034 – IDEMS’ Vision and Mission in practice

The IDEMS Podcast
The IDEMS Podcast
034 – IDEMS' Vision and Mission in practice


Following a more theoretical assessment of IDEMS’ vision and mission in the previous episode, Santiago challenges David to explicitly analyse how these apply to three IDEMS projects. These are explained and contextualised before exposing how the vision relates to them. The mission is revealed to be explicitly relevant to each project once the vision analysis is carried out.

[00:00:00] Santiago: Hi and welcome to the IDEMS podcast. My name is Santiago Borio, I’m an Impact Activation Fellow and I’m here with David Stern, a founding director of IDEMS. Hi David.

[00:00:19] David: Hi Santiago. In our recent episode on Mission and Vision, you were feeling we weren’t close enough to the ground, is that right? So today we’re getting concrete?

[00:00:28] Santiago: I think it was a lovely episode in which we discussed the vision and mission in a very broad way. It would be helpful for our listeners to understand how this mission and vision impact our work specifically with examples of our work.

So I’d like to start with myself. We mentioned education a lot in that episode. And education is quite a big part of what I do within IDEMS, so shall we pick out one or two education projects or initiatives and try to relate them?

[00:01:07] David: Happy to do so.

[00:01:10] Santiago: Any preference?

[00:01:13] David: My guess is your preference is going to be STACK.

[00:01:15] Santiago: Well I was thinking of starting earlier with Early Family Math.

[00:01:22] David: Early Family Math that’s a nice place to start, yes.

[00:01:24] Santiago: So, let me give a bit of context on that project itself, Early Family Math. We have a colleague in the US who produced these lovely resources for families to engage with children aged zero to eight, I think, on mathematical activities and stories to help promote critical thinking, reasoning skills related to mathematics.

[00:01:52] David: I would say Chris Wright, who is the person who leads Early Family Math, and you notice I didn’t say S, which was really difficult for me as somebody who normally calls math, maths. Early Family Math is a U. S. based charity led by Chris Wright, who is essentially a world expert in this area.

He’s written books and he now leads this charity which aims to support mathematical literacy as being as important and part of literacy in general. And this is something which should come from an early age, family interactions. Just like it is widely accepted and used to read to your child, to talk maths to your child should be something which is just second nature as part of our society. It is broadly where they’re coming from.

[00:02:48] Santiago: And they facilitate this by producing tools and resources so that parents without expertise can actually do this with their children.

[00:02:59] David: Absolutely.

[00:03:00] Santiago: And these are normally through a website or through PDFs or even published books.

[00:03:09] David: It’s not just resources for, if you want, parents, they also do things with teachers in early childhood education, and they came to us in some sense in a roundabout route, but we then told them some of the work we were doing, in particular related to working with parents, and how we were building these apps and chatbots and these decks of cards, and so they’ve taken some of the ideas and they’ve run with them in really collaborative ways where broadly they take our technologies and they’re using them.

We support this in very simple ways, but it’s something where they’re really running, using our technologies to build resources, which we hope will actually find traction with a wider audience. And I think this is the key point.

[00:03:59] Santiago: And in particular there is another project in which we created an app builder, and the app builder was used to digitize the resources in a different way to make them more widely accessible, particularly in low resource environments. And it’s led to us with our partner in Kenya, INNODEMS piloting the app with a group of families.

[00:04:27] David: Absolutely. And this is, I think, fairly typical of our education work in the sense that we have had no funding related to this. And so we work with partners, this is purely collaborative. Our involvement has had to be relatively minimal, but we’ve been able to provide technologies which have been used. We’ve been able to connect and build collaborations. We are still the go between, between the Early Family Maths group in the US and the group INNODEMS in Kenya, who actually now have a small grant to test this out. And we support that. It’s a passionate project for us in many different ways at this point. But it’s something which we believe could be really very important.

[00:05:07] Santiago: Indeed, and it relates to Grand Challenges quite directly. We discussed in the vision and mission episode education as being one of the Grand Challenges that we tackle.

