Milja Laakso
Policy Officer, UNICEF Innovation Unit, New York

2015 was  the third consecutive year Innovation Unit Co-leads Erica Kochi and Chris Fabian published their predictions for the 8 trends to watch in innovation and development. A fairly new addition to the team, I was asked to independently evaluate in retrospect how accurate their anticipations turned out to be. As a historian by formation,  it was an interesting exercise for me to dig into the very near past of the quickly evolving solutions UNICEF expects will create value for children in developing countries in the following years. I gave Chris and Erica a general cumulative score of A-. Below a look at each of their predictions in detail.

Prediction 1: Consumer-driven power solutions take off for the 1.2 billion people still living without electricity. The price of solar has been rapidly decreasing, but start-ups have not been able to address the cost of ownership, distribution model, payment plan, or usability necessary to make a consumer product take off. This year a couple of pay-to-own solutions seemed primed for growth. 

An Uruguay's Eco Accomodation. Photo: Inhabitat via Flickr
An Uruguayan Eco Accommodation. Photo: Inhabitat via Flickr

Grade: A

The off-grid clean energy sector has been breaking records this year in investments, surpassing the $112 million mark in 2015 and nearly doubling the investments raised in 2014. According to Green Tech Media, this shows that the sector is graduating from smaller impact investors to large mainstream firms. Companies, who a couple of years back were scraping capital from small social funds, family, and friends, are now in the position of even turning away offers of equity funding.

M-Kopa, Fenix and Off-Grid Electric, have all raised between $12.5 million and $25 million in investments this year. As M-Kopa’s co-founder Nick Hughes points out to Bloomberg, these companies, based on a pay-as-you-go revenue model, are in essence micro-finance companies rather than tech firms. Their core innovation has less to do with technology than with the model they have used to make it affordable for their consumer base of people living under 2 dollars a day. Kopa means “to borrow” in Swahili, and each system the company sells is in effect a loan where clients pay a small percentage upfront and then just 45¢ per day for a year, after which the system is theirs. It’s expected that 25% of its customers will acquire other products with the same mobile based payment system after finishing paying their solar-energy system.  

These innovative business models, along with decreasing prices of solar technology, are impacting a rapid growth in the access to electricity in the energy-poor areas of the world. Tanzania, partnering with Off-Grid Electric is aiming for a million solar homes by 2017, while analysts claim that India’s solar revolution has really taken off this year. Indian Government’s Rooftop Solar Policy will further increase funding and markets for mini-grid or off-grid solutions.

2015 was characterized as the year of bitcoin and blockchain in Africa. Photo: Unsplash

The Paris Agreement, signed by 195 countries after Paris Climate Conference in November 2015, is forecasted to speed up investments in the clean energy sector even further. While policy incentives have a significant impact in creating the conditions for the sustainable power solutions to reach the 1.2 billion people still living without electricity, the business models can be vulnerable against massive philanthropic initiatives. For instance in 2015, solar industry entrepreneurs warned governments to be wary of massive solar kit donations in the developing world. The entrepreneurs argued that bulk donation programmes such as SkyPower’s donation of 1 million home solar to the people of Kenya, can wreck the market and the customer’s perception of solar as a concept for years to come.

Prediction 2. Open source business models will become a new “exit strategy”. Expect the emergence of a set of business models for open source technology (software and hardware) that can help entrepreneurs in emerging markets understand the tradeoffs and benefits of being open source.

Grade B+

In 2015, we have seen several examples of startups in the emerging economies that build their business on open source software. However, the examples in the emerging markets of companies developing new solutions (software or hardware) and licensing them to public domain are scarce.

In recent years, in particular in the West and East Africa young and educated populations have embraced open source and free software and a number of interesting innovation hubs and start-up incubators are blooming. http://www.iafrikan.com/2014/03/13/free-and-open-source-software-south-africas-missed-opportunity/

In Africa 2015 has been characterized as the year of bitcoin and blockchain. With blockchain being an open-sourced software, more business have been able to take advantage of this technology:

  • Bitpesa is one of the most successful African startups making a profit on open source software, using bitcoin to facilitate foreign currency exchanges for businesses.
  • Kenyan bitcoin-startup Bitsoko offering digital currency services won a $100K Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Grant in 2015.
  • South African BitX raised  $4M in investments.  

