This entry was posted on Ashoka Tech last year. As I was reviewing my old blog, I thought to save it here.
It’s a strange world we live in where people on one side of the planet can earn a living creating iphone applications while those on the other side are using hazardous kerosene lamps to work into the night. Luckily, the 1’s (and 0’s) of change are a-blowin’ – in the Western world, that is. Social and environmental issues are given more and more attention by creators and providers of technology, businesses and business schools and others. These people are increasingly interested in using their technological, managerial and financial resources to empower the intelligent, hardworking local people who have been tiring over these issues for decades. Whether because we’re finally realizing that our planet and people need attention, the increasing access and immediacy of information is making it hard to ignore, or the collective Western workforce is looking for transcendental motivation, it seems we’re on the right track now. At a time when our industrialization is catching up with us, the fruits of technological innovation are feeding powerful change. In enacting this change, partnerships and co-creation with developing nations are necessary to ensure the technological innovations suit local needs best and that the value created is distributed equitably.
Here is some exciting evidence of technological innovation, which I’ve grouped into the four categories of a product portfolio, which I think can help identify the impact made by innovations, inventions and everything in between. (Source of product portfolio categories: Prof. Martínez de Albéniz, IESE Business School).
Cost efficient and micro-sized products, to me, classify as product innovation breakthroughs. These include LED lanterns (Philips, D.Light), variable prescription glasses and other radically new products that solve pertinent problems and create new categories. Arguably encouraged by C.K. Prahalad and his proposition that business can be done profitably with the base of the pyramid, the creative recombination of technology from the North for the purpose of conducting business with the South can yield maximum-impact new product innovation.
The use cell phone networks to overcome the lack of physical infrastructure is incredible. Services range from crop information for farmers (Reuters Market Light) to banking capabilities (M-Pesa) to anti-corruption verification and money transfer (ZERO) and others. New applications of existing structures have the power to create massive social change -through empowerment and livelihood generation. (Yeah, if I were Nokia, I’d be pretty psyched to have such a fan base in India, China, Africa and LATAM)
1. Advances in clean energy can be used for development and also enable the use of other power-operated devices.
2. Repurposed gadgets like cell phones, and eventually ipods and ebook readers can be powerful development tools. Arguably, the ebook is a transitory technology that will meet its demise with the advent of tablet PCs and more efficient devices. When this happens (or before, if the technology becomes cheap enough) the technology or the discarded devices can be sold cheaply as multi-level textbooks that can bring libraries of knowledge to the developing world.
3. As technology creates changes in company organization, the rise of virtual enterprise will provide opportunity to anyone, anywhere who can get the job done. (From Samasource to name-that-multinational)
In the Support category, I would put variations on existing technology that do not require any technological change, such as the use of social networks for consumer research with the Base of the Pyramid (BoP source), or blogs to disseminate information on the activities of social entrepreneurs, thereby inspiring more people to get involved and connecting people in the South to the resources available in the North. Also, increased access to cell phones can facilitate the reporting of crimes and election fraud, like the Ushahidi platform.
To explore the interconnection between technology, innovation and social change is to dive into a deep and refreshing sea. These few examples provide some hope and excitement for what is to come. In bringing these innovations to market, we who are slowly becoming aware of these opportunities must use our tools to empower those who understand their country, its people and their unique needs. Then, the vast potential for impact is incalculable.