2015 challenges: how can technology and innovation be a force for good?

Originally published on 4 June 2015 on The Guardian. Written by Holly Young. To view the original article, click here.

The advance of technology constitutes a development megatrend with huge potential. Earlier this year the 2015 Gates Annual Letter went so far as to predict that the major breakthroughs in development over the next 15 years will be driven either by innovations in technology or those that enable more people to gain access to that technology.

Should we expect this to create a world where malaria diagnostics are delivered by drones, wearable technology helps prevent maternal and child deaths, sanitation is improved by 3D printers that churn out taps and faucets, and traffic accidents are prevented by giant robots?

In fact, technology comes with its own unique challenges – not least when it comes to financing. Ensuring investment goes towards the right technology is also crucial: the image of high-tech computers gathering dust in school classrooms looms heavy. Technologies that are designed equitably, driven by real need, and applied in a way that genuinely empowers users is a central concern for NGOs.

Then there are the political and ethical sensitivities to navigate – how much data transparency and protection is required, and how do you make tech culturally appropriate? How do you convince a public that may question the justification for spending aid money on smartphones?

Avoiding the ‘lure of the shiny gadget’

One of the most important lessons has been that the best tech doesn’t need to be the latest tech. “The lure of the shiny gadget is strong,” warns Erica Kochi, co-founder of Unicef Innovation. She says fetishising the most cutting-edge technologies can, and often has, led aid projects astray. Unicef Innovation is currently supporting the development of cutting-edge wearables innovation, but one of their most successful tech programmes was back in the 1970s, when Unicef and other partners introduced the Mark 2 hand pump. The low-tech pump went on to became the most widely used in the world.

Wayan Vota, senior mobile advisor at FHI 360, says radio is another perfect example of the fact that technological complexity doesn’t necessarily correlate to big impact. He argues that radio has so far had the biggest impact in development of all technologies but because it is low-tech, it is often overlooked.

Vota’s organisation works with a range of different technologies. At the cutting edge they are experimenting with gamification, which could allow communities to try allocating aid funding themselves. They are exploring the different ways sensors could be used, for example, to help farmers regulate their use of fertilisers. But they are also working on projects that mix hi- and low-tech, combining the impact of using mobile phones and FM radio.


Children in Abuja, Nigeria work on computers provided by One Laptop per Child - the initiative was criticised for not understanding the educational context. Photograph: Afolabi Sotunde / Reuters/REUTERS
Children in Abuja, Nigeria work on computers provided by One Laptop per Child – the initiative was criticised for not understanding the educational context. Photograph: Afolabi Sotunde / Reuters/REUTERS

Learn from past failures

Reflecting on the past also unearths valuable lessons in tech fails. “The poster child for tech failure in development is One Laptop Per Child,” argues Vota. The project aimed to give a $100 laptop” to millions of children in the developing world, but its inability to impact educational outcomes left many branding it a failure. “The lesson,” says Vota, “is that even if you have an amazing idea, and and clock-stopping hot technology … if you have no idea how to deploy that correctly, if you rely on your own assumptions and if you don’t understand the context, your primary user may not even get access to, much less use, the technology.”

Many have tried and failed multiple times to use technology in development, says Kochi. The insights from these attempts have helped provide the basis for an emerging body of thought on best practice. Unicef’s guiding principles on using innovation and technology in development, now endorsed and adopted by many other donors and organisations, include points on designing for scale and including sustainability as a core objective.

Putting the user at the centre of the design process

Making sure that technology is designed with the user in mind is high on the agenda of Kenny Ewan, chief executive of WeFarm, a social enterprise working in Africa and Latin America. “We didn’t want it [WeFarm] to be something designed in the UK and parachuted in,” said Ewan. The tech platform enables small-scale farmers to access information and share expertise with their peers around the world through either sending an SMS or accessing the online forum.

