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Let’s Build Events to Address Problems Instead of Sectors

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I’m sitting in the old German parliament building listening to a plenary discussion on activism. It’s my second day at the Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum, and I’m in Bonn to help mentor Ashoka Fellows as part of their Globalizer program, to speak on an Ashoka panel on social entrepreneurship, and to take part in a Vodafone Institute for Society and Communications discussion on how mobile technology is changing society.

It’s been a busy three days, and I’ve had to regularly remind myself that I’m at a media-focused event.

We’ve had discussions on the future of journalism, new business models for the media, big media vs. social media, how to communicate in disasters, community building, social entrepreneurship, the Arab Spring, mobile connectivity, technology in Africa, democracy building, governance, digital security and privacy, surveillance, big data and how to engage youth in development. While media has been a thread running through much of the agenda, the conference has spent the majority of its time dealing with broader development issues.

If we’re serious about breaking down silos, we could start by holding fewer sector-specific events and running more on issues and challenges.

I can’t help but wonder if the tendency to run events by sector, which has historically been the case, means we fail to make the most of the opportunity. I know many people working in health, agriculture, human rights and social innovation—and many others—who would have benefitted greatly had they been here. But it’s unlike any would have thought it worthwhile given the headline of the event. After thinking I’d find little to spark my interest, it turns out there were more relevant panels and sessions than I could have ever hoped to take part in.

In another event a few years ago, Tim Smit encouraged us to attend at least one conference a year on a topic that had no obvious relevance to us or our work. Although it’s probably too much of an ask for most people, the point he was making was that we could learn a lot from other disciplines, but we rarely take the time to jump silos. Health experts go to health conferences and agriculture experts go to agriculture conferences, and so on. To make it worse, people who use mobiles in each of those go to separate events entirely – mHealth and mAgri. Despite speakers at almost every event we go to criticising silos and encouraging us to break them down whenever we can, the current system persists. It’s far easier to say it and get a few tweets than to actually get something done.

Instead, could we build events around specific challenges? The discussion here yesterday on business models was fascinating, and much that was said would have been of relevance to the wider social sector. Yet the majority of people listening – and all of them on the panel – were from the media. Why not hold an event on business models and invite everyone. Who’s to say that a health project can’t learn something from one working in agriculture, or human rights?

If we’re serious about breaking down silos, we could start by holding fewer sector-specific events and running more on issues and challenges—and other common themes running through the ‘for good’ sector. Who knows? At the end of the two days, delegates may even leave with genuine solutions to their problems and action plans to take forward.

In other words, making the move from talk to action. Now, wouldn’t that be something? In the meantime, if you’re interested in cross-cultural issues in international development, ignore the word ‘media’ and come to Bonn next year.

Ken Banks

About the author

Ken Banks, Founder of kiwanja.net and FrontlineSMS, devotes himself to the application of mobile technology for positive social and environmental change in the developing world. He has worked...

Ken Banks has written 15 articles for UNREASONABLE.is

  • yencheskcj27

    I couldn’t agree more with this article. I think we do ourselves an injustice by limiting problems or discussions to their specific sector. What we should have learned from the last decade or through globalization and diversification is that having many different perspectives on an issue or topic is always beneficial, so why wouldn’t we apply that to events or discussions. We should be wanting our sectors to be connected and knowing what is going on across the board rather than having each sector be its own distinct unit. There is so much that we could learn by discussing topics not focused on our particular sector.

    I also loved your idea about building events around specific challenges. What if we took people from all the different sectors and had them give their input on a specific problem. Like you said “who’s to say that a health project can;t learn something from one working in agriculture or human rights?” Why can;t we have a discussion where the leading members of many sectors share leading edge breakthroughs in their specific fields and collaborate those breakthroughs to make something that betters humanity as a whole?

  • http://Unreasonable.Is/ Cat George

    agreed @yencheskcj27:disqus!