? We think this is a huge strength of our system versus Google’s. When selling to people who want their devices to just work, we think integrated wins every time. We are committed to the integrated approach. We are confident it will triumph over Google’s fragmented approach

There is no evidence in ICT4D, I don’t believe, which points towards more success for open solutions vs. closed (however you define success), yet “open” remains dominant. An early Apple success might give us pause for thought.

4. Time for the field

Although Paul Polak doesn’t work in ICT4D, he is one the biggest proponents of “getting out into the field to understand the needs of your customer”. In his long career he’s interviewed over 3,000 people earning a dollar or less a day to better understand their needs – and the market opportunity.


Listening to your users is key. Or is it? (Photo: Ken Banks)


The Apple we know today wouldn’t see the need to do this. They wouldn’t consider the needs of dollar-a-day customers as being any different to anyone else. They’d consider their intuitive design and user interface to be non-culturally specific. People, everywhere, want simple-to-use technologies that just work, regardless of who they are.

5. Appropriate technology

Apple’s product line hardly fits into the appropriate technology model – many are expensive, power-hungry and in most configurations the devices are reliant on a computer (via iTunes) as their central controlling “hub”. The systems are also closed, blocking any chance of local innovation around the platform. How Apple tackle this – yet maintain their standards of excellence in design and usability – would probably turn out to be their biggest challenge.

Although it hasn’t happened yet, a post-Steve Jobs Apple might yet develop a philanthropic streak. If they did they could easily turn to their friends at frog design (now branded Frog) for help. Frog, who worked closely with them in the early days of the Macintosh range, have recently worked with a number of ICT4D initiatives and organisations, including Project Masiluleke and UNICEF.

Apple have already reinvented the music and publishing industries. With the capital (a whopping US$100 billion in reserves), talent and resources available I’d bet my bottom dollar on them reinventing ICT4D if they chose to. Steve Jobs liked to “live at the intersection of the humanities and technology”, and that’s exactly the place where ICT4D needs to be.

Digital Diversity is produced by Ken Banks, innovator, anthropologist, National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Founder of kiwanja.net / FrontlineSMS. He shares exciting stories in Mobile Message about how mobile phones and appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. You can read all the posts in this series, visit his website, or follow him on Twitter.


  1. FairWater Paul van Beers
    March 29, 2012, 3:02 am

    Self-propelling approaches are indeed the best, but they are fueled by sincere Trust that “things & services are there to stay, and can be trusted” FairWater introduced a similar approach to start solving the African water problems; the BlueZone.

    Sometimes solutions are simple, or, maybe the best solutions are simple. It starts with believing and continues by “trust”.

    One Apple a day, makes the thirst go away. The FairWater BlueZone approach was inspired by Steve’s thoughts. Would be nice if Apple could team up with FairWater to make this world less thirsty…


    Paul van Beers

  2. […] O’Sullivan, the Media and Research Assistant of National Geographic’s news watch, comments on Banks’ approach in the (title mentioned above) […]