[00:05:18] David: Let’s be clear when you say Impacting Grand Challenges, that’s the IDEMS vision, simple, we mentioned this in the last episode. And in this particular context, one of the recognised grand challenges is early childhood education, and the role of parents in that is a critical thing which is increasingly recognised, family structures, how they engage in early childhood education. And bringing maths talk, which is one of the components of Early Family Maths, Early Family Math, sorry, into childhood education across the world in different ways. This is important and this is hard. And this is something we’re really, we’re thinking about, and were thinking about this when we were approached by the group, it was a sort of mutual meeting. The element which we immediately brought to them was this element where, you know, PDFs aren’t that accessible on a mobile phone.

Many people we work with don’t have access to technology. Printing is expensive except mobile phones, even smartphones, which are becoming more widely present. So what about, actually, being able to get this out to a new audience or further audience through who have maybe access to smartphones and could download an app but don’t have access to printed materials.

[00:06:37] Santiago: So I wouldn’t claim that this project has a considerable impact in this grand challenge.

[00:06:48] David: Yet.

[00:06:49] Santiago: Yet. But looking at the three points within our vision, we are accepting complexity. We recognize that education is multifaceted. There’s loads of aspects. And as you said, it’s bringing mathematical literacy to the forefront at an early age.

[00:07:10] David: And I would argue that part of the accepting complexity as well is looking at the diversity of the different ways these materials could be presented to different audiences. What we’re trying to do in some sense is enable people who may not be able to consume them in their current form to be able to consume them in another form.

We’re not trying to replace the original form. Members of our staff take the materials and use them with their children. So in their current form, they are useful. They are valuable. But we are trying to build a tool which means that given the complexity of how people could consume these ideas, there are other ways.

And we’re taking first steps. I love the fact they also took the card decks idea that we’ve had from virtual maths camps and turned that into something which is part now of the early family maths materials. So again it’s that diversity of ways of getting out to different people which has come from the interactions, the backwards and forwards between us and the Early Family Math team.

And I come back to the point you were making about accepting complexity, that because we accept complexity, what we’ve been able to do in this partnership is actually encourage others to recognize the complexity, to accept complexity, to bring that into the offering that they have in a way that it might enable it to reach more people.

[00:08:37] Santiago: For example, through integrating it into the Parenting for Lifelong Health initiative?

[00:08:46] David: Well, that’s in its infancy. We have started. They have contributed in very small ways to that. But again, that’s building the connections and the networks. I would argue, to me, the element that I’m talking about is more this element that now they have an app as well. They have another way of reaching people. And the app that they have, I would argue, It’s a minimum viable product. It contains their resources, but it’s not really an app yet. And this is the building incrementally. It’s this element about actually recognizing that, well, unless you have the resources in that format, you can’t build an app.

So the first step was to find a way to make the materials they have accessible in this different format. But now they’ve done that, the thing that they’re working on with us, and in collaboration with the team in Kenya, to some extent, is to think, well, okay, how does this actually become a natural experience in an app? Who is the app for? What do they use it for? How do these activities then build in to how people use apps? And so that’s something where we’re incrementally iterating on this. This building incrementally, it’s not that we’re trying to jump to the end. We’ve got a set of processes we’re doing.

[00:10:02] Santiago: And also in the building incrementally, we say that we build from previous experience and create further opportunities. That is clear. We are not reinventing the wheel. We have high quality materials. We’re simply creating further opportunities for consumption of these materials.

[00:10:20] David: And more than that, we’re also taking the infrastructure that was built for another group who were trying to reach parents and reusing that infrastructure. So again, this is open by default, the open educational resources, the open source software, these processes combined together into something where that incremental iteration is possible.

[00:10:47] Santiago: Moving to the mission…

[00:10:49] David: Well, you’ve skipped explicitly coherent, and I understand why, because it’s not clear to me exactly how we are yet being explicitly coherent about this. We are, I think, being internally coherent, but, you know, we’re not yet writing the papers, we’re not yet publishing on this, we don’t have the research studies. We haven’t had the funding for that. That would be lovely to add on. It’s something we are wanting to do, we’re aiming to do, but I’ll argue that that’s something where getting the learnings, we have the group in Kenya doing a small research study, which they will write up. That would be the start of actually getting some coherence out. But we are not yet, I would argue really being explicitly coherent to communicate what’s happening.

