The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator

When problems find people, amazing things can happen

Classes in social innovation, social entrepreneurship and design thinking have become increasingly popular in recent years. On the one hand, this might be seen as a good thing. After all, the world needs as many smart, engaged citizens as it can get, particularly when you consider the multitude of challenges we face as a planet.

But does a career in social change really begin in the classroom, or out in the real world? How much social change is planned, and how much accidental? And which approach tends to lead to the most meaningful, lasting or impactful solutions?

This book may help you find some of the answers.

Edited by

Ken Banks

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Fuelled by the spread of the Internet and the ubiquity of mobile phones, there are more people working to solve pressing social and environmental problems in the world today than ever before in human history.
For anyone wanting to join them, it is my hope that 'The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator' will show the way, or at least one way, and prove that the only qualifications you need to change the world are a little faith, hope and determination.
From the introduction by Ken Banks


For the world to be a better place for everyone, each of us needs to stand up against wrongs, show compassion and humility to others, and not turn our backs when we encounter hardship and suffering. These simple rules have guided me throughout my life, as they do for countless others who fight for the rights of the poor, marginalised and disenfranchised around the world.
It is my belief that it is down to each of us to help galvanise change, and through their efforts with this book, these eleven authors clearly feel the same.
From the foreword by Archbishop Desmond Tutu


This book provides a welcome challenge to conventional wisdom in social entrepreneurship. It highlights the personal stories of ten social innovators from around the world. Ten social innovators - ordinary people - who randomly stumbled across problems, injustices and wrongs and, armed with little more than determination and belief, decided not to turn their backs but to dedicate their lives to solving them.

Here are their stories.

  • Let a Billion Readers Bloom

    Watching yet another Spanish movie in his friend’s apartment to avoid writing up his doctoral dissertation, Brij Kothari makes a throwaway comment about subtitles, which plants the seed of an idea and spawns a literacy initiative that has had, in Bill Clinton’s words, “a staggering impact on people’s lives”.

  • Silicon Savannah Rising

    Worried about the political turmoil in Kenya, and concerned at the lack of information that is forthcoming from his adoptive country, Erik Hersman mobilises his own five-strong army to conceive, create and launch a web-based facility that revolutionises how breaking news is disseminated worldwide.

  • Data-Powered Development

    Parachuted into the middle of sub-Saharan Africa with a brief to collect public health data, and confronted with a laborious, environmentally wasteful paper-based system, paediatrician Joel Selanikio finds the perfect outlet for the skills he acquired as a Wall Street computer consultant.

  • Dial M for Medicine

    Intending to ground himself in the realities of global health during his internship in rural Malawi, Josh Nesbit discovers that it is hard to sit on the sidelines and soon finds himself proposing a solution to overcome the difficulty of connecting patients, community health workers and hospitals.

  • Where There is no Light

    After watching local doctors and midwives struggle to treat critically ill pregnant women in near-total darkness on a Nigerian maternity ward, where an untimely power cut can mean the difference between life and death, obstetrician Laura Stachel delivers a solar-based solution that enhances their survival prospects.

  • The Power of Touch

    Observing how well the autistic son of a close friend responds to the therapeutic effects of a Chinese massage technique that she has advocated using, Louisa Silva is convinced that the treatment has the potential to benefit thousands of others, but she needs to prove it.

  • The Ripple Effect

    Haunted by the memory of being separated from her older sister during a childhood spent in foster care, and horrified that other siblings are continuing to suffer the same fate, Lynn Price resolves to devise a way to bring such people back together.

  • Patent Wars

    An unexpected conversation over dinner leads Priti Radhakrishnan to build an innovative new organisation with a mission to fight for the rights of people denied access to life saving medicines.

  • Without Mud There is no Lotus

    Until a visit to the dermatologist turns her world upside down, Sharon Terry has never heard of pseudanthoma elasticum (PXE), but when she discovers that research into the disease afflicting her children is hidebound by scientific protocol, she sets about changing the system with characteristic zeal.

  • Building for a Better Future

    Encounters and conversations with leftover people occupying leftover spaces and using leftover materials, at home and abroad, led architecture professor Wes Janz to view them as urban pioneers, not victims, and teach him a valuable lesson: think small and listen to those at the sharp end.



