Wednesday, November 20, 2013

To Fix the US Healthcare System, Let's Look to the Developing World

Healthcare in the United States is a mess. In 2011, US healthcare spending reached $2.7 trillion, more than twice that of other wealthy countries, and with worse outcomes. In the United States, life expectancy is lower, infant deaths are higher, and there are fewer doctors and hospital beds available per person than other wealthy countries.

The US healthcare system is not just broken; it is highly controversial. The Affordable Care Act caused the government to shut down. And, outrage over the poor website and cancelled coverage forced President Obama to publicly apologize and backtrack on elements of his healthcare plan.

In order to fix our broken healthcare system, we need to look abroad for successful, scalable, and cost-effective solutions. Today, the most innovative healthcare models are not coming from Europe or Japan. They are coming from emerging markets. We are currently experimenting with these innovations in our healthcare system, but we need to do more.

This post originally appeared in the Huffington Post. To keep reading, click here.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

What Reverse Innovation Can Do for the Millennial Development Goals

As the countdown to the Millennium Development Goals begins, ideas are circulating for scalable solutions that improve lives at the base of the pyramid (the 4 billion people living below the global poverty line) and beyond. Several of the Millennium Development goals directly relate to healthcare and interest in reverse innovation is palpable. 

Reverse innovation (also known as trickle up innovation) is first seen in the developing world before spreading to more developed markets. Reverse innovation, particularly in the healthcare sector, is not new- current antimalarials draw their origins from Chinese medicine. Variolation in Africa and Asia was a precursor to modern inoculation and vaccination.  

According to Patricia Mechael, Executive Director of the mHealth Alliance, mobile health is a perfect example of reverse innovation, as "more people have prioritised mobile technologies than even the tech companies anticipated." The developed world was slow to adopt healthcare delivery through mobile because of prior investments in computers and electronic records. Developing countries had limited infrastructure in place and these lower barriers to entry helped mHealth take off. Mobile health has been used to provide services for a number of demographics and healthcare issues- from maternal health to ageing populations. 

Barbara Bush, CEO and co-Founder of Global Health Corps, described the Global Health Corps fellowship program, which was deliberately designed to facilitate reverse innovation. Each US-based fellow is placed with a partner fellow serving internationally in the same organisation, creating a fellowship team that shares best practices from Burundi, Malawi, Rwanda, Uganda and Zambia with the United States. Through the fellowship, one organisation adopted a community health worker model in Newark, New Jersey, implementing a popular public health model across Africa.

Kirsten Gagnaire, Global Director of the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA), leads a public-private partnership that provides relevant information to pregnant women and local healthcare workers. After reaching over 530,000 individuals in South Asia and Africa, MAMA is gathering the attention of high profile partners from the developed world. MAMA is currently exploring a partnership with Sesame Street to provide joint messaging for families.

Both Gagnaire and Mechael shared best practices on facilitating reverse innovation. Mechael suggests moving away from pilots in an approach to thinking at scale from the outset. "While pilots were useful in the early days of mHealth, thinking in terms of pilots does not translate well to implementation at scale. We need to design for scale from the outset," says Mechael.

One of the keys to designing at scale from the outset is a participatory design process. Inclusive processes need to include beneficiaries to ensure relevance and buy-in. According to Mechael, "Whether or not people feel like a technology has been designed for them determines whether or not they will use it."

Gagnaire recommends rapid prototyping in order to adapt their model to local needs and account for nuanced differences. "We don't just translate- we localise the content and target local myths. We look at the literacy rate and the level of comfort with technology," says Gagnaire.  Her organisation relies heavily on focus groups with their target audience. In these focus groups, MAMA tests variables such as content, tone of voice, and even background noises to understand what resonates best with local women in the target demographic. MAMA experiments with multiple iterations and is continuously updating its messaging.

The Millennium Development Goals’ deadline is 2015 and significant progress has yet to be made. Reverse innovation will be a key element of meeting those targets and help to improve healthcare for the developed world as well.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

3 Ways that Business Can Alleviate Poverty

Business has become a dirty word. Doing business with the poor seems taboo, shocking, unthinkable. But what if business could improve the lives of the world's poorest people?
According to the World Resources Institute, there are 4 billion people worldwide who live below the Western poverty line. 1 billion of them live on less than $1 per day. They are known as the base of the pyramid. Anyone travelling to the developing world has seen slums and shantytowns. The base of the pyramid live in squalid conditions -- without access to clean water, toilets or basic medicine. Children play in sewage. Young adults walk around crippled with polio. Older adults, blind from cataracts, are led by hand or sit idly.
This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post. Read the full article here.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Technology is Changing the Way We Eat

I have been doing a bit of research on food lately, and I've been particularly interested in the way technology is shaping the way we eat- from the genetically modified DNA of the corn we consume to the way we discover food trends on Instagram. Where is technology helpful and where is it harmful?

