Listen to this article
Everyone wants one of the latest generation of Tesla’s sporty electric cars, the Model T Fords of the 21st century. Google’s self-driving car technology is cropping up all over the place. Car-sharing and taxi hire services from Zipcar to Hailo to mGaadi (a fast-growing autorickshaw service in India) are becoming common, removing the hassle of owning, parking and insuring a vehicle. Even traffic is now orchestrated by systems such as Bitcarrier that collect and analyse data on how we move around — travel time, average speed, traffic volumes — via our mobile devices.
Owning a car outright — where it sits mostly unused as its value drains away — is increasingly regarded as a wasteful habit of the past. Cities that were designed around freeways and car parks are finding that with fewer cars used more efficiently, they have much more room for people and cyclists, parks and trees, playgrounds and affordable housing, while becoming cleaner, more economically sustainable and more mobile. Streets are reverting to what they were 150 years ago, places where children play and people walk. Soon we will think it mad that city roads were once no more than cramped parking lots.
This is not a distant dream. All the ingredients for this radical remaking of our cities are available now. The pieces are just waiting to be brought together, to create a new normal. It is not difficult to see where potentially transformative innovations like this might come from, you just have to get used to looking in slightly unusual places. Radical innovations invariably begin in the margins, where people have nothing to lose and unorthodox solutions make perfect sense.
The Nominet Trust, the corporate foundation of Nominet, the organisation which looks after the UK’s system of website addresses, has been scouring the world for innovations in which people use digital technologies to tackle social challenges. The Trust wants to inspire and back UK innovators to realise the still largely untapped social potential of digital technologies, to provide new ways for people to learn, look after their health, find cleaner forms of energy and create new economic activity.
We have just announced the second year of the Nominet Trust 100, our annual celebration of such global digital social innovation. This showcases the incessant, unfolding waves of innovation rippling around the world as cheaper and more reliable digital technologies cross-fertilise and multiply. Such innovation waves build from far off before rushing forward with immense power. One prime example is 3D printing, which is about to become a practical tool rather than an esoteric toy of the rich or hip.
Project Daniel is the world’s first 3D-printing prosthetic lab and it’s not in Silicon Valley but South Sudan. It was set up by Not Impossible founder Mick Ebeling after he saw footage of a teenager who lost both arms when a bomb, full of kerosene and nails, went off while he was tending his parents’ cattle. The young man was Daniel Omar, a resident of a sprawling refugee camp called Yida. Ebeling tracked him down via the camp’s medic, Tom Catena, and set about creating new limbs for him with the help of a neuroscientist and Richard van As, the founder of open-source 3D-printing prosthetic company Robohand.
It was not easy. Ebeling arrived in South Sudan in November 2013 as a ceasefire broke down. The team set up shop in a ramshackle tin shed where temperatures soared so high during the day that things began to melt. When they started to print at night, tropical bugs, attracted to the machine’s lights, jammed up its mechanics. But they persisted and on November 11 Daniel fed himself with his new hand and arm, the first of his prosthetic limbs.
The project has a legacy beyond Daniel’s new limbs — Ebeling left two 3D printers in the workshop, in a community that had no concept of computers before his arrival. He has trained locals to use them so that each week another victim of the conflict is able to get access to a limb that costs a fraction of the price of traditional solutions. (Prosthetics are just the start: doctors in the US and the UK are developing ways to print material that behaves like human tissue and that could, in theory, be used to replace entire organs.)
. . .
If this is possible in a refugee camp in South Sudan, then just imagine what might come from 3D Hubs, another NT 100 entry. The largest global network of 3D printers has 9,000 machines in 110 countries in shared hubs where locals can rent them by the hour. The co-founders Bram de Zwart and Brian Garret envisage a world where “factories of the future could become community-run micro-operations, [with] products made on demand and closer to their point of purchase. Making and distributing stuff would not only be cheaper and better for the environment but great for local economies as well.”