[00:11:33] Santiago: I skipped it because I thought it was implied that there was coherence in the thinking within the team that is working on this.

[00:11:39] David: That’s internal coherence, that’s not explicit coherence.

[00:11:44] Santiago: Okay, okay.

[00:11:46] David: And this is really important and this is the point. I would argue this is why we’re not yet able to sort of contribute to Grand Challenges because no one can see that thinking, no one can actually see that coherence and we can’t actually therefore make the case for others to build from it, for others to increment, for others to actually take it on and move forward with it in the way that we’d like them to. We haven’t done that work.

[00:12:08] Santiago: We’ve had some discussions with academics about it working, I think it was at Loughborough University.

[00:12:14] David: And there is interest in trying to do this and see this, and part of the challenge there is that because of the complexity is what, what environment might they look at this in? Should they be looking in a sort of high resource environment or low resource environment? Where’s the funding going to come from to actually build that coherence in terms of the communication about what we’re learning? We need to actually do some research studies. Maybe we don’t do them. We need to have research partners who take this on to do these research studies.

We believe we have something which is going to be of value in a whole set of different ways, but there needs to be that coherence made explicit.

[00:12:50] Santiago: Great. So let’s move on to mission because I want to look at other examples as well. So how does it relate to our mission? It’s quite obvious. It seems to me working collaboratively with diverse partners to enable the evolution of innovations which can impact lives all over the world. In what we said already, that is quite explicit.

[00:13:13] David: Exactly. I mean, this is where the mission is in some sense so powerful as being very concrete. Everything we just described before about how we’re working on it, what we’re doing, and the way we’re doing it aligns with what we’re trying to say in the mission.

[00:13:29] Santiago: Yeah, good. So, I don’t want to stick to education. There are several other projects in education that we can discuss, but we work in so many different areas. I would like to let you pick another example and let me question you on it.

[00:13:47] David: Well, I suppose one of the areas we work in, which is of course related to grand challenges related to climate. We work on a project in partnership with colleagues at the University of Reading and beyond called PICSA, Participatory Integrated Climate Services for Agriculture. I think that would be an interesting concrete project which we could discuss and explain how this is related to Grand Challenges and this is explicitly related to us being able to contribute to some of these big challenges in the world.

[00:14:28] Santiago: So what Grand Challenges do you think are…

[00:14:32] David: I mean, the impact of climate change on rain fed farmers, maybe not just rain fed farmers, on farmers across the world. This is particularly farmers in low resource environments, where PICSA has been ostensibly applied, over 20 countries now, and in some cases at great scale.

And I would argue that as an approach, this is really important because agriculture and particularly smallholder agriculture is so important in so many economies around the world for so many people. The impact of climate change on that is central.

[00:15:15] Santiago: And you did mention it, but nutrition could also be considered a grand challenge, and this has an indirect impact?

[00:15:25] David: Yes, it does. In certain cases, this does relate to nutrition. It’s interesting that this is sort of implicit in some ways, but it’s not explicit. I would argue that the explicit grand challenge is really adaptation to climate change.

[00:15:39] Santiago: Okay.

[00:15:40] David: And there’s some interesting elements of this that come out related to that approach.

[00:15:45] Santiago: And accepting complexity of climate change.

[00:15:50] David: Well, it’s not just accepting complexity of climate change. One of the key principles taken within this which is one of our principles as well, but it’s a PICSA principle they’ve adopted as well. It’s options by context. And so one of the things which is really important is actually, if you think about agricultural extension, what do your extension officers do? Are they actually trying to tell farmers what to do? Or are they accepting that different farmers are going to do different things because of their individual circumstance, social, economic, contextual, whatever that context may be?

And accepting complexity, part of that in this context, which really relates to PICSA, is this element that PICSA does not tell people what to do. It gives them information about the climate and helps them in their decision making processes.

[00:16:52] Santiago: Okay that’s interesting. Is there transdisciplinary approaches to the intervention?

[00:17:02] David: It is very much so because the meteorological data and the meteorological services in the country are central to being able to provide the initial information that’s needed. So there is this element of actually the agricultural extension partners having to work with the MET officers. And within that your data experts are needed as well. So there’s a whole set of skills which are needed just to prepare the training. And then of course you’ve got the farmers who are actually receiving this. They need to be able to understand and adapt to the information which is presented.

What’s of course very interesting is that when you present the realities of historical climate, which is part of their process, it really changes perceptions on what climate change actually means in different contexts. And quite often you find that climate change is misunderstood, and it’s all tied up with people understanding rain fed agriculture as being the driving force behind the yields they get, but it’s not the only driving force. There are other driving forces such as soil health. Not everyone likes the term soil health, but the quality of the nutrients in the soil is an incredibly important component, the fertility of the soil drives productivity as well as the climate.

And quite often when people are exposed to the reality of climate. What they recognize is that some of the problems that they’ve been associating to climate change, which is in the news and which everybody interprets as being the cause of their problems, they recognize that actually maybe it isn’t climate, which is the main driving factor.

Maybe one of the other driving factors is the element of soil fertility. And that is more within their control. So some of this can be very powerful. And a lot of the transdisciplinarity comes out of actually bringing the expertise in facilitation and support, farmer support, farmer engagement, together with the expertise in data analysis for historical climate data. To be able to combine those into something which actually helps with farmer decision making. And the reason PICSA has been so successful across the world is that there is this complexity which leads up to the process which farmers are engaged in.

[00:19:45] Santiago: Okay and you implicitly responded to aspects of building incrementally by the way you said that it spreads through the farmers and so on.

[00:19:55] David: Well, I think one of the key points there is it’s incremental in multiple ways. Any given implementation of PICSA is incremental in terms of actually the process and journey it takes the farmers on. There’s a whole set of steps. So there’s an incremental aspect there, but there’s also the incremental aspect of, well, the PICSA process is always learning, and there are continual challenges in terms of implementation. How do you make this more scalable? Can you be using satellite data instead of station data, which would enable you to have a much greater reach? What are the problems with doing that? Actually, the analyses which you need to make sure you’re doing so responsibly… There’s a lot of hard questions. And in that particular context, what you find is that, actually, the insights from the historical data that you get from stations are not the same as the insights you would get from the satellite.

So although the satellite data is more easily available, and those estimates more easily available, they don’t serve the same purpose. And so the general approach at this point in time is that you can’t replace. This is some of the complexity, accepting that complexity and, and bringing this in and understanding how can you use data in this context. There are some things you can use satellite data for. There are other things you can’t. So they’re incrementally trying to see how can they make their approaches more scalable. And so on.

[00:21:19] Santiago: It comes back to options by context as well. But let’s move on to explicitly coherent. I believe there’s more of an effort to publish or to communicate this project.

[00:21:31] David: There are good publications which have been accepted in good journals which demonstrate the impact of the PICSA approach, where they’ve shown that across multiple contexts on average over 90 percent of farmers change their farming practice by going through this sort of process and those changes are generally very positively received and they lead to positive impacts on those farmers lives.

So there is research evidence backing that up trying to explain exactly how it is, there’s real documentation of the process, it’s been translated into multiple languages, there’s a handbook which can take you through and you can actually go through the PICSA approach. If you go to the University of Reading website on PICSA, which is Participatory Integrated Climate Services for Agriculture, so P I C S A. This is something which is available and it’s explicit. The thinking is there. You can, there’s a lot of work which has gone into that documentation.

This is not all our work, of course. We’re involved, but on the periphery, this is the collaborative nature that we work in.

[00:22:39] Santiago: And I believe a member of our team is doing a doctorate related to this.

[00:22:46] David: Well, a member of the Ghanaian team has done their doctorate related to this, and they now have set up GHAIDEMS as our local partner. And another member of our team is actually doing their PhD with me at the moment in Rwanda, explicitly looking at this satellite data issue, and what you can do with this. Looking at this from multiple countries, including Zambia and so on. So yes, this is something where we are privileged to be involved in this in different ways and at the forefront of that incremental process that’s happening.