The project, launched at scale in February in Kenya, aims to be “user-centred” and avoid what Ewan believes is a common mistake of creating top-down tech solutions to the livelihood challenges of farmers. “A lot of big donors are plugging money into the tech sector. How much of it is going into stuff that is sustainable and relevant to local users, I would have doubts about,” he says.

“Many see SMS as an opportunity to have an existing conversation on a bigger scale. For me that kind of misses the point – the point is to actually change the conversation,” says Ewan. One of the real assets of WeFarm, he argues, is allowing farmers to define their own needs and answer their own problems among their peers.

Nama Raj Budhathok, executive director at Kathmandu Living Labs, is also a strong advocate of using technology to empower communities. OpenStreetMap, an initiative of the Nepalese non-profit tech company, crowdsources data to create maps in Nepal. In the aftermath of the earthquake these have proved invaluable for relief organisations trying to reach remote, previously unmapped, places. So far 5,000 people have added geographical data to the maps either online or through mobile phones. The beauty of using technology in this way, says Budhathok, is its ability to unlock community knowledge and to encourage people to question their local built environment.


Kathmandu Living Lab developed a QuakeMap in the aftermath of the Nepalese earthquake. The picture shows the distribution of reports in the area. Photograph: Kathmandu Living Labs
Kathmandu Living Lab developed a QuakeMap in the aftermath of the Nepalese earthquake. The picture shows the distribution of reports in the area. Photograph: Kathmandu Living Labs


For Kochi, the surest way of ensuring a technology is genuinely empowering is to have a collaborative design process. She says that at Unicef developers are sent into the field to test and develop new technologies.

Cultural sensitivities also play a role. Marc Shillum at Matternet, a company currently testing the use of drones to deliver diagnostics in remote areas, highlights the need for an awareness of the associations technologies may have in particular places. “Drones,” for example, “Often have very particular connotations in countries where they have been used primarily for surveillance and bombing.

Technology is only one piece of the puzzle

There is no doubt that technology has already had a transformative effect in development. This is evident particularly when it comes to the speed of data collection, says Kochi. Obtaining data on what was happening in the field used to be so slow and retrospective that it was a bit like driving in a car with all the windows blacked out apart from the rear one, says Kochi. Yet the size of the role played by technology should be kept in perspective, says Vota: “80%–90% of development is still old school and people talking to each other.

The last thing we want is a bunch of computers piled up in a storage room because there is no electricity

Kochi believes technology should be seen as an enabler – not a panacea. “Projects should never be about the technology itself … You should be a problem in search of a solution rather, than a solution or a piece of technology in search of a problem.”

Key to this is recognising all the other elements that must be in place, notably policies around education and improving infrastructure. “The last thing we want to see is a whole bunch of computers piled up in a storage room in a classroom not being used because there is no electricity, no way to service them, or the teachers aren’t comfortable using them,” says Kochi.

Looking to the future

Earlier this month the UN commission on science, technology and innovation brought leaders in development together to highlight the integral role technology will play in implementing the SDGs. Yet many challenges still lie ahead as development professionals brace themselves for the next 15 years. While the prices for components of many pieces of technology are falling, Kochi reminds us that for many people paying £13 for a mobile is still too much, and that the price of data will be a crucial cost issue. Looking forward, Ewan highlights the issue of data and the many insights aggregated data will provide NGOs. Others, however, will be wary about the levels of transparency and protection involved in the use of this data.

While Ewan argues that more education and awareness-raising is needed to demonstrate to the public the value of using technology in aid programmes, it seems the development community, if not necessarily unanimously convinced, has accepted that it is hardly a fleeting trend.

“Attitudes to technology have changed dramatically,” says Kochi. “In 2007–08 people saw the small ICT4D [information communication technology for development] community as a bit crazy. Now everyone has jumped on board … In a few years we won’t be asking ‘shall we use phones or some new tech in our project’; we won’t even talk about it, it will be a given … Like using a computer to type up your notes.”



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