Technology is reinventing the means to an important end: scaling social impact. Entrepreneurs and innovators are using online platforms and digital devices in ways we could never have imagined a decade ago to create greater access to jobs (think LinkedIn), to enable learning (think Khan Academy) and to motivate healthy living (think FitBit). Of course society as a whole remains a long way from eradicating poverty or offering high-quality education to all, but we are seeing barriers to getting there erode thanks to technology’s ability to lower costs, extend reach, increase transparency, and capture valuable data on what is working.
In that vein, our TechSocial series this past month on Co.Exist has highlighted several ways that social innovators, entrepreneurs, and investors are applying widely available consumer technologies to the challenges of scaling social good; challenges such as accessing sufficient capital, creating demand, or influencing social norms. Across insights from six social innovators, one stark truth surfaced for those betting on tech: the value of putting the end-user at the center of the design process. Indeed, it seems technology is only as good at breaking down barriers as it is at involving people in their own solutions.
As we look to the next tech frontier and its implications for social impact, here are three ways that “techsocial” entrepreneurs are drawing the thinking and behavior of beneficiaries into their designs.
First, these entrepreneurs start not with a technology, but with a problem–and a person–in mind. They employ design thinking, spending time with the people they aim to serve to understand how to meet those people’s needs, in ways relevant to their daily routines, and then create or adapt technology to do so affordably. Take Lenddo, a credit scoring system based on social media connections. Jeff Stewart, its cofounder, first recognized the emergent middle class lacked access to capital while outsourcing in the Philippines. Putting himself in the shoes of emerging economy workers, he engineered an algorithm to vouchsafe their creditworthiness based on existing assets: friends on Facebook.
Adopting a beneficiary mindset also helps to create and grow demand—especially for products or services that can alleviate poverty, but may feel like a luxury in the short run. For instance, MicroEnsure founder Richard Leftley saw that millions of people in Africa and Asia lacked the safety net of life insurance and faced financially crippling consequences when the family breadwinner died. To develop demand, MicroEnsure engaged a channel that their would-be customers already flocked to: mobile service providers. These providers bought and gave away insurance to reward subscriber loyalty. The approach helped the mobile providers with their problem–customer churn–even as they helped their customers access a greater measure of security through insurance.
Entrepreneurs, tech and otherwise, aren’t going to get things 100 percent right the first time. Design thinking pushes you to fail fast and iterate: design, test, observe, redesign, retest, and re-redesign. In the world of technology for social good, such rapid prototyping creates a cycle of learning and continuous improvement that keeps up with changing business approaches and markets. Take the making of Gravity Light, a low-cost, low-tech, safe lighting alternative to the kerosene lamps used in many poor countries. When the founders failed to attract venture funding, they crowdsourced the cash for their pilot, and in doing so found potential customers among those responding to their appeal.
Another example: RLabs, a youth-centered innovation lab in South Africa, deployed a mobile phone platform to connect troubled youth to counselors for drug abuse, depression and other ills. It then used the data and feedback captured on the mobile platform to improve both the platform and counseling services.
The relative “newness” of technology for social good means we can’t yet know the long-term impact of potential solutions. With uncertainty can come unintended consequences, both positive and negative. We see this all the time: the convenience of mobile phones, for example, comes with the dangers of texting while driving. Social networks, like Facebook, provide ample opportunity for positive social connections, but also leave users vulnerable to security and privacy issues.
In the tech-for-good space, design thinking can help mitigate (or at least anticipate) some negative consequences. Pat Christen notes that HopeLab, a research and development organization focused on human health and well-being, employed design thinking to develop a video game to encourage children with cancer to stick with their regimes. They were vigilant about testing and monitoring its impact to avoid negative consequences, for example distracting young cancer patients from adhering to their treatments, versus empowering them.
For social entrepreneurs today, the potential is clear for technology to transmit solutions faster, further, and more cost effectively to populations that need them. But converting that potential to reality starts with an inclusive design process. Putting beneficiaries at the center is step one to breaking down barriers that can prevent any good, and especially social good, from growing to meet a crying need.