One of the first things I do every morning is to locate my smartphone on the bedside table, and quickly check my email and glance at the news. I do this every day, whether I wake up in Boston or Beirut, in New York or Nairobi. As both an active consumer of technology and as a Professor of Engineering, I am surrounded by gadgets, at home and at work. I love the latest apps, whether for work or for pleasure. I am always in awe of the creativity of app developers, who to me are both artists and technologists. Their blend of art and science is inspiring. But as I travel around the world for my work in global health and innovation and talk to government officials, communities and public health professionals, I am getting increasingly worried about our reliance on smartphones to provide more than data and services. We are asking for things that smartphones simply cannot, and should not provide.
I am worried that governments of many low-income countries are relying on smartphones to hide their incompetence, negligence and poor planning. As Alain Nteff, a 23 year old entrepreneur from Cameron, and a developer of an app for saving precious lives of mothers warns, a smartphone is not a substitute for a midwife. A smartphone cannot provide the empathy, kindness, care and understanding that a vulnerable mother and her family needs. Increasingly, we see governments and ministries tout smartphones as alternatives to investments in human resources and infrastructure. There is an infatuation within governments, including in my native Pakistan, with smartphones, and it is used to hide the inherent deficiencies in policy and practice. Smartphones can, and indeed do help, and do so in so many ways, but they are no substitute for a teacher, a midwife or a community worker.
The problem is not just with the governments. Even public health practitioners and those who work on the frontlines of care in most difficult places are unable to think beyond apps. In my recent conversations with community workers and even public health researchers and professors in Zanzibar, Nepal and Lebanon, I was disturbed when I asked them about what would they like to have to solve their biggest challenges? What are their technology needs? Would they need better equipment for blood testing, an improved crutch for the disabled, a better supplement for malnutrition, or a technology to help them clean their water? If they had their way, what would they choose? The answer always ended up being an app that would do one thing or another. One researcher, upon my probing, showed his ignorance about designing hardware, chemical technology or testing apparatus, and he felt that technologists should focus only on apps. In his opinion, the WHO, UN or some other NGO could provide the hardware, so it would be better if innovators focused only on apps. There is an inherent danger in this line of thinking which limits the scope of what can be done to change the status quo. If the frontline workers are unable to articulate what they need, those in the business of innovation will have a harder time coming up with novel solutions. Innovators often look to frontline workers for ideas and inspiration, and as that well of ideas starts to dry up, so will the pipeline of transformative solutions.
My final point is connected to the previous one and is about students I see in own classroom. Students, in engineering and sciences, who are the source of inspiration and are often the drivers of innovation, are finding this myopia suffocating. With globalization and an unmatched passion, they are increasingly motivated to work on global health problems. At the same time they are eager to work on new technology and not just apps. But with an over reliance on apps, engineering and science students may decide to work in areas other than global health and development, areas more receptive of their talents and passion. This would be a huge loss both in the short and the long-term.
There is little doubt that smartphones and apps have opened new avenues of creativity and impact. But they need to be part of the solution, not the entire solution. What is needed for global health challenges is a combination of curiosity, ethics, empathy and innovation. That is quintessentially a human trait.
There is no app for that.