Digital human rights at the United Nations.
Photo by Jason Howie @ Flickr

Disruptive digital innovation does not happen where you think it does. The media is full of articles about the digital innovations happening at big Internet companies, and which seem impressive at first sight:

  • Google’s Duplex robot assistant can schedule hairdresser appointments by telephone for you.
  • Netflix has improved, yet again, its movie recommendation algorithm to better entertain you.
  • Amazon has further automated its warehouse to deliver packages a bit faster.

What do all these innovations have in common? They all come from big Internet companies and they don’t contribute a bit to make the world a better place. There is an overall obsession about the digital innovations developed by US-based Internet companies, although there are inventions arising all around the world. For instance, in China the eCommerce giant JD.com is already using drones to deliver products to remote areas.

Digital innovation helps companies to improve their businesses and they might even transform private households into gigantic storage rooms. But this kind of digital innovation does not attempt to solve real world problems. Let’s have a look at how digital social innovationattempts to make the world a better place.

Digital social innovation

In Rwanda, as in many other countries in Africa, road conditions are not great and even short distances, i.e. 30km, can take hours. So for hospitals, like elsewhere, the need for medicine or blood donations in emergencies is usually impossible to fulfill. A Californian startup called Zipline is using drones to deliver medicine in cases of emergency. The 90km per hour flying drones reach their destination in minutes compare to hours to help saving lives.

Another case: Ada a personal mobile health guide, invented in Germany. It is an intelligent chatbot that interviews people that may feel a pain or have a health related issue and want to find out the source of the problem. In a step-by-step interview the chatbot attempts to diagnose the potential causes of the pain. Ada acts as a first diagnosis agent that helps people solve an issue. Of course Ada cannot replace a doctor, but the mobile app is used in countries where the next doctor might be hours away and such first diagnosis provides valuable information for next steps to be taken.

Asem Hasna, a refugee from Syria, who lost himself his lower leg in the war, founded Refugee Open Ware. The organization develops implants through low-cost 3D printing technology for refugees and people that otherwise could not afford implants. They might not be as versatile, but they are very low cost compared to the unaffordable professional ones.

These three digital social innovations can potentially improve health for thousands of people. Such inventions rarely make it to the headlines, but they show how digital social innovations can have greater results if human problems are put at the center of the innovation. Because the best innovation happens under constraints when one has little resources available and has to find a solution that still works greatly.

Big tech giants have lost this ability to bring such great benefits or, in worst case, only try to hook users as long as possible for higher advertisements return (e.g. Facebook).

It’s time to look out for the great problem solvers around the world with small names but smart digital social innovation for real problems.