Monday, June 11, 2012

"Feel Good" Innovation that Saves Lives!

Most of us immediately think of Apple and its amazing line of "i" products when we hear the term "innovation." Or maybe we think of Google or some other technology that has transformed our life in ways we barely imagined. But innovation isn't just about technology nor is it just about amazing "things" that make our life easier or more fun. For example, in my recent book, Living in the Innovation Age, I talk about a simple innovation called the "solar light bulb", which costs less than three dollars but has had an unimaginable positive impact on the slum dwellers in Philippines. This simple yet effective innovation is the reason why this year more than a million homes in the Philippines will have daylight in their otherwise dark and cramped homes! Now that's the kind of innovation that makes you feel all warm and fuzzy.

A couple of days ago I read an article in Computerworld titled "Technology for the greater good." This article was about using technology for innovation. However, it was not the "Apple creating the next iPhone" type innovation but rather the "solar light bulb" warm and fuzzy type innovation I discussed above.

Here's one example. A mother in Tanzania walks for three days with a sick child on her hip, only to arrive at a rural clinic whose inventory of malaria medicine is depleted. It's a matter of life and death for the mother and child. But from a business standpoint, it's a straightforward supply chain issue. Antimalarial medicines, with a 96% cure rate, are available. Yet far-flung clinics have a hard time keeping them in stock. Having adequate supplies when and where they are needed is critical, because the medication isn't fully effective unless patients take it within 24 hours of contracting malaria. Novartis, a company whose innovations include micro-chipped pills that can track whether patients take their medication on schedule, resolved the crisis in Tanzania by relying on, of all things, SMS text messaging.

Why SMS? When one innovates in poor, rural, underdeveloped, and remote areas, the most crucial considerations are not the "coolness" or "bleeding edge" of a technology but rather its usability and affordability. So, while ubiquitous Internet access might not be readily available, the much simpler SMS certainly is. Working with IBM and Vodaphone, Novartis came up with a simple idea: Have each remote clinic text four numbers, representing the inventory levels of four different, lifesaving medicines, to distribution facilities in major cities that ship supplies. The application is known as SMS for Life. Initial results of a pilot test at 20 sites across Tanzania were daunting: More than 25% of remote facilities were totally out of stock on all medications. Once Novartis had the data, they were able to reduce stock-outs to less than 1% in a very short time. The roll out across Tanzania was soon followed by a roll out in Kenya with further roll outs being planned for Cameroon and the Republic of Congo. Millions of lives have probably been saved with this simple yet effective innovation!
The Computerworld article discusses two other innovations as well - one dealing with increasing literacy with low cost yet fun literacy tools and another dealing with a business model for "micro financing" called "MicroGraam" in the rural villages of India to enable poor, mostly women, to earn a decent livelihood and live a life of dignity.

These are, however, just three examples from the hundreds of amazing stories at the ComputerWorld Honors Program, which is dedicated to honoring those who use technology to benefit society. Check out the stories above and many more at their website.

The Bottom Line - Innovation is not just about using emerging technology to create new and better gadgets but is also about leveraging simple technologies to benefit society especially for those who live in poverty in underdeveloped, rural, and remote areas and are deprived of even the most basic necessities of life.

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