Kel Smith is one of those rare guys who uses technology for good, but also understands that technology in a vacuum isn’t the singular answer to social ills. He formed Anikto (pronounced ah-NEEK-toh) in 2008 as a vehicle to remove barriers that separate people from the things they fundamentally need. Right now, Anikto is putting its Aisle Won mobile app to work transforming food deserts—urban areas in which it is hard to purchase affordable or good-quality food.
What’s the change you are trying to make in the world?
Anikto started as a consultancy to improve online experiences for people with disabilities, with an emphasis on improving the accessibility of websites and ecommerce applications. Over the years, my emphasis has shifted into such areas as chronic disease, food security and personal wellness. Named after the Greek word for “open,” Anikto is an advocate for applied innovation that is scalable to all who benefit from it—no matter who they are, what they can afford, or what their bodies are able to do.
Are you disrupting a market through innovative products or new ways of doing business?
Both, really. I’ve learned that it’s not that difficult to make something that’s interesting or different. The challenge lies in having a meaningful, almost transformational impact on someone’s life, and very few products accomplish this task in isolation. We might think of Aisle Won as a mobile app, but the product is only as successful as the distribution system that supports what it can do on the technology side. If there is no food to be grown, or no trucks to get it where it needs to go, then the app component is essentially useless.
It’s unrealistic to simply place a box of supermarket produce at a bus stop and expect consumers’ eating habits to change overnight. That’s not how hungry people make decisions. It takes more than a produce aisle to refresh a food desert. You need intervention to change behavior, because people tend to fall into routines of habit—even if beautifully designed, convenient options are presented as alternatives. Same with an app that tells people to eat their vegetables—we have to identify the high-impact, embeddable moments where intrinsic motivation is formulated. So it’s really a symbiotic relationship between the product, the user’s intentions and how the process is manifested as a form of doing business.
What have you found to be the biggest barrier separating people from their fundamental needs?
Economics seems to be the strongest connective thread in the work I do and the people we serve. Disability is one of the leading contributors to households that exist on fixed income, for example. Subsidies only provide a fraction of the care often required among people living with two or more chronic conditions. When a person’s disability prevents them from achieving gainful employment, the financial worries compound whatever social or logistical challenges are already in place. People with disabilities are 33% more likely to be food insecure, and they are increasingly more likely to live with a comorbidity as the result of disconnected care. Physical and cognitive limitations can prevent someone from getting or keeping a job, applying for school, or signing up for government assistance. Financial solvency can’t fix every problem, but the lack of it can certainly make a bad situation worse.
You believe that modifying behavior through good design is a social responsibility—can you elaborate on that?
In today’s technologically driven landscape, we often think of design innovation in the context of devices, environments and platforms. The problem with relying on this framework is that digital components are increasingly ephemeral. In addition, much of what we call “design thinking” is inherently optimistic. History is loaded with well-intentioned efforts that failed, because the behavioral aspects of the problem weren’t taken into account. I’ve made this mistake many, many times myself. When it comes to defining who we are and what we hope to become, there rarely is “an app for that.”
The social responsibility, then, comes with respecting a community’s legacy. All behavior is based on some combination of heritage, culture, love, faith, healing and pride. We can’t dispossess the fabric of society in the name of disruption. It’s important to have the humility to recognize that the solution is more process than product. It means immersing oneself in order to understand the sociocultural, economic and political attributes that shape our existence. Design thinking is an experiential construct; it addresses the needs of the people who will consume a new product or service, meanwhile supporting the infrastructure that enables transference to take place.
How have you integrated corporate social responsibility and social impact into the DNA of Anikto?
The first thing I always tell people is that I’m no expert. Everything I think I know comes from aggregating the stories and events that take place around me, then synthesizing these into what I hope will be a positive outcome. I’m very fortunate to have a small group of like-minded colleagues who share my passion for extending human capability. It’s very important that I work with people who are aligned to the same strategic purpose and moral compass.
I also think it’s important to minimize the idea that we’re serving people who “aren’t like us.” I often make the point that disability is the one minority group any of us can join at any time. As people grow older, our inclusion in the club is practically inevitable. In his book Being Digital, Nicholas Negroponte describes the emergence of an orthogonal future in which there will no longer be a sense of ownership over what we know and who we become. In some ways, I feel as if the DNA of Anikto is about commonality. We’re working to build a prototype of the future that each of us is likely to experience in some form or another. Framing Anikto’s activities in this way helps to keep the brand accountable.
What was the inspiration for your Aisle Won app, which connects suppliers of healthy, affordable food to people who live in “food deserts,” and how does it work?
The Aisle Won story began in 2010. I had first started to learn about food deserts as part of my background work in the areas of disability awareness and digital health. It felt like a natural progression of Anikto's interests, and I was intrigued by reports showing that people living in low-income areas actually showed a higher increase in smartphone usage than other economic groups.
The original concept was to create an app that connects people to sources of fruits and vegetables, thus attracting grocery chains to areas designated as food deserts by incentivizing the market. The app would allow users to create a profile and make their selections relevant with filtering options, thus maximizing the dollars spent on produce. It was a very simplistic approach that deserved to fail, and it did, because I did not take into account the cultural and social aspects of how people acquire the food they eat. I also needed to bring the imprint of "local" to my understanding of food deserts and technology.