We’re also involved in a project where a colleague is building an app for PICSA and we’re part of building the underlying structures to enable MET offices to contribute the data that’s needed for the app without exposing their data. And so there’s a lot of roles which we play within this, which are part of that process.

[00:23:40] Santiago: What I meant specifically was that we are contributing to that explicitly coherent aspect by studying and publishing.

[00:23:50] David: And I would argue that the explicit coherence, there’s an incremental aspect to that as well, because there’s continued learning happening, because it’s a grand challenge that they’re working on. This isn’t something where once PICSA exists, the job is finished. They’re actually looking at how do you expand this out. There are needs which are coming up, which are not directly related to how it was conceived. Maybe it’s not just climate services. Maybe there’s other services to look at as well.

So how that evolves is also important. And we have colleagues in West Africa looking at this, who are learning from this and trying to apply this in other ways to support farmers. Some of the same ideas, that incremental aspect is so important.

[00:24:30] Santiago: Okay, mission: Working collaboratively with diverse partners to enable the evolution of innovations which can impact lives all over the world. Again, so coherent. Now it’s becoming quite concrete, as you said in the previous episode. Once we start looking at the projects in detail and analysing the projects, the mission becomes obvious.

[00:24:55] David: And that is what we do. This encapsulates, I believe, very succinctly, very clearly, what makes us us, is really this element of admission. And it’s different to, I feel, how many other people work. And, and it’s difficult to really capture that in a small way and for people to understand this who aren’t coming from this perspective.

[00:25:18] Santiago: Okay, so let me bring another example in. A small project, I believe it is. We helped build a chatbot for sexual reproductive health in the Caribbean, if I’m not mistaken.

[00:25:34] David: Yes, absolutely. And it’s a really interesting one, because you’re right, this is such a small project. And it was a wonderful project, which I really appreciated. We were working with the family planning board in Jamaica. I probably got that name wrong and I do apologize but they had this wonderful project working in collaboration with UNICEF as one of the partners who actually put us in touch and we’d been building a chatbot related to our parenting work, and they had the need for a chatbot for sexual reproductive health, they wanted to be able to enable young people to access information in ways which were safe, coherent and accessible. And they wanted to do this through a chatbot on WhatsApp in collaboration with UNICEF.

This was a multi governmental initiative. They had looked for local people to help them to develop this, but they were struggling and because we were already working with UNICEF Jamaica, we were approached to ask, could we help develop this and develop this with them? It’s a wonderful small project.

[00:26:37] Santiago: Okay, so Grand Challenges.

[00:26:40] David: Well, it’s a really interesting one. I don’t know. I don’t know whether this was. In the way we approached it, we didn’t approach this in the same way as a Grand Challenge. I believe there are Grand Challenges behind it. But the way we approached this particular one was not to approach it as a Grand Challenge, but it was part of an approach to Grand Challenges, which is bigger.

So, what I would argue is that the Grand Challenge we’re sort of trying to do is to enable the social services to build tools which actually improve social services in different contexts and low resource environments and any other environment. And this is part of what we have been doing with the parenting work. Enabling digital tools to contribute in constructive ways and offering social services in general, which this would fall under public health service in this particular case. And that is a grand challenge.

[00:27:39] Santiago: We are accepting that this is a really complex issue and we are only contributing a very tiny drop in an ocean of needs.

[00:27:50] David: But this is where I would argue that the grand challenge we’re trying to do is not what is related to the sexual reproductive health chatbot. What is interesting is that actually that particular contract we didn’t take on as a grand challenge type project. We could have, I think there are grand challenge type projects around that and there were people doing the research in that.

We had that as part of our bigger grand challenge work related to the parenting work, which touches on the social services aspect. So for us, we integrated that specific piece of work, which we just did with a single partner, we supported them, we delivered. Thank you. Here you are. We’ve tried to make you independent. If you need any help, come back to us. Silver Bullet Solution.

I would argue is not quite how we see what we created. We don’t see it that way, but they wanted a solution and we built that solution for them. We built it as part of our bigger picture relating to the grand challenges of enabling government services like this to have and to build products which help them to deliver digitally their services.