On the one hand, I am enthralled by power of human creativity: We use technology to create drought-resistant GMO seeds and test tube meat to reduce the environmental impacts of cattle farming. A globalised supply chain lets us access produce from around the world, creating jobs and access to fresh produce year round.

On the other, I'm concerned about the externalities that we create with this system- from environmental contamination to skewed economic incentives. I am personally concerned about the impact on our health, particularly from livestock pumped with hormones and antibiotics. And the food supply chain is so complex that horse meat was sold as beef for years before anyone noticed.

As much as I advocate organic/local/ethical food, I would find it hard to survive exclusively on locally grown and seasonal food, particularly in the UK. I would be cutting out salad, fruit, quinoa, chocolate, coffee, soya milk and many other staples of my diet. It's an uncomfortable realisation but an important one. It would not be realistic for me to avoid the global food supply chain. So how can I work with it to ensure that the food I buy meets my standards and my values?

One of the major challenges in understanding food quality is the mis-labelling of products. 24% of the new products that launch each year are categorised as "healthy." "Healthy" and "natural" are unregulated terms and even regulated terms like "gluten-free" are applied to products that wouldn't have gluten anyway to make them appear more healthly. Apps like Good Guide and Fooducate provide breakdowns of common products to help cut through misleading labels. I've also compiled a list of terms below:

Organic agriculture is a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects. Organic agriculture combines tradition, innovation and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved.

Seasonality of food refers to the times of year when a given type food is at its peak, either in terms of harvest or its flavour. This is usually the time when the item is the cheapest and the freshest on the market.

The most widely accepted  definition of local food is that used by farmers’ markets to identify producers who are entitled to sell there. This can be summarised as: food produced,  processed, traded and sold within a defined geographic radius, often 30  miles.

Gluten-free food is normally seen as a diet for celiac disease. The European Union requires reliable measurement of the wheat prolamins, gliadins to determine what is gluten-free.

Free range is a term which denotes a method of farming where the animals can roam freely for food, rather than being confined in an enclosure. On many farms, the outdoors ranging area is fenced, thereby technically making this an enclosure, however, free range systems usually offer the opportunity for extensive locomotion and sunlight prevented by indoor housing systems.

Cage-free  refers primarily to eggs, and are from birds that are not raised in cages, but in floor systems such as an open barn.  However, they may still be at close quarters with many other hens.

Foods that are GMO Free refer to food without Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)- products that have been altered at the gene level.

Vegetarian cuisine refers to food that meets vegetarian standards by not including meat and animal tissue products.

Vegan products contain no animal ingredients or by-products, use no animal ingredients or by-products in the manufacturing process, and are not tested on animals.

Fair Trade aims to help producers in developing countries with better trading conditions and promotes sustainability. It advocates the payment of a higher price to exporters as well as higher social and environmental standards.

The Rainforest Alliance works to conserve biodiversity and improve livelihoods by promoting and evaluating the implementation of the most globally respected sustainability standards.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A word from our Advisors and Connectors about...

A word from our Advisors and Connectors about...

Today, October 11th, is International Day of the Girl. Girl Up , an United Nations Foundation initiative aiming to unite girls to change the world has been promoting #11DaysofAction . We wanted to share some of our thoughts! Our Advisor, Esther Agbarakwe , shared some of her thoughts regarding girls' education: Girl Child Education: Why We MUST keep our girls in school As I picked up the phone to call my mother as she marks her birthday today, October 10th, I felt proud of her and her accomplishment in ensuring that I and all my sisters all went to school as girls because she believed that at school, we will get the right information about ourselves, our sexuality and be empowered to shape our future. She didn’t...Read More

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Reverse Innovation in mHealth: Interview with Kirsten Gagnaire of the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action

I recently interviewed Kirsten Gagnaire, Global Director of the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA). MAMA is a public-private partnership that provides relevant information to pregnant women and local healthcare workers  text and voice messages. 

MAMA credits its success- reaching 530,000 mothers in 60 countries- with a focus on local relevance and rapid prototyping. "We don't just translate- we localise the content and target local myths. We look at the literacy rate and the level of comfort with technology," says Gagnaire. MAMA relies heavily on focus groups, bringing in the whole spectrum of healthcare stakeholders into early conversations - from community health providers to public health officials in the government. Once there is alignment among healthcare workers, the information is tested in focus groups with the target audience. In these focus groups, MAMA tests variables such as content, tone of voice, and even background noises to understand what resonates best with local women in the target demographic. MAMA experiments with multiple iterations and continuously updates its messaging.