This book’s vivid, engaging stories – of ordinary people who have devoted their lives to solving problems and injustices they never expected to encounter – make a major contribution to understanding what social innovation is all about. This is an inspiring and essential read for everyone who cares about our flawed, messy, beautiful world and believes in its myriad possibilities.
Hannah Bloch, National Geographic Magazine
  • The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator is required reading for any student or anyone interested in technology-based invention to improve peoples’ lives, and social innovation as a potential life path. Its honest stories of unforeseen challenges and unexpected opportunities from the people encountering them both are an inspiration and refreshing reality-check.
    Joshua Schuler, Lemelson–MIT Program
  • Ken Banks, whose own career has taken him from offshore banking to launching a brilliant communications tool for Africa, takes us on a social innovation journey. We meet ten entrepreneurs who happened on life-changing ideas – from solar lighting for African maternity wards to film subtitles to promote literacy in India – and then fought against every kind of obstacle to make them happen. Inspiring and instructive.
    Rory Cellan-Jones, BBC Technology Correspondent
  • This book is a refreshing antidote to pessimism about the potential of individuals influencing “social change”. The author of each chapter has a personal story to tell, but each in such a way that it helps us to better understand the different ways it is possible to make that change happen
    Dr Elizabeth Harrison, University of Sussex
  • These real – occasionally raw – stories do more to capture the life of the committed social entrepreneur than anything else I’ve read. Inspiring, yes, but even better, it works as a real world case-based manual for how to create change for the better.
    Kevin Starr, Mulago Foundation
  • Why would anyone trade a life of comfort for the muddy boots of change-making? Ken Banks shows how global challenges trouble the waters of our conscience, and compel a new generation of innovators to action.
    Andrew Zolli, PopTech
  • This important, timely book gives the reader an invaluable insight into the workings of the world of social entrepreneurship. It is a must-read for students, practitioners, policy makers and anyone with a passing interest in how to work for the greater good.
    Professor Klaus Schwab, Founder of the World Economic Forum
  • The world’s most challenging problems are being taken on by people motivated by their personal passions, informed by their deep understanding of local realities and shaped by their frustration with inadequate solutions. Ken Banks and the other remarkable innovators here offer inspiration and insight into building practical solutions while calling into question established wisdom about social innovation. This is a must-read book for anyone who wants to solve problems with global implications through local knowledge and involvement.
    Ethan Zuckerman, Director, Center for Civic Media at MIT
  • There is no shortage of great causes to support, wrongs needing righted and injustice begging to be exposed to the light-of-day. In Ken Banks’ thought-provoking and inspirational book, heroism is given a face. It is the face of justice, altruism, perseverance and grace. We see in these reluctant leaders the inner fire and dogged determination that is required to effect real change in the world. Read this book and be inspired to find your fire and make your mark.
    David Avrin, President at The Visibility Coach
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By the Society of Business Economists

Any book with a foreword by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and comments from the World Economic Forum, the BBC, and National Geographic is surely one to take notice of, and this book still exceeded my expectations in so many ways.

If the book has a purpose, it is probably to inspire us to innovate using existing technology for those who cannot help themselves. As an economist in the field of innovation and creativity I was ready to uncover the principles involved. What I didn’t expect was the emotional roller coaster that made me stop and wonder why I was so close to tears. Human stories of injustice and income inequality are so much more powerful than statistics. Politicians and economists please take note. I was moved by the magnanimous response of the human spirit to solve the problems. Surprising as this may sounds, the story here of a patent lawyer was especially moving.

There are 10 stories of ‘reluctant’ innovators. None was forced to innovate but they had the classic necessary combination of motivation, knowledge and ability.

The book was hard to follow sometimes, but much easier if you read about the person and their innovation at the back of the book, before you read their chapter. So many stories in one set of covers made it a little messy too, but also gave so many interesting angles on ‘social’ innovation.

It is an emotional book about the human spirit and the desire help people who cannot help themselves. It is a book about the struggle that innovators face to introduce even low-budget, life- saving innovations. It is a book about the failure of the current economic system to address social needs and how poorer people are locked out from the most basic health care. I got an insight into why childbirth is so dangerous in developing countries; it is more basic than I thought! This is an uplifting and motivating book about the best aspects of human creativity and desire to help those who need it. It is also a book about not clearing your conscience by convincing yourself that Governments and NGO’s are acting on your behalf; their ego and short-sightedness often gets in the way of innovation despite them being good at some things. It is a story of how any of us with the will can creatively apply our knowledge of existing technology in new situations to have outstanding life- saving or life-changing effects for others.

If that is not enough for you, there is a hidden ‘how-to’ manual about social innovation including the qualities you need. This is no technical manual about stage-gating and managing risk, but rather a guide to making something happen against all odds.

It inspired me to make some of our social innovations around economics happen and it’s a long time since that happened to me. I’ll be using some of the examples of creativity, and recommending partners read this book to get them fired-up for innovation.



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'The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator' is available in all good bookshops and all usual places online. The physical book is available in paperback only. Kindle, Kobo and iBook versions are also available from their respective online stores. As well as Amazon we've included links to Barnes & Noble and Book Depository (who offer free postage and packing around the world).
Ken Banks has collected a volume of stories here that need to be told on every college campus
Wendy Petersen Boring, Co-Editor, "Teaching Sustainability: Perspectives from the Humanities and Social Sciences"

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