Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Reflections on EVOKE

On May 19, the first iteration of EVOKE—the World Bank’s pioneering online social networking project/game on social entrepreneurship—came to an end. Some top players will receive online mentorhsips, seed money for projects, and a travel scholarships to an EVOKE summit in Washington DC. Others will get certificates for participating. A second run of the project is planned for 2011.

The Numbers…

According to the World Bank Institute:

By the time the EVOKE adventure ended on May 19, 19,324 people from 150 countries registered to play. Players had submitted over 23,500 blog posts (about 335 each day), 4,700 photos and over 1,500 videos highlighting challenges and solutions to the development issues featured each week.

You’ll also find some positive reporting of the data on InfoDev. While I haven’t yet seen how those numbers broke down, earlier statistics posted on the EVOKE website on March 20 give some idea of who was participating:

  • Total number of Agents (as of March 20): 11,474
    • by gender:
      • 2990 women (26.1%)
      • 8484 men (73.9%)
    • by location
      • United States: 5656 (49.3%)
      • Canada: 944 (8.2%)
      • South Africa: 871 (7.6%)
      • United Kingdom: 436 (3.8%)
      • Other: 3567 (31.2%)

While the totals were much almost twice as high by the time the project ended it May, presumably the gender and location distributions would have been roughly similar.

What do those numbers mean? Since EVOKE was especially aimed at African youth, critics are sure to point to the fact that the vast majority of participants were in the US, UK, Canada, and likely elsewhere in the OECD countries.

I’m not sure this is a terribly useful criticism. It was clear from the start that any web-based English-language educational initiative would suffer from this bias, given the financial, technical, and linguistic barriers to internet access in Africa. The real issue is how many non-Western participants were engaged at what cost per capita, and since I haven’t seen a detailed budget for the project I’m not really in a position to comment on its cost effectiveness. However, if the project did engage significant numbers in the developing world at a reasonable cost, the participation of those outside the primary target group isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Presumably, it represents a contribution to both development education and cross-cultural dialogue, as well as contributing substantive content in terms of EVOKE blog-posts.

The reported number of blog posts per agent suggests that many participants took a tour of EVOKE but soon found their interest waning. The Edutech report suggests that 10-20% of participants could be categorized as “active,” which seems about right to me, and not at all bad for a project of this sort. According to the EVOKE Class of 2010 “graduation” data available via Googledocs, some 4,733 Agents graduated (by completing at least one of the various missions, objectives, and quests), with an average of 3.2 missions, 3.9 objectives, and 2.5 quests per agent by my calculation.

Personally, I think that EVOKE’s sometimes rather awkward interface was a barrier to fuller participation. It was one of the less intuitive and effective social networking or online discussion forums that I’ve used.


Finally, what of the content? Number crunching, site statistics, and cost-effectiveness data really doesn’t tell you what participants may—or may not—have learned from the process.

Here, I’ll admit, my initial concerns were largely sustained throughout the project. EVOKE itself consisted of several main content components:

  • The central comic-style storyboard, which told the tale of the shadowy EVOKE group that worked to alleviated global development problems in 2020 through innovative action and social entrepreneurship.
  • Initial links to outside materials.
  • The blog entries, pictures, videos, comments, and links contributed after the launch by the EVOKE mentors.
  • The “evidence,” blog entries, pictures, videos, comments, and links contributed by ordinary participants.

The storyline itself, which was intended as the spark for each week’s discussions among agents, was usually rather weak.

