A billion dollars could help 3.5 billion people emerge out of poverty through the application of innovative technology.
By Jim Fruchterman, CEO, Benetech
“What would you do with a billion dollars to combat economic inequality?” asked Chris Anderson, head of TED, at the closing session of this year’s conference. More specifically: “how would you audaciously reinvest that amount of money to best help the world’s 3.5 billion poorest people?” he probed.
Having just heard the new director of MIT’s Media Lab, Joi Ito, present the Labs’ latest approach to innovation—“Deploy or Die”—I was inspired to answer the question.
Joi’s new motto underscores the need for more than just tech demos to change the world. To make them truly count, we must put our technology innovations into the hands of real people and see what actually works.
Technology has advanced to a point where it is easy to do so. Whether it’s software, hardware, or even biotech, the cost of prototyping and deploying new tools, then adapting them and iterating, is now extremely low.
As I previously described in a Huffington Post op-ed, it was then that the idea struck me. What if we applied Joi’s agile, bottom-up innovation approach to the global development challenge posed by Chris? What if we invest philanthropic capital in creating products that are geared towards the underprivileged, in their customer-focused deployment, and in scaling those tools that prove to work best?
I believe such an investment in technology-for-good innovations could open up new frontiers for tackling the toughest problems of the world’s poorest populations, from poverty to disease to social injustice. Let me explain.
What Could a Billion Dollars Do?
So, what could a billion dollars do?
For one, it could scale Joi Ito’s approach by creating a Media Lab-style network whose goal would be to build and deploy hundreds of technology solutions customized to the needs of the bottom billions of humanity. We’d pick projects that had the opportunity for a five- or 10-fold improvement in results, or might revolutionize the way people do something. The solutions that catch fire with their intended users would then be scaled up.
Why is this idea exciting? Because it inverts the power structure and pushes innovation to the edges. By making technology applications suitable and relevant to the lives of the world’s poorest people, we can advance a future in which everyone has a fair shot at sharing in the abundance created by today’s accelerating technologies.
Moreover, since the nature of technology is such that it comes instrumented for measurement, this approach also supports the development of best practices in the delivery of social outcomes, which is essential in order to create meaningful, lasting change.
The Innovation Bucket List
Based on conversations I’ve had with groups dedicated to applying innovative solutions to the needs of the bottom half of humanity, here is a very partial list of what we could possibly do:
- Exposing corruption: Help the fight against large-scale public corruption, which is so damaging to the poor, by marshaling the power of citizens to shine light on corrupt anonymous corporations and their beneficial owners—one of the goals of this year’s TED Prize Winner, Global Witness’ Charmian Gooch.
- Self-assessment for the poor: Empower the poor to improve their lives with a simple assessment tool, the Poverty Stoplight, invented in Paraguay that helps them assess their poverty with 50 simple questions with three pictures showing the possible answers. This empowers each individual to set his or her own priorities rather than one-size-fits-all aid programs.
- Empower Medical Paraprofessionals: Ensure that a simple tool providing step-by-step medical emergency instructions was in the hands of every medical paraprofessional on the planet, saving untold lives in developing countries.
- Solve the problem of access to printed information by the world’s blind: By putting the right tools into the hands of this traditionally underserved population, we could ensure that blindness is no longer a barrier to education, employment or social inclusion.
Technology for Good
The list could go on and on. These ideas aren’t mine: they are the ideas that come to our team at Benetech, a Silicon Valley nonprofit technology company that I founded.
We build software applications focused exclusively on addressing unmet social needs and see hundreds of ideas for tech applications for good for each one that we can create. Imagine how many millions of lives would be improved—even transformed—if the technology-for-good movement had the freedom to build and deploy hundreds of best-of-breed products specifically designed to address these complex social problems.
Now is the time to apply an agile approach to innovation—Joi Ito’s “Deploy or Die” at scale, if you will—to social sector problems.
For in this After Internet era, as Joi calls it, information technology is touching all aspects of society. Every area – whether health, poverty, education, human rights or the environment – is now information technology and thus can be improved with the right technology tools.
Innovate, Connect, Adapt
Now don’t get me wrong: technology alone is no panacea for humanity’s toughest problems. And building technology solutions for the social sector isn’t purely an office-desk business based on the thrill of empowering people in principle.
Years of working closely with partners on the ground in often-difficult situations –including people with disabilities and at-risk human rights defenders – have taught us that we must get out there and truly understand the people we aspire to help and the contexts in which they live and operate. We must also treat our beneficiaries as customers and partners in social change, not as passive recipients of charity.
These principles themselves – innovate, connect and adapt – aren’t new. They are at the core of the Silicon Valley venture world and the technology revolution. What’s new and timely is the opportunity to apply them globally with philanthropic support by making technology suitable and relevant to the lives of the world’s most underprivileged communities.
What if we brought the power that creates so much wealth in the tech community to bear on the inequality challenge? If we can do that, it could be the best and most powerful billion dollars ever spent!
About the Author:
Jim Fruchterman is the Founder and CEO of Benetech, a Silicon Valley nonprofit technology company that develops software applications for users in the social sector. He is the recipient of numerous awards recognizing his work as a pioneering social entrepreneur, including the MacArthur Fellowship, Caltech’s Distinguished Alumni Award, the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship, and the Migel Medal (the highest honor in the blindness field) from the American Foundation for the Blind. He is also a contributor to Creating Good Work: The World’s Leading Social Entrepreneurs Show How to Build a Healthy Economy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).