We’ll likely see several other startups like this as the first African Bitcoin Academy recently launched in Cape Town and Barclays Africa announced the launch of startup community aimed at open Fintech innovation.

Open source definitely seems to be part of many of the award-winning startups in the Emerging markets. Ahadootec in Ethiopia builds its mobile solutions on Android. A Nairobi-based OkHi is giving each cell phone a physical address. The Tehran-founded Blocks is modular smartwatch based on open hardware and software.

We are also seeing several examples of open source high and low tech solutions utilized in natural disasters. While many of the open source solutions highlighted by this Techcrunch article are run by nonprofits or academic institutions, there are examples like Kenya-based Ushaidi which has been able to grow a profitable social enterprise on open source code.

2015 also witnessed some interesting initiatives to map business models that are based on open source and bring profitable revenues for the businesses. Creative Commons is co-funding a book on open source business models, to be published in 2016.

Our team at UNICEF has also been looking at documenting open source business models in areas that create value for more marginalized children. In August we hosted a breakfast inviting leading minds in open source to share their learnings.

At UNICEF Innovation we are firm believers in the potential of open source delivering new solutions to the most marginalized in a flexible and agile manner, while at the same time making a profit. Our innovation fund (which closed in 2015 with approximately $9.5 million) works like an early stage angel fund and funds startups, companies, and organizations that are willing to explore licensing the solutions in the public domain.

In the Silicon Valley, a new breed of open source software start-ups are growing revenues and gaining interest of the investors. There are many open source initiatives that did not survive the first wave of open source businesses as well as Red Hat did, but according to the Financial Times the new wave of companies have better ways of turning the popularity of open source into profits. These models (MongoDB, Elastic, EnterpriseDB, Cloudera, Hortonworks) build upon cloud computing and big data analysis.

The picture is not all rosy though. Many open source companies continue to struggle. OpenStack board member Alex Freedland claims that this is because they generally have got their reading of the open source ecosystem wrong. According to him, “Startups and VCs that run the company by the innovation playbook fail, while those that focus on expertise first — and thus the open source playbook — do well.”

Prediction 3: Doing good is good business. In 2015, many companies will look beyond traditional forms of corporate social responsibility and start to look at how philanthropic investment in emerging markets in areas of interest can help them open up new markets, retain and engage employees, and build their brand.

Screen Shot 2016-02-03 at 6.01.52 PM
In May 2015, UNICEF, ARM and frog announced the ‘Wearables for Good’ challenge to generate ideas for new and innovative devices that tackle maternal and child health needs in emerging economies. In November 2015, SoaPen and Kushi Baby were selected as the winners of the Wearables for Good Challenge. Photo: Print screen of the Wearables for Good website.

Grade: A

2015 saw a trend of companies leading with purpose hitting the headlines: companies like  PwC, PepsiCo, Starbucks, and Aetna are re-imagining the entire mission of the company and integrating purpose across all business functions. Initiatives like Facebook’s internet.org, are based on the assumption that eventually doing good will also be good for business as millions of currently unconnected people get used to being online.

CECP 2015 edition of “Giving in Numbers” shows that apart from cash giving, company skills are increasingly being applied to solving societal problems. Nine out of ten of CECP 2015 Summit attendees, which included UNICEF’s Global U-Report Coordinator James Powell, said that there are examples of companies “doing good” that cannot be captured by traditional measures of “giving.”

Retaining and engaging top talent employees through tapping into their passion and values is also a growing rationale for companies for doing good. For example, Nielsen’s partnership with World Food Programme engages its employees in creating a technology platform to combat world hunger.