For the next two years, I spent time visiting prospective pilot cities. I studied how food sourcing and distribution methods coalesce into cultural economics. I knew about Amazon Fresh, Good Eggs and Peapod; I wondered if it was possible to bring services normally designed for affluent populations to the food desert. That said, I suspected that an online grocery store alone couldn’t solve the food desert problem. For this solution to work, it had to reconcile a transportation model where small to mid-size stores within close proximity are often overstocked with unhealthy choices. And because healthy eating is a skill that must be learned, an educational component needed to be layered in a way that respected the consumer’s legacy and habits. A recipe database and bundling option was a must.
The first pilot was launched in April 2013 with Real Food Farm, a six-acre urban agricultural plot in Baltimore. They had everything needed to test the hypothesis: (1) a food source, (2) a distribution system, and (3) a local network of advocates. The first eight months saw a marked increase in food assistance spending on locally-grown produce, with additional revenue selling other farms’ produce and Double Dollars cash-matching incentives. The program was then launched in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, as part of an exclusive partnership with the Renaissance Project and funded by a Kellogg Foundation grant through the Institute of Local Innovations.
What we’ve found most recently is that consumers’ motives for using Aisle Won have evolved. Although downloads of the app (and resulting sales) remain strong, actual sales made through the app have predictably hit a plateau. What this tells me is that shoppers are getting value beyond acquisition, using the app to find out when the delivery truck will be in their neighborhood, reserving their direct purchases for when they’re among their friends and families. I like to think we’ve hit upon a social model that empowers communities to support consciously healthy behavior, even though there are similar programs and apps out there, and I envision that the future of Aisle Won will leverage this dynamic with greater impact.
What’s the biggest change you’ve made in your professional life?
Making the evolution from being a creative technologist (e.g. a “scientist”) to a business development professional, which required an overhaul in how I described problems and the vernacular I used to propose solutions. I realized a few years ago that I didn’t have to be the smartest person in the room all the time, which I suppose comes with confidence. Today I rely more on plain language and my ability humanize the outcomes we want to achieve. The “science” is in establishing our metrics for success, which I’m able to verbalize much better than I could before.
I’ve had to make a very concerted effort to pay attention to the things that matter in my personal life: my health, my marriage, my local community, etc. We can’t change the world unless we ensure that our bodies, minds and hearts operate on point and in parallel. I confess that’s something I’ve had to learn over time, and I could probably still benefit from improvement.
Change is hard—do you have any tricks you’d like to share for making it easier?
My grandfather used to say, “The world is full of smart, nice people who can’t rake a leaf.” Keep on top of the boring, administrative tasks that might seem annoying but are often what elevates an effort from a good idea to a realistic proposition. Have your support system in place. Learn to balance your reliance on human and financial capital; become familiar with forecasting projections in order to secure a funding stream. This is important, because reducing liability means lessening the control you might have to turn over to people who don’t share or understand your vision. When it comes to metrics, develop a long-term and short-term strategic plan so you can benchmark progress. Look for the small wins, and be very specific in how you increment and measure success.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I would be more assertive in certain situations and more patient in others. As I grow older I feel as if I’m getting better at recognizing the difference, but the learning process is ongoing.
Do you volunteer? If so, for which cause and why?
For the past couple of years, I’ve served as a national expert on mobile technologies for theUN World Summit Awards, representing North America and Oceania territories. I also do some pro-bono mentoring for small startups in the health/disability space.
What did you eat for breakfast this morning?
Toast with organic fig paste, hazelnut coffee and two pears.
Do you have any pets?
No, but there are at least two birds’ nests on our front porch that enjoy heavy rotation. My wife’s friend says that our property has a “good vibe,” which perhaps explains why we attract a high population of birds, rabbits and chipmunks.
Any guilty pleasures?
Good coffee, good beer, and the daily music reviews on Pitchfork.
What scares you?
Waking up one day and realizing that I may not have the sufficient smarts, strength, temperament, resources or vision to carry out the things I think I need to accomplish. There is nothing worse than missed opportunity.
When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
What are you reading right now?
Two books on my nightstand are The Longest Way Home by Andrew McCarthy and Forty Chances by Howard G. Buffett.
My playlists are often quite varied. I tend to gravitate towards minimalist post-classical composers, old school soul music and sweaty punk rock. Right this moment, I’m listening to a new recording by Dan Abrams under the name Shuttle358.
I confess I don’t watch television. My wife and I just completed season two of the Broadchurchseries on DVD, which was excellent.
Who inspires you?
I take great inspiration from the efforts of people who have been confronted with life situations, especially those in which authentic practice wields enormous personal and global consequence. There are amazing things happening in developing countries, for example.Akirachix is an all-female technology collective in Nairobi. They developed a messaging app that regulates the price of crops and sources produce directly to consumers, securing a consistent supply that is not dependent on middlemen. It’s a very simple solution that encourages price transparency and reduces market corruption.
Who are you following online?
If I see anything written online by Clay Shirky, Virginia Heffernan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Sassy Outwater or C.K. Prahalad, I’ll stop what I’m doing and read it.
Who is the most progressive nonprofit or business leader you know?
I’m fortunate to know a number of folks dedicated to promoting transformational success in the areas of business and social good. Joe Rafter, Kimberly Clay, Amy Gurowitz, Sharron Rush, Molly Holzschlag, Koreen Pagano, Pat Chenot and Det Ansinn have all left their marks on me in some form or another. I must, however, reserve special mention for Greta Gladney of The Renaissance Project. Her team demonstrates tremendous passion and tenacity, meanwhile exhibiting a willingness to think beyond the typical non-profit guardrails to do truly great things.
What’s one question you’d like to ask yourself—and answer?
What’s your kryptonite/Achilles heel? Migraine headaches. When I get a really nasty one (which happens maybe three or four times a year), everything stops—even if photosynthetic vampires are invading the house.