Emerging Explorer project makes Buckminster Fuller finalists

FrontlineSMS, a project of 2010 National Geographic Emerging Explorer Ken Banks, has been selected as one of only four Finalists in the Buckminster Fuller Challenge, the prestigious annual design science competition. Named “Socially-Responsible Design’s Highest Award” by Metropolis Magazine, the Challenge awards $100,000 to support the development and implementation of a whole systems-based solution that has significant potential to solve humanity’s most pressing problems.

By Sarah George, Florence Scialom and Nsonje Siame


FrontlineSMS has been recognized for bringing the communication revolution to poor and remote regions, through harnessing the power and reach of mobile phones. The software works without the Internet, is easy to implement, simple to operate, and free to download.

Results from a FrontlineSMS user survey, held at the end of 2010, help to illustrate efforts to design software to work for “100% of humanity.” In the survey 84% of users said they found our software easy to use.* Results also demonstrated that FrontlineSMS is being used in over 70 countries, and is particularly useful in areas of the world where other forms of communication can be difficult to access. One FrontlineSMS user said:

I was using FrontlineSMS to communicate with administrators, principals, and teachers in 50 secondary schools. In the area I was working landlines and faxes were largely unheard of, postal services unreliable, and even road access was poor. FrontlineSMS allowed me to coordinate communication between these schools to organize various school events and programs

At its core, FrontlineSMS software turns a laptop or desktop computer and a mobile phone or modem into a mass messaging platform, empowering users to gather and share information of any kind, in any place. The software forms part of a strategy that grassroots organizations around the world can adopt to leverage mobile technology for the greater good. FrontlineSMS focuses on reaching the “last mile” by designing the platform to take advantage of basic mobile phones already in the hands of billions of people throughout the developing world.


Rural Health Midwives in the Philippines getting trained in advanced FrontlineSMS administration. (Photo credit: Molave Development Foundation Inc.)


While the core platform is use-agnostic, the FrontlineSMS team is committed to incubating sector specific solutions. For example,sister projects work with FrontlineSMS to confront challenges in access to healthcare, education, financial credit, legal representation, and media. There are clearly many other sectors in which FrontlineSMS can be utilized, too. In the recent user survey examples emerged from over 15 sectors, including conservation, human rights, and agriculture, amongst others.

For FrontlineSMS, winning the $100,000 Buckminster Fuller prize would provide critical support for developing Version 2 of the software; an upgrade that will improve and extend core functionalities, making the software even more user friendly and interactive. Version 2 will help users of FrontlineSMS do more with the software than ever before.

Finalists were chosen by BFI’s multi-disciplinary review team, made up of 11 distinguished jurors. These include Valerie Casey, founder of Design Accord; David Orr, writer and professor of Environmental Studies and Politics at Oberlin College; Andrew Zolli, producer of PopTech and Danielle Nierenberg, Project Director of State of World 2011; and Sim Vanderyn, visionary ecological design pioneer.

On Wednesday, June 8th FrontlineSMS will be presented to jury members and an audience in New York City. On Friday, June 10th the Winner will be revealed at a conferring ceremony. Both events will take place at The Graduate Center, CUNY. More information about the event is available here.


About the Buckminster Fuller Challenge

The Buckminster Fuller Challenge is the premier international competition recognizing initiatives which take a comprehensive, anticipatory, design approach to radically advance human well being and the health of our planet’s ecosystems. The 2011 Semi-finalists are providing workable solutions to some of the world’s most significant challenges including water scarcity, food supply, health, energy consumption and shelter. The Challenge is a program of The Buckminster Fuller Institute which aims to deeply influence the ascendance of a new generation of design-science pioneers who are leading the creation of an abundant and restorative world economy that benefits all humanity. For more information on the 2011 Finalists visit the Challenge website. You can visit the FrontlineSMS page here.

* The FrontlineSMS user survey received responses from 174 people

Changing Planet

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Meet the Author
Ken Banks is an innovator, mentor, anthropologist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer. Founder of kiwanja.net and now Head of Social Impact at Yoti, he spends his time applying Yoti's digital identity solutions to humanitarian problems around the world. His earlier research resulted in the development of FrontlineSMS, an award-winning text messaging-based field communication system designed to empower grassroots non-profit organisations. He shares exciting stories in "Digital Diversity" about how mobile phones and other appropriate technologies are being used around the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives.