Every year, innovators in international development from across the Pacific Northwest convene at the Global Washington Conference in Seattle. This year’s theme was Allies for Action. The conference celebrated effective public-private partnerships, shared lessons learned from failed projects, and brought experts together to discuss the future of multi-stakeholder methods in global development.

James Bernard, Director of Strategic Partnerships at SSG Advisors, hosted a panel discussion titled Tech for Good: Inspiring Purpose Driven Technologies, with a goal of stimulating conversation on how appropriate technology can be developed and implemented for frontier markets to create sustainable impact. The panelists included: Anay Shah, Head of International Partnerships of Remitly; Charlie Matlack, Co-founder and CEO of PotaVida; Emily Bancroft, Vice President of Village Reach; and Maurizio Vecchione, Senior VP of Global Good and Research and Intellectual Ventures. Each panelist brought a unique perspective on collaborative partnerships and lessons learned through past and current development projects.

Five Key Concepts from the Tech for Good Discussion

The panel explored a range of subjects including the appropriate use of technology in development, collaborative processes for both the development and implementation of technologies for good, effective business models, and how to develop measurable goals. The discussion raised five key concepts that international development practitioners should consider when building technology programs or projects for good:

  1. Harness the power of technology for outcome- rather than output-based measurements: It is critical that international development organizations push for accountability and the measurement of development outcomes rather than outputs. Technology’s ability to rapidly collect and analyze data offers the promise of better outcome measurements and informed action. However, unless programs are set up to measure the right outcomes and people on the ground are empowered to act on the insights that data can provide, organizations risk not taking full advantage of the real power of technology.
  1. Create the right tool for the right job: When designing new technologies, organizations need to keep in mind the three “A’s”: appropriate, affordable, accessible. Technologies should be built for the demographic and community they are serving, with appropriate features and usability for the context. For example, health applications that require high levels of literacy and numeracy may not work in communities with low education rates. This may even mean working with local groups to design and test features, rather than assuming that what works in Western contexts will work elsewhere. It goes without saying that technologies must also be affordably priced for local customers, and should be geared to use available connectivity speeds to make them accessible. As one panelist said, “Are technologies built to solve a problem, or is this a technology in search of a problem?”
  1. Failures can be expensive but are crucial for success: The panelists shared lessons learned from past technology failures, such as computers that sit locked in a closet in the back of a classroom, or mobile products that serve a purpose but not a market. Learning from market and technical failures, is extremely important and the key to understanding new approaches using purpose-driven technologies. By developing and testing multiple iterations of a technology, organizations can improve its usability, market value, or ability to solve a social problem.
  1. Collaboration, especially with community-based organizations, is fundamental: It is easy to collect the most brilliant minds in science, innovation, and research to solve a problem, but it can only get so far if there isn’t a strong focus on the communities that the technology is meant to serve. “Collaboration and collaborative efforts are the key to understanding,” said Vecchione. “It can make the difference between spending considerable time on a project to really making a focused impact.”
  1. Understanding learning and communication styles is crucial in stimulating behavior change: In considering how technology can be used to influence positive behavior change, it is important to assess variables such as the literacy and numeracy level of the community so technology education can be designed accordingly. With the understanding of how members of the community learn and understand concepts, welcoming and adopting new technologies is much more likely. It has been found that the importance of adoption of technology is highly dependent on the role of community and how the benefits are translated through storytelling. With the support and role modeling of respected community members, novel solutions can be integrated and positive behavior change can be realized.

The conversation continues as organizations and technology experts study best practices and set their own precedents with inventions, strategies, and partnerships that are designed to improve the quality of life and address some of the world’s toughest problems. There is still much work to be done. With the new technology innovations and greater connectivity,  now is the time to come together to create collaborative partnerships and solutions that address the technology access gap that currently affects billions of people in the developing world.

By Dominica Zhu