Two of a Kind: Where Technology Meets Social Innovation

12/12/2012 11:44 am ET | Updated Feb 11, 2013

I wear many hats. To my colleagues, I am a business and user-focused team member, not to mention utter programming noob. To my friends and some of my non-profit and public sector contacts, I am a software development professional (whether or not that term makes any sense to them, I wouldn't know). In short, I constantly find myself in situations where I try to explain complex or, alternatively, totally yawn-inducing ideas to different sets of people, depending on my audience. I grapple with trying to put my combined interests into universally understood terms that explain what exactly it is that I do and find, for lack of a better word, awesome.

It turns out that these themes aren't so dichotomous after all. There are so many ways technology is intersecting with the non-profit world. This combination of business, design, and world changing innovation is as much fascinating as it is game-changing as far as our traditional conceptions of technology, international development, aid, philanthropy, and collaboration are concerned.

Think about it this way: For 10 years, HIV scientists had been struggling to crack an extremely difficult problem (to produce an accurate model of the crystal structure of the M-PMV retroviral protease by molecular replacement, to be exact), hindering their progress in the research of the virus. Then in 2011, the puzzle website, Foldit, published the HIV problem to the public and, in less than a month, the gaming community had solved the conundrum. It is common knowledge that the best people at innovating are individuals, but also that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Collaboration is key, and in today's world, with the proper forums and communication tools at our disposal, it has become even easier and more efficient. It just takes a little out of the box thinking to achieve sometimes.

"Citizen science," as this is known, is just one example of the broader topic of crowdsourcing to achieve a goal. Web-based, crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter and Kiva have transformed traditional models of the lending and investment spheres. It is 21st century philanthropy where anyone can be a benefactor, backer, or lender. Similarly, Nairobi-based Ushahidi develops free and open source software for public data collection, visualization, and interactive mapping using multiple channels such as SMS, email, and the web. In the organization's own words, they are changing the way information flows between individuals and communities for democracy, health, safety, emergency relief, and economic development purposes.

The rise of social media in the last decade has immeasurably contributed to connecting communities, donors, beneficiaries, and organizations and establishing constant, real-time reinforcement of common missions. In the words of Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg:

"Technology gives a name and a face -- a true identity -- to those who were previously invisible, and it turns up the volume on voices that may have otherwise been too soft to hear."

Social media can provide a more tangible sense of impact for service providers, or even philanthropists, who are sometimes thousands of miles away from the users who are impacted by their technology.

Personally, technology is most worthwhile when it addresses a human need ("need" being the operative word here). I know the iPhone 5 is slightly taller than the 4S and has a half an inch larger retina display and all (gah! how did we live with that ancient thing?!), but for social innovators, especially those working in developing country environments, technologies are pointless unless they enhance the lives of the people they're trying to help, whether it's a rocking chair that can charge your iPhone without electricity, a LinkedIn for the incarcerated, an app to document Russian bribery, or a bus stop that offers light therapy for exhausted commuters. Meagan Fallone of Barefoot College explains the link:

"It is not so much what Silicon Valley can teach social entrepreneurs, or what [development professionals] can teach Silicon Valley, but the opportunity to teach and learn outside our comfort zones. That's what drives maximum impact, great innovation, and the best solutions."

Successful tech startups are not so different from sustainable social ventures. Both take risks, tend to be game changers in whatever field they operate in, and utilize spitfire ambition and perseverance to solve large-scale problems. As with any startup, creative solutions should be funded to be able to scale properly, while those without any real impact, however flashy, should not. Social innovators should be encouraged to "fail fast", make data-driven decisions, prefer people over processes, and really listen to what the end users are asking for. Additionally, for social enterprise, tech savvy, in-country leadership is crucial because, while technology can certainly enable solutions, nothing can replace local, on-the-ground interaction with the issue you're trying to fix.

There are booming technology hubs, incubators, and labs throughout Africa currently working on producing this very "homegrown" innovation, from CcHub (Co-Creation Hub) in Nigeria to iHub in Kenya and Ghana's Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology -- not to mention others in Cameroon, Rwanda, Uganda, Senegal, South Africa, Egypt, Ivory Coast, Zambia, Benin, Botswana, Ethiopia, Liberia, Tanzania, and Togo -- to meet local needs. Organizations throughout the world are participating in this renaissance of technology taking form in many developing economies too, such as San Fran's Inveneo which implements sustainable computing and broadband systems in underserved communities and provides resources for exchanging knowledge related to information and communication technologies. And if you haven't heard about the way astonishingly ubiquitous mobile phones are spearheading social development projects, take a look at USAID's nifty infographic.

Technology can be a great catalyst of change, but it cannot be considered a silver bullet to the world's myriad of complex problems. Many times, as with the HIV/AIDS challenge, cultural and behavioral contexts are essential. This means that we must involve the creative and cultural industries with the technical. And innovation isn't invention. Innovation is not about scientific discovery nor mathematical proof. It's about the continual optimization of design and replacement of increasingly outdated processes to produce a fundamentally better product for users.