MAMA's emphasis local relevance stems from Gagnaire's time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali. She saw a number of agricultural machines rusting on the side of the road. These machines were donated to the local population but because local skills could not service the machines and replacement parts were not locally available, the machines were left to rust. The technology provided was not appropriate for the local context. Gagnaire has applied this lesson to MAMA by focusing on programmes that are available no matter what the handset and creating content that is relevant to the local context.

Gagnaire emphasises the importance of partnerships in her work. “Work that blends technology, behavior change, and long term sustainability is too big for one entity to do alone.” She acknowledges the challenges of finding the right partners for complex initiatives. Gagnaire encourages organisations to understand their strengths and contribute their core competencies. She also suggests guiding partnership decisions by asking, "Who else cares if this succeeds? Who else has a stake in this? How can we effectively monetise this?" 

As MAMA moves forward, partnerships will be key to its growth. MAMA is compiling an affiliate programmes offering, expanding to Nigeria, and focusing on the ways that MAMA could provide complimentary services to  adolescent girls and mothers with young children. It is exploring a partnership opportunity with Sesame Street to provide joint messaging for families. 

MAMA is also focusing on partnerships that financially sustain the organisation. It is exploring the viability of mobile advertising and considering offering mobile financial services through banks. One opportunity in the financial services space would be an mSavings scheme to help women save for birth-related costs, such as transportation to a healthcare provider and birth assistance.

As mobile penetration around the world increases, MAMA will certainly be an organisation to watch. 

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Reverse Innovation in Health: Interview with Patty Mechael, Director of the mHealth Alliance

During the Social Good Summit, I had the privilege to interview Patty Mechael, Director of the mHealth Alliance, a public-private partnership to provide valuable health information through mobile phones. Mechael was an early proponent of mobile health (mHealth), writing her PhD on mHealth in Egypt, a country that only had 3% mobile penetration at the time. 

"Mobile health in general is a reverse innovation," says Mechael. The developed world was slow to adopt healthcare delivery through mobile because of prior investments in computers and electronic records. Developing countries had limited infrastructure in place and these lower barriers to entry helped mHealth take off. Mobile health has been used to provide services for a number of demographics and healthcare issues- from maternal health to ageing populations. 

In Uganda, platforms like UReport collate information through voice and text messages from the general population on healthcare and other issues. This grassroots survey is being compared to compared to the country's official health system reports. And healthcare officials in Uganda are responding- creating a feedback loop that is far more coordinated and advanced than most countries.

The potential for mHealth in the developed world goes beyond governments and public health systems. According to Mechael, the pharmaceutical and insurance industries have a lot to gain from mHealth approaches. Indeed, the private sector has already been involved through private-public partnerships such as the mHealth Alliance. Multinational corporations have taken a service delivery approach and provided insights on how to plan for scale.

As the mHealth Alliance and other organisations aim to reach entire populations with mHealth services, they are focusing on simple innovations that can scale quickly. Interestingly, they are moving away from pilots in an approach tot think at scale from the outset. "While pilots were useful in the early days of mHealth, thinking in terms of pilots does not translate well to implementation at scale. We need to design for scale from the outset," says Mechael.

One of the keys to designing at scale from the outset is a participatory design process. Inclusive processes need to include beneficiaries to ensure relevance and buy-in. According to Mechael, "Whether or not people feel like a technology has been designed for them determines whether or not they will use it."

Mechael is optimistic about the potential of mHealth to expand beyond the current model of information delivery. "The two transformative technologies that I have seen are cell phones and rapid diagnostics," she says. Low cost, easy to deploy diagnostics are using basic biochemistry to reduce the cost and increase access to accurate diagnoses. The mHealth model also lends well to a more personalised approach to healthcare delivery, using sensor technology for self-monitoring. Given the shortage of doctors worldwide, mHealth can also be used to empower lower-level health workers.

A key challenge of mHealth is to implement models that work with today's mobiles whilst looking ahead to potential opportunities as technology advances. "You have to work fast enough to benefit from a current technology and simultaneously plan for the next upgrade in 12 months" Mechael recommends standardised approaches can be upgraded with new technology, but do not need to be drastically altered. Tools such as currently text messages can be expanded into a broader range of content when smartphones become more prevalent in the developing world.

