047 – Kate Fleming: IDEMS’ Strategy

The IDEMS Podcast
The IDEMS Podcast
047 – Kate Fleming: IDEMS’ Strategy


David and Kate, two of the three IDEMS directors, explore how to productively think about IDEMS’ multiple work streams as an overarching strategy. In doing so, they reflect on IDEMS’ role, and by extension technology’s role, in promoting “human flourishing”, as an enabler of human activities and interests.

[00:00:00] David: Hello and welcome to the IDEMS podcast. I’m David Stern and I’m here again with Kate Fleming, our incoming director. It’s great to have you, Kate. I enjoy these. I’m looking forward to this.

[00:00:18] Kate: Hi, David. I do too. I enjoy all of our conversations.

[00:00:23] David: Well but the podcasts, I find them particularly enjoyable. Actually we might try on this occasion to be a little bit more focused and try and stay to a topic, which is not our normal way of discussion. But we will see how that goes.

[00:00:36] Kate: We’ll see how we do.

[00:00:39] David: And there’s a specific discussion which I’m looking forward to discussing today, which has been really useful for me and a big part of the immediate value I think you’ve brought in the discussions of helping us recognize there’s a lot of complexity to IDEMS, there’s a lot of pieces to the puzzle that we’re trying to put together to get where we’re trying to go.

We have this common vision which we can talk about another occasion. But one of the concepts you’ve brought in, which I really find so useful now, is the concept of a sort of main thing, and then all the rest are flank activity, and what that means. And this has been so useful to me. So that’s what I’d love to discuss today.

[00:01:23] Kate: Okay. Yeah. So as the resident humanities person, I think a lot in metaphors. They help me shape my thinking. And so we were talking about strategy and I brought in a military metaphor, which is not necessarily my favourite metaphor, but it made sense of, you know, you think about a battle and you’ve got your frontline activities. So maybe you’ve amassed troops on a border, but actually, your strategy is that in the long term, you’ve got this flank that’s building up just on the other side of the ridge, and at just the right moment, you’re going to unleash that flank, and that’s how you’re going to win the battle. Because you actually have these reserves that have been slowly, quietly building up to eventually result in something that’s, you know, exponentially more powerful and effective.

[00:02:09] David: And this, as a metaphor, I totally get it. And I totally see how actually, we haven’t thought of our activities in that way, we’ve never had that main push. And I see how that’s meant that nobody’s been able to understand what we’re doing, because there’s so much diversity, so much complexity.

But behind the scenes, there has been an element of it. We’ve always had this element that at any given point in time, even since we were very young as an organisation, one element of work has pushed us forward. So very early on, this was actually the agroecology work, where we took on this larger grant, where a lot of it was actually through funding, where we were supporting groups in Kenya, build up an agroecology hub there. And it’s been fantastic work, not necessarily good for us financially, but it’s been so impactful…

[00:03:02] Kate: Details.

[00:03:07] David: Again, this is part of where your business side is going to help out.

[00:03:10] Kate: Mostly just sustainability is really helpful.

[00:03:16] David: We’ve been okay at that so far, but not great. But yeah, so that work was so impactful and it really helped to grow in the sense that we actually had these through funds, which meant that we were involved in things which were really practical on the ground, and so on. And that built up all sorts of different things, it gave opportunity for team members to go and visit and to be part of those activities, to get exposure, to get experience in different ways, and all sorts of other elements. It built up our partners in Kenya, it gave them opportunities. And I suppose that was one of our first big ones.

Another big one was then on the climate work. Suddenly then we shifted focus and we then in our second year, one of the big things that happened was we had this big climate project with the University of Reading where suddenly we got a big chunk of work and myself and Danny were working pretty solidly on that for a number of months actually just heads down on the work and suddenly financially that one we did really well out of and that built us as an organisation.

The next really big one to come in was, of course, the Oxford work and that collaboration that built out. It shifted our focus into a different area and it really reinvented us along with COVID because before COVID, I was travelling two, three weeks out of four. I was on the road giving trainings, giving workshops, interacting with people. And COVID hit and I didn’t travel for 18 months.

[00:04:41] Kate: Right.

[00:04:41] David: And it was that shift where suddenly actually, that parenting work became the frontline activity.

[00:04:46] Kate: Yeah.

[00:04:47] David: A year later, it was the Internet of Good Things with UNICEF.

[00:04:49] Kate: Yeah.

[00:04:50] David: We’ve often had that frontline activity where everything else is working in the background.

[00:04:55] Kate: I would also argue that your strategy and success to date, I mean you have been totally self funded, you have very successfully grown and run a business, is in that flexibility that you weren’t you know, doggedly, sort of dogmatically trying to pursue a single thing. You were willing to see, well, we know we have these skills, we know we have knowledge here. Let’s kind of see who picks this up and what’s the opportunity.

And out of that, you’ve been able to learn so much. Often with startups, they get money and then they’re out casting about trying to find product market fit, like what’s happening here. But you really have done so much research where you see like, okay, here’s where the demand is, here’s how these projects work, here’s what it looks like when you haven’t been trying to drive them. You’ve been letting other people dictate to some extent. And in that you both have confirmed a lot of your assumptions, but you’ve also seen okay, we see how this starts to come together, we see where the most need is. So I don’t think you were ready…

[00:05:56] David: Oh, we weren’t.

