Guest Blogger Krista Donaldson
CEO of D-Rev: Design Revolution

Here’s a test.  You have 20 seconds to list the scientific and technological innovations that have had a positive, lasting impact in the developing world since the Marshall Plan.  And be specific – “Green Revolution” is not allowed.

Technology and innovation drive economic growth, and can remarkably increase standards of living.  As USAID Administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah notes, innovative products can leapfrog development problems that otherwise might take generations to address.  (Are cell phones near the top of your list?)

D-Rev: Design for the Other 90%, the organization I run, designs and delivers high-quality products to improve peoples’ health and incomes. We are a technology incubator that seeks market-driven solutions to pressing global problems.  The Science, Technology and Innovation Forum on September 22, co-hosted by USAID and the New York Academy of Sciences,will highlight our and other organizations’ innovations that are saving lives and empowering families economically.  Some of the inventions here will be on your list; others should be soon.  D-Rev will showcase a pipeline of low-cost, high-quality medical devices that prevent brain damage in or death of newborns with severe jaundice.

Writing your list, did you pause?  There are many organizations solving pressing problems with innovative technology and design thinking: iTeach is improving healthcare in KwaZulu-Natal by working in public hospitals and with traditional healers; KickStart’s treadle pumps in East Africa are growing a new middle class; Samasource is building capacity by outsourcing work to poor communities and refuge camps; and the Aquaya Institute is bringing clean water to Asia and Africa through sustainable for-profit business models.  But still there is work to do. The lists of breakthrough products and approaches must be longer, because innovation in our globalized age can address most – if not all – of the Millennium Development Goals.  Three things, however, need to happen for organizations to successfully launch successful products.

Technological innovation drives economic growth and increased standards of living so that societies can address their own development issues.

STI development cycle: Technological innovation drives economic growth and increased standards of living so that societies can address their own development issues.

  1. Donors must be agile. Innovation in development is like innovation anywhere – it requires investor agility and risk-taking.  To move products faster from the labs to the market, and scale successes from communities to countries, we need condensed funding cycles that promote action and rapid iteration starting at the seed stage.
  2. Design is not just about the product. It is critical to support the work surrounding the design of the product: ensuring user needs are understood, and what is required to sustainably deliver and scale the product.  Too many products aimed at development never seem to go anywhere.  They might be donated, installed – and then never used. For example, seed funds are needed to understand users, environments, existing solutions, markets, delivery and repair infrastructures, scaling potential – before a product is designed.
  3. The product is but one piece. For technology to affect societies positively, it must be integrated with capacity building, governance and transparency efforts.  The MDGs will not be addressed by a single type of entity or set of approaches; this is the age of effective NGO-government-private sector collaboration.  For example, it isn’t enough that Brilliance, our phototherapy unit to treat jaundice, is in hospitals – it must save lives.  Parents of a baby who had been diagnosed with severe jaundice at an Indian hospital told us, it was “cheaper to go home and have another child” than to save their new baby with the phototherapy treatment currently available.  This must change.

My 20-second list: cell phones, jikos (charcoal stoves), treadle pumps, vaccines, satellite dishes, antiretrovirals, farmer radio stations, frontline SMS.  Come celebrate with us at the Science, Technology and Innovation Forum products like these that improve lives and change the world.  But more importantly, enable technologically innovative organizations to do this work more often and faster.  Let’s grow our lists.