Mechael is currently focused on the countdown to the Millennial Development Goals. She encourages us all to think about the ways that we can leverage mobile in an "all-out" way to tackle these pressing issues.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Social Good Summit and Importance of Caring

I have been fortunate enough to attend the Social Good Summit these past few days, a conference about social good that runs in parallel with UN week in the States. The conference provides an open platform for diplomats, entrepreneurs, business and civil society leaders to share their thoughts on the opportunities for social change.

One of the recurrent themes was the importance of feeling a personal and emotional connection to an issue- in short, caring. During a pre-Summit breakfast, a discussion on HIV centred around the importance of putting AIDS back on the map as a global issue. The sense of urgency that once surrounded the issue is no longer there. As the disease has been "contained" to marginalised communities and particular regions, many people in the developed world feel a lack of personal connection and eradicating AIDS has become less of a priority.

Ben Keesey of Invisible Children echoed the importance of storytelling and eliciting an emotional reaction to drive action. Keesey spoke about his own background and how, as an unengaged young person, he felt an emotional connection and decided to change his life, joining Invisible Children and dedicating himself to ending violence perpetrated by the LRA. His organisation's video KONY2012 was the most successful viral video at the time it was released, reaching 100 million views in six days. When talking about the success of the video and Invisible Children's approach to raising awareness, Keesey focused on engaging storytelling. According to Keesey, compelling stories change the way we feel, which changes the way we think, which changes our behaviour. He also suggested that we start from an assumption that people are unengaged in order to create highly engaging content. "Don't take for granted that people care," he said.

A panel with the founders of RYOT highlighted the impact that is possible when people are moved by stories. RYOT pairs news stories with calls to action, encouraging readers to support organisations whose work relates to the news stories on the site. RYOT's innovative model prompted Mashable founder Pete Cashmore to ask its founders, "Is taking action is the new commenting?"

As we focus on the democratisation of social change and getting ordinary citizens to participate, how do we tell the right stories about the issues we care about? How do we get others to care? And, most important, how do we focus on caring as a starting point to taking action?

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Three Elements of a Successful Social Campaign

Peace Day is an annual event that takes place on September 21st. This year, for Peace Day, the organisation Peace One Day has launched a social action campaign encouraging people to answer the question "Who will you make peace with?" The Global Shapers Geneva Hub has embraced the campaign and sparked a call to action with the entire Global Shapers Community. A number of other hubs, from Guyana to Barranquilla, have taken up the campaign and are raising awareness in their local communities. 

There are three elements that make this specific social action campaign such a success:

The campaign is EMOTIONAL. One of the key elements of the question "Who will you make peace with?" is that it brings about an emotional reaction. It changes the perception of peace as a lofty global goal, where the responsibility lies on diplomats and politicians, and instead focuses on peace as a highly personal and emotional concept.

The campaign has UNIVERSAL APPEAL. When asked "Who will you make peace with?", most of us can immediately think of several people with whom we are NOT at peace. The question has a universal relevance (regardless of cultural, religious, or socio-economic background) that appeals to human behavioural traits. Most of us are holding a grudge against someone or something.

The campaign engages individuals in an AUTHENTIC CONVERSATION. Sharing suggestions for Tweets and Facebook status updates can be effective, but what makes this particular campaign effective is that it asks an open-ended question with no right answer. "Who will you make peace with?" invites us to participate- without judgment, without expectation, without an ulterior motive. It genuinely draws us in to a participatory and meaningful conversation.

These three elements- emotion, universal appeal, and authenticity- have enabled Peace One Day to expand their message beyond those who are familiar with the organisation. Their goal for 2013 is to raise awareness about Peace Day to 600 million people. With their current campaign, I have no doubt that they will succeed.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Why Support Networks Matter for Entrepreneurs

I was speaking with a friend this morning, an early-stage entrepreneur who has invested the past two years in her start-up. She has made progress- there is a product, a team, and some seed funding. But she still feels far away from the vision that drew her to launch the company in the first place. And there are many day to day challenges as an entrepreneur- from raising funding to dealing with uncertainty and motivating a team of people to work exceptionally hard for less than they could be making at an established company.

We tout entrepreneurship as Europe's saviour and the source of growth for developed economies worldwide. We applaud the Steve Jobs of the world. We celebrate successes and acquisitions and IPOs. But we rarely talk about the long and often difficult process. And the struggles. And the emotional toll that entrepreneurs experience. The road to success is often longer and bumpier than we think.

Social capital has been cited as a key factor in entrepreneurial success; it both encourages nascent entrepreneurs and helps them advance through the start-up process. Yet much of the research on tech ecosystems has focused on access to funding and government regulations. As governments worldwide look to create "the next Silicon Valley", we need to start focusing on the importance of strong networks. Large concentrations of entrepreneurs create a sense of community. Incubators, mentors, and MeetUp groups help entrepreneurs find one another, share advice and provide support.