  • Episodes 1-2 saw a famine in Japan, due—apparently—to food shortages. The famine, however, seemed confined to Japan, which suggests that either 1) global trade had collapsed (otherwise, why not import food?), or 2) Japan had suffered a severe economic crisis which had drastically reduced household purchasing power. There was no discussion of this, however. Instead, the heroes of the story, dispatched from the secret EVOKE HQ in Senegal, were sent to Japan to construct rooftop gardens and floating greenhouses in Tokyo Harbour. Problem solved! From a development economics point-of-view, it made no sense at all, and there were few helpful links to expert websites on food security issues. Since I’m a teacher, I would have to assign it a failing grade: F.
  • Episode 3 concerned brownouts and electrical shortages in Rio de Janiero. The EVOKE heroes promoted power-generating windmills, solar balloons, and even a piezoelectric disco dance-floor as the solution. There was no discussion of the major issues in the energy sector (most of which aren’t resolvable through small scale social entrepreneurship). The only saving grace of the episode was the failure of one local community to take up the windmill initiative, which nicely highlighted the need for community and individual buy-in to development projects. Grade: C.
  • Episode 4 dealt with a future London where heavy rain had overloaded the sanitation system, resulting in severe clean water shortages. Cholera in Southwark! How could the EVOKE team warn the public where and how to get safe water? Those of you who might have said “public service announcements in the media” are apparently under the misapprehension that the Britons of 2020 still spend hours watch Big Brother, Dr. Who, or football on the telly. Instead, giant organic LED displays are required used to display images on buildings (presumably capitalizing on that quaint English custom of standing outside during torrential downpours staring at, well, the sides of office buildings). Yes, good development practice suggests that you do something complicated, expensive, and untested instead of something easy, cheap, and proven. Grade: F
  • Episode 5 saw the collapse of the post-communist banking system in Cuba, apparently spurred by  the crash of the US dollar. The answer: print an alternative local currency (apparently backed by nothing) on old printing presses! Call it the Somalia solution.  There’s also a lot of discussion in the episode of community banking and microinvestment, but not really enough for the average EVOKE reader to make much sense of. Grade: D

  • Episode 6 addressed empowering women through the story of a woman activist kidnapped by retrograde jihadists who opposed female participation in the public sphere. Fortunately, one hacker is able to identify her location and enable a military rescue (how very Special Forces of the World Bank!), while others promote a venture capital fund to assist female entrepreneurs. Sadly, gender empowerment is a little more complicated than that. Grade: C+
  • Episode 7 concerned a fire in the future Los Angeles that leaves 300,000 homeless. The team uses the Ushahidi crowdsourcing technologies to facilitate emergency communications, and helps resolve the immediate emergency housing situation with hexayurts. The lesson here is urban resilience and the remarkable capabilities of disaster-affected populations, two very important things that media coverage of disasters often obscures with its focus on external aid. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that theme was very effectively communicated. Grade: C+
  • Episode 8 highlighted the value of indigenous knowledge—again, another important development lesson. The EVOKE team discouraged slash-and-burn agriculture in favour of more sustainable agricultural practices, as well as promoting ecotourism (to reduce poaching) and highlighted the value of indigenous botanical medicines (again, all useful things). What was lost, perhaps, was the need to embed this within broader context. After all, you need transportation infrastructure and marketing expertise to expand the agricultural sector, and tourist infrastructure to support ecotourism. While perhaps I’m adding too many layers, it is precisely this sort of interplay of complexity that make development work interesting. They are certainly things that social entrepreneurs need to take into account. Grade: B-
  • Episode 9 sees an outbreak of River Flu in China. The EVOKE team helps network researchers and clinicians, and microfranchise pharmacies and clinics. With the public bombarded with inaccurate rumours that that threaten to create mass panic, they also help to broadcast more useful information via (very sensibly) TV and SMS. Grade: B+ for the SMS usage, but D for the franchise clinics and pharmacies—as a longer term initiative perhaps, but as a rapid response to an epidemic and public panic? Hardly. Plus this is China, with a massive public sector to be mobilized for localized emergencies.

Running against the backdrop of all these adventures are the activities of Citizen X, a hacker who seems to want to publicize the EVOKE team’s secrets at any costs. At the very end, a shadowy figure called Alpha appears, and threatens to destroy EVOKE. Perhaps they’re both anti-globalization protesters. Or one might be Paul Wolfowitz, bent on revenge.

The Discussion

Despite a suboptimal user interface, EVOKE did generate some 23,500 blog posts—a not inconsiderable number of reflections, dialogues, and ideas on development and social entrepreneurship. Moreover, the dialogue (or, more accurately, the “multilogue”) went beyond this in many cases, to the formation of friendships, collaboration, third-party wikis and websites, and enduring off-site contacts and networking. Much of this was undoubtedly a very positive thing. (Those interesting in the impact of all this would do well to have a look through the discussion at, a website intended to “leave a trace of EVOKE’s social experiments, fails and wins,” as well as EVOKE Forever)

Some of the blog postings on EVOKE were outstanding: thoughtful, original, contemplative, and thought-provoking. Many were good best efforts, as participants sought to engage the subject matter. Still others were innocently inaccurate, misleading, or distracting. A few had particular viewpoints that they wished to evangelize. The peer review process built into the system provided some degree of quality-check, in that Agents could “vote” approval of ideas posted by others. However, such net populism doesn’t always assure that what receives approval is all that sensible or grounded in international development experience. (Had it been, there would have been an EVOKE revolt at the silly storylines featured each week.) There were also mentors who posted ideas, or who might comment on the ideas and issues raised by others. However they were too few to guide or facilitate many of the discussions.

