Technology at the Margins -- Social Innovators and Innovations

George Bernard Shaw said "Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world. Unreasonable people attempt to adapt the world to themselves. All progress, therefore, depends on unreasonable people."

Power often resides with unreasonable people who push for change -- Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King all brought about systemic and large scale change. Each of these "unreasonable people" effectively utilized the technology of their time to reach and create a mass movement for change. Social Innovators identified by organizations like Ashoka, Skoll and Schwab are also pushing for systemic change around key social issues and all effectively use technology to scale their impact. This was the focus of a class on Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship I recently taught at Columbia University. The opening discussion focused on how social innovators use technology to scale. The dialogue that followed centered on the evolution and diffusion of technological and social innovations. I argued that when you look at social innovations, both nonprofits and social innovators often view technology with some trepidation. Information technology is seen as disruptive and there is much hesitation to fully embrace the power of technology-based innovation.

The main thesis is that Information and Communication Technology (ICT) has revolutionized our society by changing the ways we live, play, work, communicate, learn, manage our finances, and stay healthy. However for people living in the poorer regions of our planet -- usually areas with weak infrastructure, environmental challenges, poor governance and few resources -- this is not the case. As part of this course students are asked to explore some key questions: What if we could change all this? What if ICT were affordable, relevant and accessible? What impact would that have on reducing poverty and improving lives? What barriers need to be overcome before that can happen? What innovation is required? What partnerships need to be forged? Are there lessons from other arenas such as consumer products that might be applied? What could the multinational corporations (MNCs), non-governmental organizations (NGOs), governments, and most importantly, individual social entrepreneurs do to speed up this process?

In the opening lecture I discussed the role of unconventional partnerships and unconventional business models and the leadership that social entrepreneurs provide to foster these partnerships and new business models. These social entrepreneurs understand the environment of the world's poor and have created successful business models in emerging markets that the for-profit sector can both emulate, partner with and build upon. This new generation of entrepreneurs view the private sector far differently from those who regard it with suspicion. Instead, these innovators understand that the private sector can enable new technologies to sustain themselves in the local developing economy. As the impact of information technology increases, social innovators are embracing technology to generate new business, delivery, information exchange, and networking models. We discussed examples such as Kiva, MPesa (the Kenyan mobile money transfer project); and the impact of the social networking phenomenon. We are seeing social innovation in the field of education, health care, environment and microfinance as social innovators seek ways to scale their impact.

Another topic we explored was "Reverse Innovation", an approach by GE to evolve what GE and other industrial manufacturers have followed for decades: develop high-end products at home and adapt them for other markets around the world. GE leadership pursued a different path; innovate and develop products in China and India and then distribute them globally -- they call this Reverse Innovation. For students in the class, the issue was: will this lead to the complete destruction of the manufacturing sector in the U.S.? And by innovating in China, how will they control intellectual property given the recent Google issue? There are no easy answers but it is clear that we will need both approaches, and there are deep conflicts between the two that need to be resolved. For development and innovation, these new approaches present a clear opportunity for social innovators and entrepreneurs to make a significant impact in the world.

It will be interesting to see how the students in the class will overcome some of these conflicts as they develop their own solutions.