But they didn’t need the grand challenge. They didn’t want us to engage in solving a grand challenge with them. They just wanted that service. And so we provided that service, but it hooked into what we consider as a bigger grand challenge. And so we made that link into some of our other work, and we leveraged that other work to be able to deliver for them more cost effectively than would have been possible, by a factor of 10. Really, the cost of actually building the system that we used for them, was 10 times the cost of actually building that solution for them. And so if we weren’t leveraging the bigger project where we’re trying to solve it, we wouldn’t have been able to offer that service at that price point.

[00:29:41] Santiago: Okay, that sounds amazing. Building incrementally with regard to the ground challenge that we are tackling it’s quite clear.

[00:29:50] David: And this is the digital ecosystem that we’re trying to build. And the fact that we’ve actually got these systems where it enables us to more cost effectively build these small solutions with partners is part of that incremental building. It’s just building open source software in good ways. And we’re trying to make these into public goods. There’s a whole process for that, and so on.

[00:30:10] Santiago: And we are part of an academic study into how these digital products or services can help spread information where I believe the explicitly coherent aspect comes in.

[00:30:26] David: Well, it’s interesting though, we are part of a number of studies which study this specific component. Are we doing enough to make our contribution explicitly coherent? I would argue at this point, no. I would again, as with the first example, the Early Family Math example, it’s very interesting. You know, the Early Family Math example we actually had as something where we’re trying to tackle a grand challenge, and we’ve done this in a sort of collaborative way. But that also builds from the same project and some of the work which is associated. So it’s interesting that we have the sexual reproductive health chatbot, which I would not consider the way we did that as a grand challenge, whereas I do consider the Early Family Math approach to that as a grand challenge approach, which we’ve taken with the charity involved there.

And yet they both are building from the other Grand Challenge, or the same piece of work which relates to parenting, which actually is building the tools which enables us to do these two other things. One, which had no funding, the Early Family Math, but we’ve been able to do that through collaborations because that’s part of our investment work. And the other, which had very little funding where we were able to deliver because we have the infrastructure which is open source which is reusable and which we can build from. And that’s really the power of the approach.

[00:31:46] Santiago: But it’s not yet as coherent as we would like.

[00:31:50] David: Exactly. We don’t have the documentation. We are working towards that documentation. Within a year, we will have better documentation. So components of this will be more explicitly coherent. But that whole process, you know, really it’s expensive. I mean, it’s really, really expensive to build these things. And it’s even more expensive to do the work to make it explicitly coherent.

It’s really interesting to me that that’s the expensive part. This is what we feel is needed to be able to really work on grand challenges, to impact grand challenges. It comes back to quite often, we quite often can’t afford to do enough on the explicit coherence. Not just the internal coherence, but the explicit coherence.

That’s where we need people who want to do that. And they might be research partners who then study it, or it might be that actually we get funders who tell us, we want to know more about what you’re doing there. We’ll fund you to actually write up the documentation in ways which makes it more explicit, which actually does the studies to show why this coherence is important, what it means and so on.

I would argue as we go forward, as we grow, my hope is that explicit coherence is going to become more and more of a priority in our work.

[00:33:06] Santiago: I see. Again, reading out the mission, working collaboratively with diverse partners to enable the evolution of innovations which can impact lives all over the world. Again, so clear. There’s not much to say about it.

[00:33:21] David: Exactly, and this is where, you know, why don’t people like our mission and vision? It’s so powerful. It’s so obvious to me. But I do understand and I accept that what’s obvious to me is often not obvious to others.

[00:33:35] Santiago: But it was very interesting to actually grab three concrete examples and go through this process. We have many more examples, but we are bounded by time and we’ll have to close there, I’m afraid.

[00:33:49] David: Well, I really appreciate you taking me through this, you know, and you taking me to task. I enjoyed our previous discussion about mission and vision and I didn’t have a problem with it, but you were correct. It was something which really was valuable to come back, revisit it from a more concrete perspective. So thank you for that.

[00:34:10] Santiago: No problem. Thank you, David.