One of our favorite social events of the year is The Tech Awards, sponsored by San Jose’s Tech Museum of Innovation. The black tie event is one of the main fundraisers for the program which sources innovative social entrepreneurs, largely in Third World countries, and awards them recognition and grants to fund their on-going work for the social good. We got involved because Andy is on the advisory board for a program run by Santa Clara University (go Jesuits!) that hooks Third World entrepreneurs up with Silicon Valley mentors to help get their projects up, running and funded. Those projects and enterprises, like those spotlighted by The Tech Awards, need to be humanitarian in nature. Granted, I come from a slightly different background than all these Silicon Valley techie types. But one thing I love about the Tech Awards is how, to my mind, it spotlights, perhaps inadvertently, that many of the best solutions are very simple and relatively low-tech.
When I say “low-tech” I don’t mean no-tech. One thing I’ve learned from looking over Andy’s shoulder at this program and by visiting Africa, is that, at least as far as cell phone usage goes, the Third World may be far ahead of us. While we are still emerging from a tangle of legacy systems, the Third World plunged right in to cell phones in a much more extensive and comprehensive way. So while we, in some cases, are still mostly using our phones for games and Yelping, places like Africa and India, where much of the country has no infrastructure, are using cell phones much more robustly and in many more important and comprehensive ways. Many of the innovative solutions highlighted at The Tech Awards involve information delivery via cell phone — such as programs that help isolated rural farmers check commodities prices in city markets to negotiate better prices for their crops. And even in remote places such as the Masai reserve, you find small general stores that have charging stations, cell phone repair and that sell phone cards.
All that is exciting and wonderful, but the part of any solution that is on the ground, better be fixable by a guy with a wrench and a hammer, operational without electricity, and distributable by a system of village elders. I won’t go through all the winners and runners up. You can read about them here. I’ll just add my subversive Liberal Arts Major spin on things. Sometimes, the less technology, the better. I’m clearly in the minority here, because my choice for the winner of every category didn’t win the big grant. But, in some cases, they should have.
Case in point: Wecyclers of Nigeria. Anyone who’s traveled to a Third World area knows garbage collection is a huge problem. Mostly it just gets thrown in large open dumps near the poorest areas. Wecyclers works on several levels to change that. Bicycle driven collection “trucks” go house to house collecting recyclable trash from households (creating jobs for the collectors but with a low carbon footprint), household recyclers are given credits for their recycling redeemable for cell phone minutes and other commodities (additional household income!), the recyclables are taken to the local recycling plants , where more recyclables translate into more jobs (most recycling in Third World countries involves hand sorting). Not to mention that someone makes money selling the recyclables and less trash ends up polluting local streams and housing areas. Big wins all around and very little tech needed. Sadly Wecyclers didn’t win the grant. Something with more and sexier tech did.
My next point of difference with The Tech Awards: let’s get some of this innovation aimed at the U.S. Because Globaloria, which is a K-12 program aimed at teaching kids coding (largely through creating games) also caught my eye. This program is already rolled out in underserved and at risk schools in CA, DC, FL, LA, NY, TX, WV & WY. Unfortunately, the Third World is always a “sexier” than inner city and impoverished U.S. areas. So Globalaria lost out to Enova, which is no doubt an equally worthy network of tech centers in Mexico.
But, you know, I’m not alone in my Liberal Arts low-tech attitudes. You know Dean Kamen? Yeah, Dean Kamen of the Segway. He was honored at The Tech Awards as the James C. Morgan Global Humanitarian. And I should pause here to say that Dean Kamen has invented a Hell of a lot more than the Segway, including some innovative medical devices, such as a cell phone sized insulin pump for diabetics that the father of a friend of ours was proudly sporting throughout the evening.
Well, the latest thing Dean has done is an incredible water filter that works basically like a still. Yup, like an Appalachian moonshiner’s still. You stick the hose into the worst contaminated puddle you can find and out the other end comes water purer than you’ll find in some U.S. metropolitan areas. Okay, that’s somewhat high tech. But I thought the low-tech part of his solution was the most innovative. How do you get these things out to the truly remote areas that need them? Well, there is only one company that can get product from Timbuktu to the Kalahari to the most remote Nepalese Village. It’s the company with the most extensive global distribution system in the world. COCA COLA! And, if you’ve ever been to a really remote area and found you could still always get a Coke, you know what I’m saying. Kamen went to the the Coca Cola company and bullied, browbeat and charmed them into partnering with him to put one of these units in every one of their far flung distribution areas. That’s not a tech solution. That’s a smarts solution. And that’s what’s needed, as Dean pointed out in his acceptance speech. “What”, he asked, “is the most important invention we can come up with to benefit humanity? Find out a way to invent more inventors!”
Here’s another area where I felt low-tech trumped hi-tech. Richard Blanco, the poet who wrote the Inaugural poem for Barack Obama’s re-election, appeared and read an original poem he’d written for the occasion. I was miffed that I couldn’t find a transcript for it posted anywhere, because I thought it struck just the right note for the occasion. At one point, I tried transcribing it on my cell phone as he spoke, but you can imagine how that worked out. All I was able to get down were the lines: “love is our greatest innovation, love is our greatest genius”. Exactly. Thank you, Richard.
The last low-tech part of the program that I thought had a huge impact were the dozens of photographs — from some of the world’s greatest photographers — who agreed to let their images be projected on the big screen for the event. I bet, long after what was said at the event fades, these images will still remain vivid. So let’s hear it for tech. But let’s also hear it for the humanities and low-tech. Harnessed together, they change the world.
NOTE: I really wish I could attribute these photographs. They went by so fast on the slide show and the attribution was very small in the corner. So note to The Tech Awards: post on the website credits for the photos and the transcript of the speeches and the poems!
Yes, yes!!! Cell phone minutes available on every little corner here, along with food and gasoline (for scooters — sold by the liter in re-used wine bottles). At least the bottle is being re-used. Coca-cola is everywhere. Trash is a huge issue. Recycling here is the home grown, re-use variety, but trash is everywhere — though much more under control than it was prior to 2011. Plastic bags and plastic bottles are the biggest culprits. Bottled water is a must, but what to do with all those bottles????
MTN, a big cell phone provider all over the continent and ORANGE, another large provider, have mobile money systems — you can pay a merchant via SMS (if you both have an account set up with your cell phone provider). In any area that is still largely a cash economy and people lack formal bank accounts, mobile money may be the answer to the current need to carry cash everywhere — which increases the likelihood of petty robbery and bribery. It’s all good.
Glad you weighed in from Africa. Another unique thing about the Wecycle program: it pays household recyclers for their trash with SMS credits directly to their cell phones. Probably for the same reasons you cite.
When they put their minds to it, Americans can be some of the best humanitarians in the world. And as we have also seen, they can be the most callous and selfish. What an inspirational evening. Nicholas Kristof should be writing about it!
Thanks fo? sharing your thoughts on dean kamen. Regar?s
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