From unmanned aerial vehicles to 3-D printing, new technology has a lot of potential to “flatten” the world and spread social good. And now, by launching its first venture capital-type fund for civic technology, the United Nations wants to accelerate the development of those ideas.
UNICEF recently announced a $9 million fund with the aim of nurturing projects that could benefit kids around the world. That could include businesses making drones that deliver medical samples more quickly than today, or ID systems based on blockchain, the distributed ledger protocol behind Bitcoin.
“By using emerging technology and developing it in ways a private sector startup would, we can make the work that UNICEF does in difficult parts of the world better,” says Christopher Fabian, who co-leads the agency’s innovation division. “We can serve more children and get information [for our operations] more quickly.”
UNICEF’s innovation unit has been in existence for seven years. And it’s already helped birth plenty of concepts, including the RapidPro text messaging platform and MomConnect, which helps register births in South Africa. But Fabian says the fund should help ideas scale faster. “I think these technologies would exist anyway, but not in the right way and they wouldn’t exist at the speed we need to fix, say, educational and learning systems,” he says.
The money comes from governments in Finland and Denmark, plus the Walt Disney Company Foundation and the Page Family Foundation (as in Google founder, Larry Page). UNICEF won’t actually take equity stakes, but it will exercise sufficient “soft power control” to ensure any technology is open source. “We can help to shape companies as they create products that help the bottom quintile of consumers,” Fabian says.
Drones could help UNICEF understand the lay of the land in emergency situations, provide connectivity in remote locations, and transport medical samples better. It can take 33 days to get an HIV blood sample from a village in Zambia to an urban testing center at the moment, owing to poor roads and ground transport. Potentially, a UAV could do the same work in hours. (Co.Exist explored this idea here and here).
The innovation unit also wants to develop a “sentient” real-time information network, crunching internal proprietary data along with public feeds from Twitter and the like. “If we can understand real-time information to gear our policy better, we can have quick impact on things like the Zika virus,” Fabian says.
Though the fund will be managed from New York City, the actual innovation will be done in-country as much as possible. That leads to the most robust, transferable technology.
“Building in-country is harder and [takes] more energy at the beginning. But once you build something in South Sudan [for example], you can use it anywhere. Also, it builds up local economies and communities of problem solvers,” he says.