At UNICEF, partnerships with companies like ARM go far beyond the traditional corporate social responsibility model. This year, in partnership with ARM and frog, we put out a global call-to-action via the Wearables for Good Challenge, to join us to develop innovative, affordable solutions to make wearables and sensor technology a game-changer for women and children across the world, receiving more than 250 ideas from 46 countries on 6 continents.

As we see corporate social responsibility going way past giving, there is also a growing trend on measuring the impact of corporate social engagement.

Evidence of doing good being actually good for business became more robust in 2015. Key learnings from a recent study on financial advantages of corporate responsibility is that the benefits of CR such as increased market value, revenues and employee engagement, will only redound to companies that have an integral approach to CR and that fit the company’s core attributes.

Prediction 4: The social good / international development sector will increasingly use social media to catalyze social change. With many more people in emerging markets accessing the internet through social networking platforms on mobile devices, the international development sector should this year make the leap from just using social media to drive fundraising and general support for their causes, to using it as a key tool for social change with the people they are trying to impact.

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On 21 January 2016, more than 120 humanitarian organizations and United Nations agencies issued a joint appeal urging the world to raise their voices and call for an end to the Syria crisis and to the suffering endured by millions of civilians. Photo: print screen of WHO’s Twitter feed.

Grade:  B+

Social media’s importance in generating movements around social causes was extremely high in 2015. Just have a look at the top 10 hastags of 2015 in Twitter – #TheDress came long after social causes like #BlackLivesMatter (#2),  #MarriageEquality and #LoveWins (3rd on Twitter’s list),  #RefugeesWelcome (4th)  and #IStandWithAhmed (5th).

We also saw powerful examples of the strength of image. The suffering of the Syrian refugee children was impossible to ignore for virtually anyone after the photo of 3-year old Alan Kurdi went viral, triggering a wave of activism and global appeals to help the refugees. Interestingly, according to the BBC, the conversation in Arabic was even bigger than in English, questioning the Arab countries’ response to the crisis.

As Erica and Chris predicted, the social good and international development sector is increasingly tapping into the social media to catalyze change. From delivering information on emergencies or epidemics to mobilizing public opinion, using social media to advance agricultural development or mobilizing 700,000 Nigerians using social apps to ensure fair elections, as well as monitoring violence or corruption, and broadcasting the voices of most marginalized and misrepresented, the social and development sector is more and more agile in their use of social media. We have even witnessed the emergence of  botivist, a cohort of Twitter bots used to recruit people for social good.

With over 1.8M U-reporters around the globe, we at UNICEF have gained some important learnings on building a community and generating two-way conversations on a large scale around social themes relevant to youth and children in the developing world. It was a proud moment when we could share their voices with world leaders through a Google-designed installation revealed at the UN General Assembly.

Apart from traditional social good actors, we are also seeing companies like Facebook and Uber mobilizing masses to support a cause or petition. The Guardian claims that in their attempt to mobilize their users against the regulation of the state these companies are close to portraying themselves as a spiritual movements.

However, the international development sector has not managed to be the source or mobilizer of the most impactful social movements online. As the international development sector including the UN, keeps moving to the social media space, it has to get comfortable with the fact that collective action online is unpredictable, unstable and often unsustainable.  Also, the social media presence of development NGOs in conflict zones has its downsides, as this humanitarian worker’s account evidences.

Prediction 5. Immersive external communications methods will take local realities to a global audience. Look out for some really different ways of communicating about complex issues. For people who need a more intimate connection with the most difficult operating environments in the world, expect a variety of communications pieces that start to bridge the gap between contexts.

Visitors at UNICEF Innovation experiencing VR. Photo: UNICEF/Lagos
Visitors at UNICEF Innovation experiencing VR. Photo: UNICEF/Lagos

Grade A

The UN has been on the forefront this year releasing virtual reality films to increase empathy of decision-makers towards ebola survivors and refugee camp dwellers. The 3D video Clouds of Sidra has already spread to 40 countries and to 15 languages. Gabo Arora – UN adviser and filmmaker says that the goal is to produce content as quickly as possible for the early adopters of the VR technology, before the guns and games are all they have. The consumer priced 3D headsets are expected to be in our living rooms before the next holiday season, although some that are not as optimistic of Oculus Rift’s and the likes’ near future.

