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.

About the author

Ken Banks

Ken Banks

Ken is the founder of kiwanja.net, Means of Exchange, and FrontlineSMS. He is a Pop!Tech and Ashoka Fellow, Tech Awards Laureate, and National Geographic Emerging Explorer, and has been internationally recognized for his work applying mobile tech for positive social and environmental change in the developing world. Ken is also the Entrepreneur in Residence at CARE International.

  • 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?

  • agreed @yencheskcj27:disqus!

  • Kelly Martin

    This article is great! Having conferences and other events surrounding not just an industry and all of the latest industry professionals, but having many different ones come together is a terrific idea. You always learn more when you listen to other people about things. You may have separate careers entirely but we attend conferences to learn and not to do the same things every time with the same people. Thank you for writing this, it is a wonderful concept!

  • Sara Olsen


  • sking4air

    What I took away from this was more of a focus on the idea we all need to separate ourselves from our norms and still be engaged in something that could very well spur our minds into our specific areas of expertise. It is like technology sharing. Imagine if the wheel was only used for transportation and never figured into being used as a gear system. People within there own expertise have tunnel vision and it takes everyone to relate good technology into other segments or columns of interest.

  • SkylerZahner

    I agree that looking at specific sectors is so narrow minded in our day and age. It is time to start working together not only in our sectors of the country but all across the world. The main reason I feel this way is because something that affects the U.S. may change an entire work force area in another country. If we all work together we can consume our resources the correct and fundamental way and that would help our world maintain its resources.

  • hansends21

    I could not agree more. So many people and companies are so worried about competitng with each other in todays day in age, and everyone fails to see how much better we could do if we would work together instead.

  • Skalahe13

    This is a great post and could be so beneficial to everyone. People are so worried about their own discipline they become so narrow minded, but I bet if people from one discipline went to other discipline conferences it would open up their mind completely. Sometimes new and different things help has learn to think in different ways. Different isn’t always the enemy in actuality different usually will solve our problems.

  • Great article, thanks for sharing. I this is a great idea because
    sometimes people who specialize in something may become to close and to the
    situation and may be stuck in their old ways and how they know how to do
    things. A stranger to the field with some knowledge on the subject may bring
    some good insight that may translate from their field but they would never know
    because they don’t get exposed to the issues.

  • DavidMizelle1

    Totally agree here. Additionally, who knows what partnerships may be formed by common goals that exist in different sectors? Even if it’s just a mutual agreement of cross promotion every little bit helps.

  • Tyler Hebert

    I think that is important to make events to address problems. For example the ALS ice bucket challenge, kind of silly way to raise money, but look! it worked. People run 5Ks to raise money for charities and people start to become aware and interested in these problems and they want to help.

  • Jpl89

    All problems could use a little bit of help to market themselves. Events aid in this need to read awareness of different causes. This is a productive marketing strategy.