Any experienced teacher knows that classroom discussion is a good thing. However, they also know that if you leave a class to discuss issues without any support, they’re at significant risk of accepting trendy stereotypes or allowing inaccuracies to go unchallenged. Sadly, I saw a fair share of this in EVOKE discussions. I’m not suggesting here that EVOKE ought to promote a particular set of “truths.” I am suggesting that far more effort needs to be put into how the initiative can encourage participants to develop a critical yet well-grounded understanding of development issues.

Final Thoughts

There has been some significant discussion of EVOKE in the blogosphere.  Unfortunately, much of this has been filtered through ideological lenses: since the World Bank is behind the project, it must be a cunning PR ruse to brainwash the masses into blind acceptance of structural adjustment, privatization, and the Washington consensus. This sort of criticism is certainly evident in the satirical INVOKE site that was set up as a parody to EVOKE (see typical panel below—it’s witty, biting stuff, and often better written than the real website). Similarly, the content of EVOKE has also been criticized for promoting a sort of philanthrocapitalism that fails to challenge market systems.

I’ll leave those sorts of debates for those who prefer to see the complex challenges of development in starkly black and white terms. However, even within the context of the development community mainstream I think that EVOKE’s basic storyline is, for the most part, dysfunctional. In promoting social entrepreneurship—a worthy goal—it usually fails to highlight the real-life challenges of bring ideas to fruition and having a positive impact. Many of the sorts of fixes that the EVOKE team adopt are typically simplistic, gimicky, unsustainable, and divorced (and devoid) of broader social, economic, political, and cultural context.

It could be argued, of course, that things needed to be simplified for the target youth audience. While this is true, I’m not sure that complexity can’t be made interesting and engaging. Certainly readers can be encouraged to ask questions, consult stakeholders, and pretest ideas.

It could also be argued that the EVOKE story was simply a mechanism designed to encourage initial discussion and later activism—a prod to social networking and action, rather than educational content in itself. This, I think, is a much more substantive response to my concerns. After all, the website is built around the idea of participation and discussion. It also repeatedly emphasizes the “ten powers” needed to change the world—collaboration, courage, creativity, entrepreneurship, local insight, knowledge sharing, resourcefulness, spark, sustainability, and vision—all of which are obviously good things.

However, I think they’ve underestimated the extent to which students can absorb the wrong lessons, and overestimated the ability of many participants to separate the valuable lessons from the more misleading blog posts and comments. It also doesn’t answer the question why the World Bank—with more possibly more smart, experienced technical and aid professionals than any other development institution on the planet—couldn’t have come up with content that more accurately describes what real-world development looks like.

Marshall McLuhan famously said that the “medium is the message,” suggesting that form is more determinative of social impact than is content. In some ways, this idea seems deeply embeded into the design philosophy and visual imagery of EVOKE, which very much puts emphasis on edgy style and social networking and pays rather less attention to providing a supportive knowledge base.

However, McLuhan was at best only half right. The message is the message too, and on this critical dimension the first iteration of EVOKE fell short. Perhaps a second version will address some of these shortcomings. After all, good social entrepreneurship honestly assesses its impact and shortcomings, and tries again.

* * *

Rex – having had nothing to do with Evoke, yet working at the Bank, I have to say I think this is a fair assessment – Evoke was awful flashy and the teaching seemed undirected at best (an afterthought or nonexistent at worst).  I had signed up as a Mentor, but my instructions were to click on people’s walls and tell them what was good – it could’ve used a lot more direction and much clearer objectives.  In my opinion, simulations are best when they are designed with clear teaching objections and then the participants are tricked into learning, often without realizing it until after the fact.  I hope evaluations like this are heard by the designers as constructive criticism and are useful in their next attempts, because successful learning in environments like these would be a great step forward for development practitioners and those interested in these topics. – Gary

2 responses to “Reflections on EVOKE

  1. Panamericana 19/06/2010 at 11:31 pm

    Nice way of trying to please everyone…

    I can tell you what will happen to the next season of Evoke,
    the same that happened to the first.

  2. David Fono 24/06/2010 at 12:40 pm

    Fantastic writeup, really appreciated it.

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