8 Trends to Watch in Innovation & Development

Co-authored by Erica Kochi and Christopher Fabian, co-founders and co-leaders of UNICEF's Innovation Unit

Below, two of Time Magazine's "Most Influential People" of 2013 -- Chris Fabian and Erica Kochi -- both Senior Advisors on Innovation to the Executive Director at UNICEF, and Co-leads of UNICEF's Innovation Unit -- give their predictions for what we'll see in 2015.

In 2014, innovations in youth engagement and creating tools that make sense of real-time data created incredible opportunities for some of the world's most marginalized citizens. For instance, thanks to our open-source RapidPro platform, more than 500,000 youth in developing countries are registered to engage directly with their government via a simple text message. With these systems, basic mobile phones are used to spread accurate information about Ebola and other concerns throughout urban and remote communities in Africa.

Similar real-time data systems aligned with Ministries of Health enabled frontline workers to report critical supply stock outs, and for governments to respond more effectively and efficiently. In Nigeria, more than 18 million births have been reported in real-time via a simple SMS, and in Zambia, a text message has reduced a 30-day journey for an infant's HIV test result down to a 1-minute delivery.

The demands of the developing world continue to evolve quickly, and as UNICEF, it is our job to anticipate what's next.

  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. There are now a couple of end-to-end solutions that look primed for growth this year. Two examples of pay-to-own solar energy solutions are Fenix andm-Kopa, both of which, are tightly integrated with the extensive distribution systems of mobile network operators and easily allow customers to make small daily/weekly payments for use of the system from their mobile phones. Both solutions are also looking towards the future of building datasets to create a next generation credit score for the 2.2 billion unbanked adults in emerging markets.

  • 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. A frequent response to the idea of starting a company with public-domain IP is "but there's no way to make money off of it." However, there are many benefits to being part of an open-source ecosystem. In order to understand the risks and possibilities, entrepreneurs will need to see examples of what's worked and what hasn't, and investors will need to communicate when and where they'd be interested in open-source investments.
  • More companies will start to look towards 'Doing Good is Good Business' as a key growth strategy. This year, 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. This type of investment will require buy-in and commitment from company leadership, and will ideally be closely aligned to existing growth areas. UNICEF Innovation is already working with select corporate partners on how technology and business expansion in emerging markets can deliver expanded profit and social impact. These engagements focus on high growth industries that can have a real impact on underserved communities, including the future of: financial services, identity, transportation and mobility, wearable technologies, and learning.
  • 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. Use cases include but are not limited to: youth engagement on key issues, follow-up on trainings, discussions amongst frontline workers, and the use of the data that all these interactions generate to be able to quickly spot trends, continuously improve social programs, and generate larger and faster conversations. For these use cases to take off at scale, social change organizations will need to leverage technologies that are already widespread, cultivate a deeper understanding of how their target audiences already use social media, partner with technology companies that are looking for new users, and provide meaningful pathways to generate value for their end users.
  • 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 - refugee camps, Ebola treatment centers, and more -- expect a variety of communications pieces (from GoPro first person to Oculus Rift and other 3D built environments) that start to bridge the gap between contexts. When researchers, entrepreneurs, and creatives can be inside of the environments they are working on they may be able to do their work better. The real question for us is how do we ensure that experience is two-way and not traditional media's "capture and move on"?
  • Co-opting of youth voices will be used for destructive agendas. This one is a bit unpleasant - but as we are seeing the growth of youth engagement platforms like uReport connecting hundreds of thousands of young people to vital information and services, we should be ready for the possibility that these types of platforms and conversations can be for less positive ends. 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.
  • Driverless operated vehicle environments and systems (DOVEs) will be used in development work. It works like a drone, it flies like a drone, but it has a cute acronym. Whether it's a DOVE or another UAV, 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.
  • 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. We've started using one in our office, and it totally enhances the experience of being in a meeting remotely.