Technology at the Margins – Social Innovators and Innovations

Posted by Akhtar Badshah 
Senior Director, Global Community Affairs

Can technology be used to create positive social change, and if so, how? This was the focus of a talk I gave recently to a class on Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Columbia University. The class discussion was very illuminating and thought provoking.

As you might expect, I answered the above question in the affirmative. But I also argued that nonprofits and social innovators sometimes view technology with trepidation. It can be seen as disruptive, and there is much hesitation to fully embrace the power of technology-based innovation. Although most everyone recognizes that information and communication technology (ICT) has transformed the lives of people in developed societies, some are skeptical as to whether it holds the same potential for people living in the poorer regions of our planet.

But what if ICT were even more affordable, relevant and accessible? What impact would that have on further reducing poverty and improving lives? What innovation is required? What partnerships need to be forged? How can the diffusion of innovations be sped up? What‘s the role of multi-national corporations, non-governmental organizations, governments and, most importantly, individual social entrepreneurs?

In my lecture I discussed the importance of unconventional partnerships and unconventional business models and the leadership that social entrepreneurs can provide to foster them. We discussed examples such as Kiva and MPesa (the Kenyan mobile money transfer project) and the impact of social networking. We discussed how technology is helping to scale up social innovation in education, healthcare, environment and microfinance.

We also explored the implications of reverse innovations that arise first in the developing world, as in the effort by General Electric Co. to develop new products in China and India and then distribute them globally. Students in the class wondered about the future of U.S. manufacturing, and about securing intellectual property rights to such innovations.

Many such questions arise from new approaches that present a clear opportunity for social innovators and entrepreneurs to make a significant impact in the world. It will be interesting to see the answers that students in the class come up with as they develop their own solutions.


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