My personal experience with Astia has been so beneficial that I remain involved seven years after participating in the incubator. Social entrepreneurs involved with the Impact Hub rave about the sense of community that co-working creates. Online communities have been a key resource for entrepreneurs who live outside tech ecosystems.

If entrepreneurship is the way forward, then we must focus on the tools to help entrepreneurs succeed. Entrepreneurs, who shoulder an enormous amount of stress and operate under conditions of extreme uncertainty, need support beyond capital and loose regulation. By acknowledging the impact of social capital on venture outcomes, we can focus on creating more social networks (both physical and virtual) to provide the holistic support that entrepreneurs need.

Photo Credit: DeskMag

Thursday, September 5, 2013

What does Facebook's Decline Mean for the Industry?

A lot has been written lately about the Facebook "exodus". Teenagers are not on Facebook, and as 13 year old Ruby Karp mentioned, "All of our parents and parents' friends have Facebooks." And teens do not want to socialise where their parents are. Beyond losing its cool factor with teens, many of Facebook's current users are leaving. This spring, Facebook lost 6 million US visitors in one month and experienced a 4.5% drop in log-ins in the UK. It is clear that the Facebook era has peaked. What does this mean for the industry?

We are have already seen a series of acquisitions by big players and this trend is definitely going to continue. Yahoo acquired Tumblr, Facebook acquired Instagram, and Amazon and Google will likely make audience-driven acquisitions in the near future. Given the success of Twitter's Vine (which lets users upload and share 6 second videos), the tech industry's key players might be tempted to spin off new platforms of their own. With Twitter, this was a brilliant extension of the platform's uniqueness: brevity (Twitter lets users communicate in 140 characters or less.)

It would be much harder for Google, Facebook, or Microsoft to spin off new platforms because their offerings are so much more complex and multifaceted. Take the example of Google+, unsuccessful attempt by a big tech company to create a social networking platform.  It's hard to articulate the value proposition of Google+. Even with a massive amount of registered users, there's no reason to come back to the platform on a regular basis. Google should have just continued to integrate social features into Gmail (adding Hangouts as a new feature, the way it did with Google Chat and Google Voice), which users already log onto multiple times each day.

Apple and Amazon both stand a greater chance of creating successful own platforms. As the two companies centre around content, they could easily build out networks of niche enthusiasts around books, movies, and music. But community building is quite different from platform building, which is probably why Amazon and Apple have both focused on improving their computer-generated recommendations.

As the big players struggle to stay relevant and compete with one another, we will see a proliferation of smaller platforms pop up, much like we did in 2007-08. I'm excited to check out the next wave of niche networks that focus on a single feature or topic. Many of these will get acquired quickly. But we might just see the next Twitter emerge- a formidable competitor in its own right.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

+Social Good Advisors and Connectors

+SocialGood is a global community movement made up of innovators, social entrepreneurs, and thought leaders from more than 120 countries around the world working together to accelerate positive social change through technology and social media, and is a joint initiaitive of the United Nations Foundation, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the United Nations Development Programme, the Case Foundation, and the 92nd Street Y as strategic associates in this global engagement platform. +SocialGood  announced its inaugural class of +SocialGood Advisors and +SocialGood Connectors. The Advisors and Connectors are pioneers in new media, technology and social change from around the world. They bring proven track records for bringing together big ideas and new opportunities, and creating impact in their communities through technology and social media.

Advisors and Connectors will help to foster a diverse and truly global community from around the world, identifying emerging voices, ideas and projects that are making a difference around the world, and empowering the broader +SocialGood community to network across issues and regions.
The +SocialGood Advisors will provide strategic counsel, connections and help identify social good innovations emerging within their communities and networks.

The inaugural class includes:
    Maria Ressa, Founder and CEO of, Manila, The Philippines
    Esther Agbarakwe, Activist and founder of the Nigerian Youth Climate Coalition, Abuja, Nigeria
    Sartaj Anand, founder, EgoMonk Bangalore, India
    Carolina De Andrade, Director, Social Good Brazil, Florianopolis, Brazil
    Ismaël Le Mouël, founder of Mail for Good and Social Good Week in France, Paris, France

To learn more about the +SocialGood Advisors, visit
The first class of +SocialGood Connectors are leaders in their social good communities who are facilitating convenings and conversations that are bringing together entrepreneurs, innovators, institutions and ideas to tackle global issues and create opportunities. The +SocialGood Connectors have planned meet-ups in their home communities and are making connections with the worldwide social good movement to share lessons learned and identify ways that people are driving positive social change. They include:

    Ismail Chaib, Algeria
    Nishe Modoyan, Armenia
    Holly Ransom, Australia
    Jennifer Corriero, Canada
    Julian Ugarte, Chile
    Hazem Khaled, Egypt
    Mac-Jordan Degadjor, Ghana
    Meera Vijayann, India
    Hiroyasu Ichikawa, Japan
    Mark Kaigwa, Kenya
    Grace Clapham, Singapore
    Aurelie Salvaire, Spain
    Sebastian Lindstrom, Sweden
    Noa Gafni, Switzerland
    Nicolò Wojewoda, UK
    Ruben Cantu, USA
    Yangbo Du, USA

To learn more about the +SocialGood Connectors, visit:

Friday, August 30, 2013

Integrating Simplicity into Innovation

Thanks to @VivaDadwal, I have just finished reading a series of articles on reverse innovation in the healthcare sector. I was fascinated to learn that current antimalarials draw their origins from Chinese medicine and that variolation in Africa and Asia was a precursor to modern inoculation and vaccination. Clearly, the concept of reverse innovation is not new. And the beauty of innovation is that it can happen anywhere- from a Northern California garage to a township in South Africa. As long as a product or process meets a need in a new way, we should take it seriously and learn from it. I would go even further to say that we all need to adapt a "reverse innovation" mindset and learn from innovation under extreme resource-constraints.

In their book on Abundance: The Future is Better than You Think, Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler mention the importance of two trends that make lives better for the base of the pyramid- dematerialisation and demonetisation. Dematerialisation is the notion that we now need fewer products . Using the example of smart phones, we can see how functionality that used to live on a number of separate products (computer, phone, video game console, portable disc player, camera, etc.) can now fit onto a single device. Demonetisation is the process of making existing products cheaper by an order of magnitude. The book initially uses the examples of drones, which initially cost governments billions of dollars. After a series of hacks by do-it-yourself enthusiasts, the price of drones dropped dramatically. One can now buy a simple drone for $100.

While these concepts are interesting, they focus on a primarily Western model of innovation. Spinning military technology for civilian use is a common concept in the United States and Israel, but for countries where military R&D is minimal, this method of innovation is irrelevant. And even more disconcerting is the idea that cramming more features into a single product is always better. It was brilliant in the case of the iPhone. But for new entrepreneurs and innovators, starting with this level of complexity as the end goal can lead to confusion and a lack of focus.

We can learn so much from the focus on simplicity that entrepreneurs in low-income circumstances have, a focus they have developed out of need and lack of resources. I met with my mentor Robyn Scott earlier today, who brilliantly described entrepreneurs in slums as innovators trying to build using one wobbly block. In the developed world, we often focus from the outset on our vision of a mansion. We move quickly from a minimum viable product to an expanded suite of offerings, thinking that constant upgrades and additions are integral to success.

What if we used this concept of simplicity to look at the crux of an innovation, the one core element to its success? What if we used our energy and resources to do one thing exceptionally well?

Friday, August 23, 2013

Could Slums be Communities of Opportunity?

About a month ago, I was fortunate enough to hear Ralph da Costa-Nunez speak about turning homeless shelters into communities of opportunity. The concept has thoroughly inspired me, and since then, I've been thinking about this concept with another type of informal housing: slums.

The UN estimates that over 1 billion people around the world live in slums and that the number could increase to 1.39 billion by 2020. In two regions with a high concentration of slum-dwellers compared to the overall urban population, South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, the urban population is expected to double over the next twenty years. We absolutely need to work towards lifting individuals out of poverty and ensuring access to basic needs, such as sanitation and clean water. In addition to that effort, how do we ensure that those living in slums are living in communities of opportunity?

In many ways, slums are vibrant ecosystems. A writer visiting Kibera, Nairobi's biggest slum, described it as a thriving economic hub. "There wasn’t a square of street front property unoccupied by activity: pharmacies, butchers, restaurants, grocery stores, and cell phone shops lined the streets." Most slum dwellers are entrepreneurs and approximately 85% of new employment opportunities occur in the informal economy.

But enterprises in slums are generally micro-enterprises that focus on survival, not growth. Without a formal education, limited access to resources, and an unrecognised status by local governments, slum-dwelling entrepreneurs are operating under extreme difficulty. And often, entrepreneurship is one of the few employment options available, particularly for women. How can make the lives of these entrepreneurs a little bit easier? How do we turn these hubs of micro-enterprises into entrepreneurial ecosystems? 

