Forget The Fitbit: Can Wearables Be Designed For The Developing World?

UNICEF, the design firm Frog, and the global mobile processor company ARM are teaming up to find ways that sensor and wearable tech can benefit the world’s poorest populations.

Forget The Fitbit: Can Wearables Be Designed For The Developing World?
[Illustrations: RYGER via Shutterstock]

When we think of wearable technology today, we think of the Fitbits or the Apple Watch. But to many people, tracking our steps or sleep in unprecedented detail or getting a notification slightly faster is interesting but ultimately not quite useful enough. The quantified self, in the context of people who have access to any technology they want, can be inherently self-absorbed.


Imagine a different use case: An impoverished woman in rural Africa, pregnant with her first child and many miles away from medical care. Here, a wearable that helps her track her pregnancy and let her know if she needs to get to a doctor could mean life or death for her unborn child.

That’s one of the uses of wearables and sensor technology anticipated by UNICEF in a new partnership that launches the “Wearables For Good” design challenge, a six-month prize competition that aims to take advantage of the dropping cost of chips, sensors, and devices to benefit the people who may need them the most.

Right now, there is very limited wearable tech or design targeted to the world’s poorest (for a few examples see here). But working with Frog and ARM, a company that designs the processors that are found in a majority of the world’s mobile and sensor-enabled devices, UNICEF hopes to create new ideas and business opportunities in the emerging technology category.

“In 2007, people thought we were crazy for thinking about cell phones. ‘That’ll never take off,” says Erica Kochi, co-leader of UNICEF’s Innovation Labs, which runs 14 labs around the world. “When you thinking of wearable technology…you might not necessarily think UNICEF. But we see it as the future and a way to deliver value for children.”

The wearables challenge is just one part of a multi-year partnership between ARM and UNICEF. Another focus will be helping UNICEF scale-up its innovation projects that have worked, such as its mobile text system U-Report, which now operates in 16 countries and allows youth to make their views known to their governments through surveys.

For ARM, the project is equal parts about social and business impact. Most of the world’s population growth in the coming decades will be in the developing world and emerging markets. Its work with UNICEF will help ARM and its business partners conduct market research, especially applications in the areas of transportation, identity services, education, healthcare, financial services, and agriculture.


“We believe there’s a big business opportunity, but it’s hard to see exactly what that business opportunity is,” says CEO Simon Segars. “When we talk to some of our partners, a lot of people kind of react to this as, yeah, ‘I see there’s going to be a lot of people. But surely nobody has any money, so where’s the business that really exists here?’ We want to try and dig into that.”

There are many known challenges in designing technology for the developing world, however. From cheap laptops that gather dust because they are too complicated for kids to use to solar panels that break and can’t be repaired, there’s a long list of failed projects from outsiders who have had the best intentions. And it’s not always clear when technology is the answer, or when limited funds might be put to better use in other ways.

The Wearables For Good challenge, which will award the two winners with $15,000 and an incubation and mentorship from ARM and Frog, attempts to anticipate that. A use-case handbook explains key design constraints–including power consumption, data consumption, cost, and ruggedness–that need attention from the get-go. But the bigger challenge is coming up with usable ideas that excite and solve real problems for end users.

“I don’t think we see the contest where the cornerstone of it is someone actually doing a physical design and deciding what technologies go into it,” says Andy Zimmerman, president of Frog. “That’s part of it, but particularly in the developing world, part of the trick is being very creative in terms of how you get adoption, how do you support those devices, how do you creatively engage people in a particular cultural context. That’s where a lot of the creativity is going to come in.”

The handbook points contestants to four focus areas for applications: Alert and response (say, sensors that alert urban slum dwellers that there’s a fire in the area); diagnosis, treatment, and referral (such as the mother who has poor access to neonatal care); behavior change (perhaps reminding children when to wash their hands); and data collection and insight (say, helping health centers improve their services by collecting more data from patients).

Of course, these categories don’t seem that radically different from ideas that might well service U.S. users. It’s simply the user interactions and constraints that are radically different. Like the developing world leapfrogged to mobile technology and skipped over outdated landline infrastructure, it’s possible that some ideas will even make their way back to developed markets where the uses of wearables are still not clear.


“The successful projects are going to be those that very simply enable people to make decisions…that simplify that to something that’s very straightforward: because of this, do this,” says Segars.

About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.