[00:05:57] Kate: …to define things in the way that I now see that you are. And again, maybe if we’d had the same conversation, the one where we actually really ended up diving into things two years ago, we still wouldn’t have hit it off because you wouldn’t have been in a place where anything that I think about relates to what IDEMS needs.

[00:06:15] David: And I think one of the things, we did an exercise not so long ago, where we took one of our areas of work and we actually said, okay, forget about actually the specific thing we’re doing for this project. If we take supporting that group, and we think about all the things they need to be able to help them to succeed. Then, you know, the immense diversity we have in our portfolio, every single piece of work that we’re doing for any of our projects was needed for that one project.

[00:06:48] Kate: Right.

[00:06:49] David: So we were gaining experience across the board, we were gaining those different components. But everything we were doing anywhere would have been a subset of what was needed to take a single project really to serious impact. They needed all of those components. And that’s this complexity element coming in.

And this is a big part of where I think we’re recognizing, and this is why I love the flank metaphor, that really for us to be strategic, we’re going to be strategic on something now because that in its own right can help us grow, it can help us scale, it can get us to impact. But it can only get us to so much impact. To really build for impact we don’t just need that. We need all of our flank activities as well.

[00:07:39] Kate: Right.

[00:07:40] David: And that’s so useful.

[00:07:41] Kate: Yeah. And I mean, I think the thing that you have so identified as being your superpower is your talent, your ability to educate talent, your ability to really step people in to be able to be, you know, data scientists, computer scientists, and they don’t have to be. Your team can build the most complex pieces of code or whatever is needed. They don’t need to be super experts. They need to be practical experts. And you know how to do that. I know one of the big issues out there, this is the constant issue in tech is talent, finding talent and talent is so expensive.

So if you’re trying to do anything for impact, the idea that you can actually hire the team you need to deliver the digital product you need for impact, it’s pretty prohibitive. It’s not likely to happen unless you’re just so well funded. So that idea that you can, and this is the flank piece of that talent piece, you can get something off the ground with the core team, and then the flank steps in and slowly you can just offload that, and offload is a harsh word, but hand it over to the stakeholders, the people who are actually most affected by it, they have local knowledge, they have local networks, they have the trust, all of these things that actually make data more precise, more valuable. And then that can go back into the main system. So you think about the power of that flank activity when you’re ready to deploy it, even though right now you might just think, well, is that? What does this have to do with anything?

[00:09:14] David: And I think, I really get what you’re saying and I agree. I am just conscious that from an outside listeners perspective, when you said your talent, I mean, my ego is pretty big already. You’re not actually talking about my personal talent.

[00:09:28] Kate: IDEMS talent. The team. You have, you and Danny have hired an amazing team. They are lovely, intelligent, kind, wonderful people, and so yes, team.

[00:09:41] David: But it’s not just them, and this is where you actually made allusion to this, it’s the fact that a big part of our flank work, which is almost totally unfunded, but so important to what we’re doing, is supporting education from pre primary through to PhDs in particularly African contexts, but more broadly as well, in low resource environments and just helping that education to improve at all levels, providing opportunities for internship, as well as working within education systems in parallel to them. That’s a lot of the flank activity because the talent of tomorrow is not us.

And broadly the youth of tomorrow is largely African because it’s the youngest continent, it’s got the highest birth rates and all the rest of it. The youth of tomorrow is African. And if they have extensive talent, which can serve the jobs of tomorrow, and this is not the jobs that exist now, but the jobs of tomorrow, then that becomes an incredible resource and incredible boom. And really is at the heart of actually enabling these communities, which is what you described. But building to have the education systems which enable and create that talent, I’ve been working with that for 15 years. It’s hard. It’s more than 15 years now I’m getting old, but yes.

[00:10:59] Kate: No, and it’s funny, even as you’re saying that my first career out of school was a teacher. I taught high school English. I thought I was going to professor like, you know, I obviously did not end up doing that. But I think we both share the sense of the ideal is to educate the people who are affected and users of things to participate in to be, you know, citizens almost of the technology that affects their lives. Because otherwise you just constantly have people who are outside driving and deciding and it just continues imbalances.

[00:11:35] David: Exactly. If you don’t think of the technology as a service, if you think of it as actually a vehicle to sort of extract, which is what a lot of technology is conceived as, even if people don’t recognise that. The service components are almost in service to the extraction component. But if you actually put the service component front and centre, and you enable people to have the skills to be able to make sure it’s serving them well, it changes the dimensions. And the current way tech is developed…

And I’ve got to say, there’s a lot of good stuff happening, UNICEF has over a thousand tech projects at any given point in time. And when you look at them, they’re all very impressive. But the tech that they’re developing isn’t generally, I would argue, this community tech. I’ve not seen any real instances where this is all conceived together to try and bring that. And we’re guilty of that as well. We’ve tried, but we’ve not really yet got to the place where we can build community tech as I’d love to get it built.