Imagine if we focused on slums as the next Silicon Valley. With the vast opportunities for businesses at the base of the pyramid, we could help the "bottom billion" solve its own problems and lift itself out of poverty in the process.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Long-Tail Impact of our Social Media Posts

I just got home from the welcome dinner of the second Annual Curators Meeting of the Global Shapers Community, where I met Mykolas Majauskas, the Curator of the Vilnius Hub in Lithuania. Lithuania has a troubled history with Poland, and after an anti-Lithuanian banner was held up at a Polish football match, tension was high.

Lithuania responded with a viral campaign based on the Israel loves Iran effort launched by Rony Edry, an Israeli graphic designer, in 2012. Apparently Mykolas was inspired by the campaign, which he heard about through a post I shared last year in the Shapers' private social network.

I was blown away.

We share stories and read countless posts per day. I very much believe in the cumulative impact of this information exchange, but it often feels like our posts and comments go out into the ether.  I never thought that a single post, particularly one that I shared, could galvanise someone that I had never met.

It was an inspiring moment.

I encourage you all to support Mykolas' campaign and to think about the long-tail impact of your social media posts. Because someone out there just might be reading them.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Debate Over Artificial Intelligence

I've been reading quite a bit about artificial intelligence (AI) lately, and I'm fascinated by the polarisation surrounding the topic. Today's breed of smart computers and robots can beat humans in chess and outperform financial traders in investing stocks. They can also auto-drive cars, detect tumours, and, in the case of drones, drop bombs without any human intervention required. Like all technology, the potential uses are endless and AI can be used for "good" or "bad" purposes.

I see the advantages that artificial intelligence can offer. Smart computers can carry out rote work that we all loathe, and process mass amounts of information, enabling humans to synthesise, analyse, and creatively design solutions. Robots can also provide an opportunity to support humans in becoming more efficient and effective. This is critical in the fields of development, rural medicine, and disaster relief, where coordination is difficult and resources are stretched.

But there are several key debates that we must iron out as we move to more AI. (I will not discuss the concern that, as computing power increases, evil robots will take over the world. This is a great leitmotif for science fiction movies but not exactly relevant for today's AI.) The two biggest concerns around AI today are morality and humanity. Robot ethics is an emerging field. If cars can drive themselves and machines can prescribe medicine, how do we ensure that these robots behave in a moral way? This isn't as straightforward as it seems. Imagine a drunk cyclist swerving in front of a self-driving car. To the left of the car is a sidewalk with a child walking; to the right is another car. What does the self-driving car do in that situation?

Another fear of AI is that it will make us less human. Many technologists describe a near future where humans implant chips into their bodies- enabling them to check their emails and search Wikipedia without the need for a device. Google Glass is seen as a gateway to this new way of accessing information. The debate here centres around our sense of humanity. What does it mean to be human if we suddenly integrate machines into our bodies? Will this evolution turn us into something else? Or is this just a seamless extension of our smartphones?

I love Shyam Sankar's view of cooperation between man and machine, as opposed to man vs. machine. With the aid of smart computers, human can make better decisions and achieve exceptional outcomes. My favourite example from his TED talk is a human + machine chess tournament. Humans entered the tournament with the assistance of machines. The winner of the tournaments was not a chess master with a super computer, but rather a team of two amateurs working with three regular laptops. When man and machine work together effectively, exceptional outcomes are possible.

I hope that a man with machine paradigm is the future of AI. But as we programme robots to take humans out of the equation, we need to find ways to ensure moral outcomes (both by programming moral robots and by understanding the consequences of virtual warfare using drones.) And we need to carefully consider the possibilities of infusing robot-like technologies into our bodies. I am optimistic about the future of man and machine, and I believe that healthy debate will be key to guaranteeing positive outcomes with AI.

Image courtesy of

Monday, July 29, 2013

Finding Home

One of my best friends shared this TED talk with me the other day. In a world where so many of us have lived in several countries, hold multiple passports, and speak at least two or three languages. where is home? Do we feel at home in a community of travellers? Do we feel at home when we spend time with the people we love? Do we feel at home when we find time to stop and reflect?

It is wonderful to feel like the world is small, that we can choose and change countries with relative ease. As Pico Iyer mentions "movement is a fantastic privilege and it allows us to do so much that our grandparents could never have dreamed of doing." Technology has made it easier to keep up with friends, family, news, and even pop culture in other countries. I FaceTime with my boyfriend in London, Skype with my parents in New Jersey, message my cousins in Tel Aviv on WhatsApp, and keep up with my Chilean family through Facebook. When my parents moved to the US in 1989, we would call my grandparents once a week. My mother found a store that sold Israeli newspapers and bought a copy each Friday. We sent pictures by post and waited for letters to arrive. It was a different world and the cost of living abroad (both fiscal and emotional) was much greater.

