A viable approach to increasing STEM starts with empathy
Spontaneous Innovation On the Cheap
Last week, Boeing's new 787 was crowned with one of the highest honors in innovation, Grand Prize at the Hermes Awards. At May 8th's Innovation Summit, the masterpiece of engineering was parked on the tarmac outside as, inside, the CEO of the company that made and manufactured it ticked off the game-changing technological breakthroughs that make the Dreamliner soar above its peers.
The plane, affectionately christened the Dreamliner, is the first commercial jet made of lightweight composite carbon fiber rather than heavy aluminum. Thanks to that fact, it boasts better pressure and humidity inside the cabin. Most importantly, it makes leaps and bounds in fuel economy, outstripping similar planes by 20 percent.
Needless to say, the Dreamliner is state-of-the-art. And, also needless to say, developing and manufacturing the plane was an expensive endeavor -- $32 billion by one estimate that claims to be conservative. Technological innovation, as many presenters at the Innovation Summit reminded the audience, isn't cheap.
But can it be? Look to the citizen sector, and you can find a different story entirely -- a story of innovation born not out of awesome sums of investment but rather out of austerity itself.
Meet, for instance, Josh Nesbit and Bright Simons, two award winning social entrepreneurs and Ashoka Fellows who have cooked up new solutions to age-old societal problems using mobile technology. But make no mistake -- when Nesbit and Simons say "mobile," they aren't talking about iPhones and iPads. The two innovators are building solutions on and around technology you likely would have traded in half a decade ago.
Nesbit's organization Medic Mobile uses the simplest of mobile phones to create a coordinated community health worker system in some of the remotest parts of the globe. Where local health workers used to travel hours or days to deliver information back and forth between the villages they served and the nearest hospital or clinic, they are now able to, for instance, ask point-of-care questions, request urgent care, and send structured health care records to a central clinic -- all via text message.
Texting is also at the heart of Simons' mPedigree. The organization leverages technology to combat the problem of counterfeit drugs, which kill nearly a million people per year. Simons works with drug manufacturing companies to create a unique ID on every pharmaceutical produced.
At the point-of-sale, users text that ID to an SMS short code for real-time authentication of the product. Like Nesbit, Bright is saving lives with technology no more sophisticated than what 21st century teens use to flirt with each other.
That's not to say there's no room for new technology development in the citizen sector. In fact, one of Stanford Design School's most popular courses is Design for Extreme Affordability, which has spawned such new and inexpensive technologies as a rechargeable, solar LED light to replace dangerous kerosene lamps in the developing world and an infant warmer designed for areas with limited or no electricity.
But Nesbit, Simons, and many other social entrepreneurs are reminders of the fact that technology innovation doesn't have to come packaged as a product. In fact, in the citizen sector, it rarely does. Nesbit and Simons are highly innovative people with highly innovative organizations, but their feats of innovation are less about novel technology than novel implementation. It's "out-of-date" technology with state-of-the-art creativity.
- A love of all things innovation is what first drew Laura to Ashoka, where she works to identify and connect leading social entrepreneurs--innovators applying new solutions to some of the oldest and most entrenched societal problems. She also serves as managing editor of Ashoka's StartEmpathy, the forthcoming online home of a movement focusing on educational innovation. Before coming to Ashoka, Laura worked as Communications Director of a mobile health technology start up building products to bring primary care into the 21st century.
History shows that the military can be a driver of innovation -- especially when the private sector is made a partner in the process