Whatever the development of the hardware, Wareable reports that other broadcasters are joining the space of producing content that brings local realities to the global audience. Vice News and Spike Jonze are working with VRSE on a news piece from protests in New York, ABC News is reporting from Syria in VR, and the BBC is filming in 360 degrees in refugee camps in Calais.  Actor Jared Leto narrates Sierra Club’s climate change PSA for VR and RYOT News produced a film about the aftermath of the earthquake in Nepal. Amnesty uses VR to boost fundraising efforts.

We are also seeing some research backing VR’s impact. Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab has already evidenced that VR enhances empathy and results in people becoming more altruistic in real life. The lab is also looking at how to use VR as a powerful educational tool for kids.

Gaming continues to evolve as another creative way of fostering awareness and action on social issues, although Games for Change president Asi Burak argues there is still a long way to go. According to Burak, social responsibility and real-world issues haven’t broken through to the core of the gaming industry in the way they have in other media such as film.

Oculus VR Founder Palmer Luckey reminds philanthropists to be wary of blindly diving into the world of virtual reality — just because it’s the new shiny thing, does not mean it’s the right tool for the problem at hand. In the future Luckey foresees VR headsets becoming as economically accessible as mobile phones are today, making them a viable option for people living in the developing world. At that point, Luckey expects, the number of virtual reality applications for social good will rapidly grow.

As Erica and Chris well noted in their predictions, the real question is how to ensure the experience is two-way. At the moment, there is still a risk of empathy-geared VR being an aid agencies vanity project that fails to construct a real dialogue, as this UNCHR Emergency Lab Officer recounts.

Prediction 6. Co-opting of youth voices will be used for destructive agendas. Whether that is individuals pushing particular agendas or groups and networks trying to recruit, we believe that open online and mobile networks have reached a point where they could be appealing for more nefarious ends.

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Google search results. Photo: Print screen

Grade: A

We have all seen the efficiency with which ISIS has been able to recruit young people during the last few years. Its sophisticated use of social media in Twitter, Facebook and Whatsapp, doubled with a compelling promise and well-established recruiting channels have led to unseen numbers of young men and women both from the muslim and western countries join ISIS. According to analysts, the group is putting a special emphasis on the recruiting of young girls in social media. ISIS’s successful social media strategies are studied by other notorious groups. Nigeria’s Boko Haram’s recent videos seem to be imitating their style.

In 2015, with the refugee crises escalating, online and mobile networks were increasingly used for propagating hate speech and xenophobia. The scale of hate speech as well as the growing criticism resulted in online platforms making a series of updates to their rules and policies. In December, Twitter, who is often criticised over its abuse policy, explicitly banned promoting violence or directly attacking and threatening people on the basis of their race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or disease.

Facebook, also receiving criticism over being slow in responding to hate speech online, teamed up this year with governments, service providers and other online platforms to combat online xenophobia.

Prediction 7. Driverless operated vehicle environments and systems (DOVEs) will be used in development work. 2015 looks like the year where we will see the first published pilots of experiments with things-that-fly-remotely to deliver information from far away places (imagery and sensor data) and provide connectivity and other services in return.

Drone at Sunset
2015 seems to have been the year of early adopters with UAVs in development. Photo: Flickr

Grade: B

In 2014 there were four drone companies at the world’s largest consumer electronics event CES. This year there were 33. As drones have become a regular Christmas gift, we have also seen these gadgets being used in development work. In 2015, UAV’s were used to help natural disaster victims, develop rural agriculture, and to transport medical samples and supplies. Medicines Sans Frontiers are using Silicon-valley based Matternet’s technology to transfer samples to a tuberculosis clinic in Papua New Guinea. The Swiss-based Afrotech is aiming to set up 3 drone ports in Rwanda in 2016 to deliver medical supplies with drones on cargo routes on a massive scale.