Even today, there is a cost. We can make our lives easier with virtual communication, but we cannot live virtual lives. There are countless ways to show that we care- a goodnight kiss, a hug after a bad day, a toast to good news. They do not have a digital equivalent. With four places to call home, it is the absence of these small touch-points with loved ones that I miss the most. I try to make it back for special occasions, but life is so much more than that. Our lives are made up of many small, unexpected moments (both good and bad.) How much support can we really show from far away?

I love my life. But it has become so scattered that it's hard to focus on the people and things that matter most. So I am moving once again- this time, back to London. In his TED talk, Iyer talks about his realisation that "movement was only as good as the sense of stillness that you could bring to it to put it into perspective."I have been travelling so much that I find it hard to be present. It's time to put down roots, simplify my life to a single city, and invest in my relationship, because ultimately, that's where I want my home to be.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Adapting to Climate Change

I have been spending this week on a Global Leadership Fellows training at Columbia University, working with the Earth Institute and the Mailman School of Public Health to understand the impact of climate change on urban areas. In particular, we have been looking at New York City's climate change adaptation plan in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

The Economist estimates that 64% and 86% of the developing and developed world (respectively) will live in cities by 2050. As urban populations increase and weather patterns change due to global warming, how can cities best prepare themselves for natural disasters, heat waves, and decreased access to water and other key resources? The challenges are immense and complex.

During Hurricane Sandy, flood waters surpassed previous flood records and reached 16 feet in a city where infrastructure was built to withstand 12 feet. Neighbourhoods were destroyed, a power plant substation exploded (leaving parts of the city without electricity for days), supply chains were disrupted, and waste water overflowed.Vulnerable populations were particularly at risk; hospitals were evacuated. A number of elderly and disabled individuals died during the storm.  This is just one example of the havoc that a single natural disaster can cause. As natural disasters become more common and resources become increasingly scarce, cities need to focus on resilience. Updating infrastructure is just one piece of the puzzle.

What is the role of technology in climate change adaptation? Renewable energy plays a key role, both in reducing the dependence on fossil fuels (which become scarce as supply chains are disrupted) and, more importantly, provide clean energy that reduce greenhouse gases. Social media and text message updates can disseminate information to the public. Smart grids and feedback on energy usage can be used to reduce demand. We can use big data to create a comprehensive registry of vulnerable populations. Technology can also improve communications among stakeholders (local governments, community organisations, civil society, and corporations) who need to work together to provide a more effective and coordinated response.

Climate change is our new norm. How can we think creatively, strategically, and pragmatically to adapt? And how can we prevent it from getting worse?

Friday, July 12, 2013

My Response to Can Silicon Valley Save the World?

The Foreign Policy magazine article "Can Silicon Valley Save the World?" has created a debate about the role of technology and entrepreneurial thinking in the development sector. The article had some valid points about the unrealistic view that technology is a stand-alone panacea for solving the world's problems. It also mentioned the issue of distributing products and services to a market (the poor in the developing world) that do not have a say in the products and services it is receiving, which is a serious problem across the field of development.

I took issues with several of the key ideas in the article. There was a clear fear of risk taking- seemingly because of the expense that failure creates. A culture of caution stifles creativity and the willingness to think big. Poverty is a massive challenge and we have not solved it with the models we've tried so far. We need bold ideas to hit the Millennial Development Goals and make meaningful progress. We have spent millions in aid knowing that a large portion of those funds will be grafted by corrupt officials. So why are we so uncomfortable with failure when the potential benefits are huge? Also, most of these solutions work to provide direct access to the people that need it most, bypassing corrupt systems.

I was also disappointed to see the focus on "innovations" that cost more and provide fewer benefits than the tools that they were meant to replace. What kind of innovation is that?

Technology is not a panacea- some of the most effective development interventions are as simple as providing iodised salt. And no one is discounting the great work that has been done to eliminate disease, improve maternal health and reduce infant mortality. But why deny the opportunities inherent in technology and shun the brightest minds from Silicon Valley from bringing their out of the box thinking to the challenges that need it most? We need more innovation in the development sector.

New models (like USAID's venture capital arm) have the potential to involve entrepreneurs and the private sector in a meaningful way. I hope we decide to embrace these types of opportunities and not get territorial about "their" role and "our" role. Can Silicon Valley save the world on its own? Probably not. But if we embrace the Valley and this type of thinking across the big international organisations, we will create meaningful change. The Millennial Development Goals need to get back on track. Silicon Valley's input on those and other development initiatives will be beneficial for everyone.