Ken Banks revels in extraordinary pursuit of life as a social innovator in new book
The publication of The Pursuit of Purpose presents a snapshot of a unique time in humanity’s wheelhouse when technology met social entrepreneurship – and the role played there by one of the sector’s earliest innovators, author Ken Banks.
The former Willingham resident, now living in St Ives, surfed the new zeitgeist as mobile phones arrived in developing countries. For a few years in the noughties, Ken – a Tech Awards laureate, an Ashoka Fellow, National Geographic Emerging Explorer and a visiting fellow at the Cambridge Judge Business School – was everywhere. He went on cruises with Archbishop Tutu, worked on a project with Sir David Attenborough, and was nominated for the TED prize.
“I won 13 awards,” he says of the halcyon days when his social enterprise, FrontlineSMS, broke into the African market with a text messaging platform that linked mobile phones together to form communities and, later, became platforms for financial activity.
“I was flying around the world for events and talks, it was the most amazing time.”
He was not working to a script – he was writing the script. However, as innovators inevitably find, there were unexpected challenges.
“I’d not intended to run a 20-person organisation, it just happened to be something people wanted.”
Ken had been immersed in coding since his teens and was making a living as a software writer when he came up with the idea of creating a platform for early mobile phones – pre-internet – which linked together using a laptop, putting remote communities in contact with the outside world.
“I happened to come up with an idea watching Match of the Day and drinking brown ale,” he explains. “I was very excited about the idea of coding something that might be useful.”
Early signs of a global talent were not easy to discern. Ken writes in The Pursuit of Purpose: Part Memoir, Part Study about his modest childhood in Jersey. He writes about this period as if he is destined to rise to obscurity, but he underwent a rapidly transformation as a young man, and suddenly he is writing about his work in Africa, and then the missionary zeal with which he took the message to the world – that tech is not just for geeks, it can and should be used for social good. If that message is obvious now, it was not so obvious when Ken worked with Cambridge-based Flora and Fauna International on a mobile conservation service which drew the eye of David (now Sir David) Attenborough. Their 2005 project extended mobile use as a way for conservationists to keep in touch with communities in Kruger National Park in South Africa, and moved mobile connectivity up a notch in terms of value to any number of communities.
Pretty soon the software was being used to monitor elections in Nigeria, the Philippines and Afghanistan. A spinoff for community health workers, FrontlineSMS: Medic, was used in 11 countries. African farming communities talked supply and prices without having to wait on face-to-face meetings.
Then, in 2011 Ken left the company.
So what happened?
“The senior management team took over the running of it when I stepped back,” Ken says.
Stepping back, he admits, “caused a bit of a stir”. It certainly was: I covered the story as a journalist at the time, and indeed my daughter Flo was happily working for Frontline in a comms role at that point. Eyebrows (mine) were raised when Ken emerged from the process without any equity (his choice) as the company moved into for-profit status: here, it seemed, was someone whose principles came first.
“I wasn’t enjoying it any more,” Ken confides over coffee by the bridge in St Ives in the bright spring sunshine of 2022. “It was more like running a business and I hadn’t signed up for running a business. I wasn’t the right person to take it to the next stage.”
FrontlineSMS closed down a year ago. Perhaps it lost its magic without its guiding light, or perhaps the internet arrived in force and tools were developed which did everything FrontlineSMS had been doing and more for free. Either way, in 2011 Ken was out on his own again.
“I felt relief,” he says. “I had created a means of exchange – electronic bartering. I kept busy, I wrote Rise of the Reluctant Innovator, I was consulting… I was just as busy in the next five years. I never had any chance to stew – this book allowed me to draw a line in the sand and take the weight off my shoulders.
“I’m proud of that time. It’s part of my life, and I’ve moved on.”
Today Ken is head of social purpose at London-based Yoti, which offers a free digital ID app to prove your identity online.
“It helps keep kids out of adult chatrooms and adults out of kids’ chatrooms, for instance,” he says. “It helps people prove who they are in the digital space. We’ve just converted the app into Ukrainian.”
From an avatar of social entrepreneurship, he has scaled back his goals. But he is too restless to stand still, hence The Pursuit of Purpose, itself a journey of discovery. In later chapters Ken writes about discovering more about his family: his great great grandfather, William Martin, had built the first bicycle in England. Also, his mother was a botanist and clearly a person of note in Jersey’s small scientific community.
As the book gradually reveals, he had always been on a wheel he only got to appreciate after he had added something to it.
“The whole book is about someone who thinks ‘there’s something I should be doing in my life, but what is it?’.”
The answer seems to change as the book evolves. First he wanted to introduce the world to using technology for social causes. Today he wants the wheel to keep turning – which means his children nee to be prepared for the challenges they will likely face in their adult lives. To that end, he has converted a quarter acre of land at the bottom of the family – “I became a father later on in life” – garden into an allotment. The next phase of his global development work, it seems, begins at home.
“By the time they’ve grown up, app-building won’t be relevant,” he says. “We’re teaching them to grow stuff, to love being outdoors.
“We now have massive global instability. We’ve gone through the golden era of capitalism – on the whole as if the climate crisis didn’t exist – and I look back and think how different I feel now.
“I’ve lived a very unconventional life and I want them to think ‘I can get out there, and learn about things society doesn’t value’. We really encourage them to play, they’re outside, they use their imaginations, they read books including about tanks and airplanes if they want – about anything they show a genuine spark for.”
Alexander Moen, chief explorer engagement officer, National Geographic, says: “This book is an inspirational, real-life journey that shows what’s possible if you explore life with curiosity, wonder and passion – the ideal mindset for anyone wanting to make the world a better place.”
- The Pursuit of Purpose: Part Memoir, Part Study – A Book About Finding Your Way in the World is available in Heffers and Waterstones, price £10.99 (paperback).