Social innovation: Technology that serves the underserved needs grow
When it comes to the most important problems faced by humanity - food, shelter, health, access to clean water and sanitation, etc - the pace at which we are leveraging technology is underwhelming.
Amidst the tragedy of the recent flash floods in Uttarakhand, we witnessed the power of technology in enabling rapid response to such crises. A worker in the underground tunnel at Tapovan saved 11 others when he managed to get network on his mobile and called for help.
On the other hand, at the power generation site in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand, there were no early warning systems or alarms to pass on the message of the incoming disaster to sites further down the course of the river. Had there been such a system, the count of reported deaths might have been far less. Access to information at the right time might have saved many more lives.
Technology affects us in every sphere of life and has transformed how we live. Every aspect of life for the middle-income Indian in urban India, and increasingly in small towns of India, has changed with technology. From planning travel, to ordering a meal, technology has touched every aspect of our lives, radically changing consumer behaviours and entire industries.
However, when it comes to the most important problems faced by humanity - food, shelter, health, access to clean water and sanitation, etc - the pace at which we are leveraging technology is underwhelming.
We are a long way from effectively utilising information and technology to improve quality of life for the underprivileged communities on the other side of the digital divide. As the aftermath of the pandemic has revealed, those with digital access were the first to discover and retrieve livelihood opportunities, get back to working remotely from home, and recover lost ground on the economic front. For communities without digital access, the gap has widened.
India has the world's second largest internet market with over 560 million users. However, that is still only around 50% of the adult population and so there exists a digital divide that only perpetuates inequalities and threatens to make them starker because of the lack of access to the transformative impact of technology.
It doesn't have to be so. Engagement of India's rural population with mobile phones is increasing. Over 73% of internet users in India depend on their phones. There is tremendous potential for creating solutions and breaking barriers across the digital divide. And it is our young entrepreneurs who are leading by example.
For example, KhushiBaby, a young nonprofit startup that has created a platform for last-mile settings with poor connectivity and covers an integrated digital health census, family planning, antenatal care, labour monitoring, immunisation and child health. The platform includes an innovative IoT pendant which communicates with the KhushiBaby app used by healthcare workers, giving otherwise excluded women the ability to secure better health services for themselves and for their children.
Another example is Haqdarshak that unlocks already earmarked government funds in welfare schemes for their intended beneficiaries. The Haqdarshak app is a simple to use mobile app that helps “citizens discover, apply for and benefit from eligible government and private welfare schemes, thereby plugging the information gap about entitlements, using technology”.
Conducive conditions to innovate for good
Solutions that solve such fundamental problems with such “simple” innovations are built on significant research, development, testing and iteration. They require founders and entrepreneurs with the grit and passion for solving long-standing societal problems. But equally important is enabling their access to catalytic capital and ecosystem support to survive and thrive.
The hard fact here is that solutions for our disadvantaged fellow citizens across the digital divide will rarely have lucrative, for-profit business models. This means - to attract the talent and capital to solve India's big challenges, we need a stronger nonprofit ecosystem, patient philanthropic capital and mature impact investments.
This article has been written by Amit Varshneya, CEO- North America, The/Nudge