Ashoka: Innovators for the Public are hosting Tech 4 Society, a conference exploring technology, invention and social change, in Hyderabad, India, in February 2010. Find out more about the conference here. This blog post is an entry in their competition to find the official blogger to travel to and cover the event.
This is a rare post because it is on a subject, regarding which I have negligible exposure, experience and expertise. But there, nevertheless, are other strong forces that make me want to write. Interest, intrigue, inclination and introspection. I’m embarking on this post with the intention of being a part of Ashoka-Lemelson Technology for Society Event. But it is also true that I may have anyway written on this topic sooner or later. In fact, I hope this happens to be the first step towards a series of enlightened posts on this topic. So, what is the topic?
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The intersection of Social Change, Invention and Technology! Doesn’t that show signs of an interesting merry-go-round? If Social Change + Invention + Technology is not equal to a Revolution, I don’t know what a revolution is all about. When I started pondering about this, I picked up a sheet of paper and wrote these terms down in three overlapping circles and stared at them for a while and felt overwhelmed; the intersecting area in the middle of the three circles, I realized, is extremely wide, deep and expansive in reality. I am not sure how effective this effort will be given my unfamiliarity with, and the sheer density of, the topic, but here I go, equipped with nothing more than a few reliable facts and some random introspective thoughts. I hope to make the right connections and hear a few resounding clicks.
One of the more important questions in the context of this topic would perhaps be “Why and how does such a revolution start?” I think the heart of the idea lies in the desperate need for a social change. And, I dare say, it starts with an emotional response to a social challenge rather than a commercial ambition. Another dimension would be the technical wherewithal at the disposal of the source of this emotion. The third important aspect would be the energy put into, and the methods leveraged on for, building awareness (a word that scores over marketing in this context) and increasing the reach (of services). Someone with a passion for making a positive difference to the society and a flair for technology or even just technological possibilities is undoubtedly the hero/heroine we are looking for. One look at the NGOs around the world, entities like Ashoka and socially conscious individuals would give us a lot of reasons to be happy about. The focus on Social Entrepreneurship in top-notch B-Schools is also an important turning point. More often than not, the idea flashes at the intersection of technology and a need of the society. Someone who spots and empathizes with (or experiences) a social challenge and draws a connection between it and a technological concept might discover where the two meet. It could be a flash or a consequence of repeated introspection or discussions (with relevant people).
In Business Week’s recent list of most intriguing start-ups (wherein technology plays a critical role), I noticed that most of the ideas could be roughly classified based on what inspires them – Entertainment (games, music etc) Environment (alternative energy sources etc), and, arguably, Empathy (health, education). In my view, social entrepreneurship is associated with the last. It would be wonderful to see such start-ups cover more areas related to education, agriculture, health, infrastructure, governance, and poverty alleviation in the case of developing countries.
Most revolutionary ideas for social change piggyback on mobile technology, techno-scientific instruments and the Internet. I think the impact lies in the radical changes that technology brings to the way we communicate, create and run communities and provide - virtual - services. Technology is just the enabler, but it drastically changes the scale, speed and cost at which we do things. It signifies doing more with less. Arguably, the quality of governance goes up as well. In order to fully leverage on these aspects for social change, the IT ministry and the government need to play a role. We need to have the ideas converted into project plans, advised by knowledgeable and passionate communities. Teams should be given the freedom for implementation but held accountable. Projects should be piloted and then scaled up after observing the initial impact and benefits.
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As I wrote this post, I recalled that I’d voted for “Help social entrepreneurs drive change” in the Google 10^100 Project many weeks ago. This, I might claim, is my only, however absurd, claim to fame in this context. But I seriously hope to walk the talk and contribute in other ways.
I’d like to dedicate this post to Zephyr who is a brilliant embodiment of the above said topic. Zephyr is the author of Freedom’s Way (a highly inspiring book) and is currently leveraging on technology to help individuals and organizations find their true potential via tools such as Meta-Analysis and Vision Driver. As he so beautifully puts it on his blog, he focuses on "Marrying World Wisdoms, Profound Thinking, and the Latest Insights in Science to the Unique Opportunities of Modern Living". Also, it is a great time to dedicate such a post to Zephyr as it was, coincidentally, his birthday yesterday! :-)