Experts argue that cargo drones have an enormous potential because they are so well suited to the so-called local-agent distribution model, where mostly women trained as micro-entrepreneurs are often best placed to deliver essential goods and services to their villages.

Google and Facebook have been racing to develop an UAV that can provide broadband internet connectivity to the most remote areas of the world. Facebook has been reportedly testing a huge, solar-powered UAV called Aquila, while Google has recently registered two smaller drones which are speculated to be part of Google’s effort to offer internet access from on high. Google is also working on the project Loon, a network of balloons floating in the stratosphere each offering connectivity to an area of 4000 sq km.

And our own Erica Kochi was a panelist to discuss Humanitarian Applications for UAVs at the 2015 Drone World Expo alongside Humanitarian UAV Network, and the American Red Cross.

2015 still seems to have been the year of early adopters with UAVs in development. One of the main challenges for the large scale use of UAVs to improve vital services in the developing countries continues to be the aviation authorities’ restrictions on the use of these vehicles, as they can also be used for more nefarious ends. This challenge might however find more flexibility by the authorities of developing countries, as the need to overcome infrastructural inadequacies is much more pressing.

Prediction 8. Less travel. More robots. As price points for mobile telepresence units plummets, and when bandwidth requirements drop, expect to see a lot more self-controlled robots wheeling around. This technology will move out of gimmick and into practical very quickly.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon smiles while looking at a telepresence robot, during his visit with members of UNICEF’s Innovation Unit, some of whom stand nearby. To Mr. Ban’s left stands UNICEF's Senior Advisor for Innovation Tanya Accone. The robot utilizes an iPad affixed to a mobile base to enable remote participation by the robot’s operator. The Unit is currently testing whether the robot – which is on loan from the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University in the United States of America – can be used to augment student learning in currently implemented programmes and technologies. On 7 January 2015 at UNICEF House, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited with members of UNICEF’s Innovation Unit. UNICEF Innovation is an interdisciplinary team of individuals around the globe tasked with identifying, prototyping and scaling technologies and practices that strengthen the organization’s work – and improve children’s lives worldwide.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon smiles while looking at a telepresence robot, during his visit with members of UNICEF’s Innovation Unit.

Grade: B-

MIT, Fortune 100 company Kone, Verizon and numerous others have adopted self-controlled robots developed by companies like Double and VGo Communications. Robots have enabled them to make teleworking far more efficient and present, resulting in cutting down travel. Researchers in Utah are testing telepresence robots to solve the problem of too few psychologists in schools. MIT Sloan School of Management is experimenting with ways to integrate the bots to the classroom. In our teams experience, connecting remotely with the robot is way different from old-school video conferencing.

However, in 2015 they can still be seen as early adopters of a rapidly expanding technology. Tractica’s recent research on telepresence robot markets estimates that about 4,200 telepresence units shipped in 2015, the shipments will reach 31,600 yearly by 2020. The continents with most expected growth in the coming years will be North America and Asia.

For years now, air travel has been forecasted to drop due to videoconferencing and telepresence solutions. While these robots might do the trick in the future as they become more common, at least in 2015 they did not have any significant impact on business travel globally. Instead, business travel hit record high of $1.25 trillion in 2015. Many argue that audio and video conferencing will never replace in-flesh meetings altogether.  Although in-person meetings will not likely become obsolete, we are already seeing a that the nature of those meetings is becoming more “sacred”. We will still meet in flesh when the need for social connection is strong, like when we are forming a partnership or agreeing on a high-level strategy.


Innovation is always volatile and unpredicted events can have a huge impact in the course of history. This means that in the innovation space we all need to take some educated guesses to predict the near future while being ok with getting it wrong sometimes. I’m impressed by the overall accuracy of Erica’s and Chris’s predictions this year and excited about the upcoming forecast they have in stall for us for 2016!


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