We had a wonderful aim of doing this pre COVID, which was of course then interrupted by COVID, where we got school leavers who were then part of building the tech in Kenya. So actually, the vision was to turn it into an accredited program where they worked their way through the program and they built the tech which served the community that they were living in, and all in rural areas.

And so it was fantastic. And then of course COVID hit and the program was cut short. But the idea remained and many of the sort of building blocks have built into other things. The idea has not gone away. But it was hard, and the truth is, I think that right now, we can’t really pull off that program because it’s hard. It’s so hard to get these things right. We’ve got to build the pieces to be able to enable it and make it work.

[00:13:27] Kate: Well, I think that’s grand vision down the road.

[00:13:30] David: Yeah.

[00:13:31] Kate: But I don’t think even in like the three, five, I don’t think those are even in that timeline. I think those are the…

[00:13:37] David: No, no, no. I’m thinking 10 years, 15 years. That would be the dream.

[00:13:40] Kate: Yes.

[00:13:40] David: And it’s recognizing, and this I think one of the things that, you know, you’re helping us with, is to recognize, okay, we can keep those dreams for where we’re going five, ten years down the line. We can have these flank activities where we’re piloting, where we’re testing things out in small ways, where individuals of our team are engaging in ways which then enable us to learn.

But we’ve got to have a main focus which drives us for the next three to five years into our next phase of growth, into really being able to be more impactful with what we can do now, because that’s already impactful.

[00:14:12] Kate: Yes.

[00:14:12] David: And that’s something which I think I’ve always been lost. Danny and I have discussed this at length. Danny is the other co founder, and Danny and I have always discussed at length that we kind of know where we dream of getting 20 years down the line. We know where we are now. We kind of can sort of see the next step, but we can never see beyond that.

[00:14:34] Kate: Right.

[00:14:35] David: And I think what you’re really helping us to do is to be able to look a little bit further into the future. Maybe we could even look two or three steps ahead. That would be amazing.

[00:14:46] Kate: I have joined as the most quixotically idealistic. No, and I think that’s what I realized is all the dreams of community, they don’t mean anything unless you have the tech, you have the infrastructure. I know we only have a limited time here, but I think we both, we both, you talk about public goods, I tend to talk about infrastructure, where it’s really what does technology look like that is equivalent to infrastructure, where it is accessible?

I mean, there are concepts around what make a successful community and they have to do with rich infrastructure, accountable institutions, facilitating relationships, economic inclusion, all of these different things. But you see that without the infrastructure, you really can’t in a digital age, if we want to just take everyone offline, then okay, let’s go back. And you hear people who talk that way of like, well, actually people don’t really need tech. And it’s like, well, that’s not the world we live in anymore.

And also people do want to participate in tech. They do value those communities and community is something more complex. So yeah, I mean, you need that digital infrastructure and you need the systems to begin to let communities redefine and reshape themselves with the technology that’s essential. And that is an ambitious long term goal. It’s like, you know, like roads when the car was invented and then to build, as the American, the US highway system, all of these things, which maybe they’re not right for this time. But at the time those were ambitious projects. And yeah, not that government needs to do this, I think it won’t be, it’s not the model.

[00:16:19] David: But I think one of the key points is that we know that tech is impactful. It’s changing people’s lives. It’s doing that anyway. You’re not going to go back. You know, even if people in small communities decide to go back, there’s so much value which tech is bringing.

[00:16:35] Kate: Yes.

[00:16:36] David: The question is, who’s serving who? And I would argue that one of the flips which has happened, which is the reason, you know, originally I was a pure mathematician, why have I got into tech so much? Because this is where, at the moment, it is overvalued.

You know, actually, what we’re doing, the value is going to tech. Whereas it should be tech adding value to others. That balance between those two, there’s an opportunity to shift it back to the value tech rings more than the value tech creates.

[00:17:11] Kate: Yes, or extracts. But yes.

[00:17:15] David: Well, the point is, in some sense, how else does tech create value other than extracting?

[00:17:21] Kate: Yes.

[00:17:22] David: And that’s why it’s so important. The point is, it does create value, which is not extractative.

[00:17:27] Kate: Massive value. No, I mean, you think of all the social value, I won’t even go into examples, we could give a million, but the number of ways that people would look to the internet, and obviously the platforms that they use on the internet of having opened up whole avenues. Of course there’s all the bad stuff too and that’s why it’s complex, that’s why it’s a problem. But yeah.

[00:17:49] David: My favourite description of this was actually some philosophers working in Responsible AI and I think this is a good place to finish because they talked about the fact that you can’t forget to be looking for human flourishing.

[00:18:01] Kate: Right.

[00:18:02] David: That’s what they want to do. And this is what tech can enable.

[00:18:05] Kate: Yes.

[00:18:06] David: Human flourishing. What a wonderful word.

[00:18:08] Kate: I know, we both agree with that, highly, yeah, yeah. David, this was a great conversation. Thank you so much.

[00:18:15] David: No, thank you. And it’s so great having you on board.