image courtesy

By Stacy Whittle, Account Director, Free Range

Tapping into the Power of the Crowd

Global aid has experienced two major shifts in recent years. First, a community-centric approach to creating solutions is quickly becoming the norm, making aid recipients key partners and collaborators. At the same time, mobile technology in the developing world is spreading more rapidly than anywhere else in the world, enabling the rapid spread of ideas and insights.

Organizations who take advantage of these two trends — and tap into the power of the crowd — will be better able to take human-centered solutions and scale them to create more systematic and sustainable change.

Here’s how:

Renewed Optimism

In their 2015 Annual Letter, Bill and Melinda Gates “doubled down” on their foundation’s first big bet and made two bold assertions about the future of the developing world. The Gates’ are betting that “The lives of people in poor countries will improve faster in the next 15 years than at any other time in history. And their lives will improve more than anyone else’s.” In an era facing a number of seemingly-insurmountable challenges, from climate change to growing regional conflicts to food insecurity, this is no small bet. In the face of these challenges, the Gates remain optimistic that improvements in health, farming, banking and education will pave the road to increased prosperity.

This optimism is shared by many people and organizations working in the developing world, and for good reason. Incredible strides have been made in tackling poverty and disease, among other issues. As is often cited, the percentage of people living in extreme poverty around the world has been cut in half over the last two decades.

So where is this wind in our sails coming from? Where does this optimism about a brighter future sooner, rather than later, come from? Why, despite the challenges that stare us down, that seem insurmountable, do people around the world continue to bet long on the developing world? How can we accelerate the pace — and expand the impact — of development?

In my view, the establishment of community-centric approaches to development coupled with the rise of mobile technology is creating a system where smart, locally sourced ideas are spreading quickly. Can we help them spread faster to reach more people?

A Community-Centric Approach

A key trend driving this optimism is the rise of a community-centric approach to development over the last decade. Where development was once administered from the top-down, leaders in international development are calling for a more responsive, collaborative approach to creating solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems. In the old model, ideas and approaches were imported from “developed countries” and applied in ways that often ignored the contextualized needs of those on the receiving end.

In this new reality, the majority of aid organizations are taking the now-popular “human-centered approach” to designing solutions to pernicious challenges in the developing world. This approach starts in dialogue with the recipients of aid in a process designed to uncover their specific needs and the unique contexts that will either enable or hinder any program designed to serve them. From here, organizations can tailor their work to fit the unique opportunities and challenges facing aid recipients in developing nations.

The Technological Boom

As this community-centric model has become the de facto approach for leading actors in the development world, a parallel trend is accelerating the pace of change for developing communities. Entire regions are leapfrogging the industrial revolution and the computer era, landing firmly in the era of worldwide mobile interconnectivity seemingly overnight. The adoption of mobile technology and Internet use has expanded at a faster rate in the developing world than anywhere else, and that rate is only increasing.

In 2014, The Guardian reported that “The number of mobile internet users in the developing world will overtake those in the developed world for the first time — growing 27-fold compared to fourfold in the west.” This is having a profound impact on both communication and culture. Without the vestigial practices and legacy technologies of the pre-mobile era, developing countries have arrived at incredibly effective and savvy uses for technology and communication. The developing world’s ability to adopt and navigate new technologies quickly is very different than the trajectory that the developed world has followed. For this reason, aid programs will have missed a vital opportunity if they don’t tap into the power of mobile technology to source ideas and insights from communities that will improve their work.

Accelerating Development Through Crowdsolving

There is a new way, and it exists at the intersection of traditional development’s historically top-down paradigm, and the hyperlocal model that has recently been unlocked by technology. Now that a shared language and medium can be utilized across all stakeholders, we can envision an approach that takes the best qualities of both models and brings forth a more nimble approach that is effective, relevant and scalable.

With technological developments that close (or even invert) the feedback loop between creators and consumers (of messages, aid, goods, etc.), the development world can also orient itself to more effectively connect with its audience. Looking at crowdfunding sites: where product makers once had to speculate as to the market’s receptivity toward a new gadget, they can listen to consumers from the outset by asking them to select the goods that they actually want. The resultant product will not only be more cost-effective, it will have a unique opportunity to scale more quickly because it’s already been validated and bought into by the consumer.

By leveraging the rapid rise of mobile technology in the developing world, development organizations can test their assumptions, survey users, get valuable program feedback, communicate in real time, and more. With this development-focused form of crowdsolving, organizations can start with a local approach to developing solutions and then hone those ideas by reaching out to larger, more diverse audiences in neighboring communities, for example. This approach gives them insight into the potential ways to turn workable solutions into lasting, systemic change.


As we think about the role of technology to enable crowdsolving, here are a few questions to consider:

  • How might a development organization leverage digital technologies to better understand the shifting needs of the regions in which they’re working?
  • What kind of organizational shifts would be required to integrate some aspects of digital communications in-country with communications to program owners?
  • What if, in addition to traditional development metrics, each program had explicitly stated goals for learning and capacity building tied to the use of mobile technology?
  • As development projects uncover valuable learnings, how can these be captured, analyzed, and applied for future work? Can these insights be shared broadly with potential partners in the same region?

A Final Word

Like the Gates Foundation, I’m willing to make a bet of my own. When we look back in 15 years at the change that has taken place in the developing world, we’ll see three key drivers. First, a commitment to community-centric problem solving will have become the norm- making aid recipients co-creators of value and progress. Second, mobile technology will have been a key medium for sharing ideas among all stakeholders, from remote villages to NGO headquarters. And finally, the insights gleaned through crowdsolving will have unlocked key pieces of the puzzle and enabled great ideas to scale beyond their community-sourced beginnings.

This was originally published through our newsletter, The Free Thinker. For more information about Free Range, and to sign up for our newsletter, visit us at!