It is a short technical step to printing out much larger physical objects, such as houses. The template for the WikiHouse, a single-storey, square structure, can be downloaded for free. Once the numbered pieces are printed out they can be slotted together like a jigsaw puzzle. The printed house made from local materials would be an obvious solution to upgrading slums in the developing world. Contour Crafting, a company created by an engineering professor at the University of Southern California, has developed a robot printer that is claimed to be able to print out a family house in a day. Imagine what gains in productivity this process will benefit from over the next five years.
How we look after our health is also ripe for change. Low-cost innovations that start life in the margins of the poorly resourced health systems of the developing world will play a central role in the future — not least because their main tools will be the mobile phone, augmented by 3D-printed materials.
Peek, another entrant on the list, is a prime example. Thirty-nine million people around the world are blind and 80 per cent of all cases of visual impairment are caused by diseases that could be treated if diagnosed early enough. When Andrew Bastawrous from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine moved to rural Kenya to set up a network of mobile eye clinics, he quickly realised he needed an alternative to the bulky, costly and fragile equipment that was only available in distant hospitals.
So he and three fellow UK medics, a hardware designer and a software developer set about hacking a smartphone. The result is Peek, the “portable eye examination kit”. An app and a clip-on adapter together turn a smartphone into a tool that can diagnose visual impairments: from cataracts and glaucoma to macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy. The main bit of the “kit” is a 3D-printed black plastic adapter that slots over a mobile phone handset. This works with the phone’s built-in flash so that it can scan retinas with the ophthalmological accuracy of a $25,000 camera. The team has also developed a solar-rucksack to charge and back up the phone, so that field workers travelling by bike or on foot can conduct eye examinations in very remote communities.
Health dominated this year’s list. “Across the globe we are witnessing a wave of digital health innovation, from DrDoctor, which is a kind of lastminute.com for hospital appointments, to IanXen Rapid, which turns a mobile phone into a tool for diagnosing malaria,” says Annika Small, the Nominet Trust’s chief executive and chair of this year’s judging panel. “As health systems search for more effective, lower-cost ways to help people, so these innovations will increasingly have to come centre stage.”
. . .
Significant sustained innovation never comes from lone inventors but from communities that develop ideas through a mixture of sharing and competition. Digital making will have a future because it is being supported by a global community, brought together at events such as the Maker Faire, a giant futuristic car-boot sale which is a global showcase for the craft, projects and prototypes of the new maker movement.
“Many makers,” says the Faire’s founder Dale Dougherty, “say they have no other place to share what they do. DIY is often invisible. We make these projects and ideas visible.” About 200,000 people attended its New York and San Francisco events in 2013, and 98 mini-fairs took place everywhere from Oslo to Tokyo.
The digital maker movement is not just men in high-tech sheds. It’s being fed by an emerging global movement of young people who are being trained in their thousands by new education programmes that operate with one foot in the school system and the other in the real world. One of the most striking features of these new programmes — Code Club, Apps for Good, Freeformers, Codeacademy — is that they get equal numbers of girls and boys taking part. They produce young people who are creating digital products and businesses even though they are yet to leave school.
“Giving young people the confidence to create using digital technology bestows new forms of self-expression, personal agency, social action and active citizenship, and the ability to apply computational and systems thinking to social problems,” says Baroness Rennie Fritchie, the chair of Nominet. “Looking at this economic and social potential, we begin to see a picture of huge opportunity — but also a risk of huge missed opportunity, if young people are not equipped with the skills to innovate and succeed in this digital world.”
James Whelton, the co-founder of CoderDojo, is someone providing that opportunity. CoderDojo is a volunteer-led movement of free and not-for-profit youth coding clubs where seven- to 17-year-olds can drop in to learn how to code, build websites, apps and programmes. Whelton was 18 years old when he started it in 2011 in Cork, after he was besieged with requests for coding classes from younger kids who’d seen him hack an iPod Nano. On a weekly basis, an average of 20,000 kids and young people now participate at 550 Dojos in 56 countries around the world.
Hopeful community-based movements of this kind have often failed in the past due to their inability to mobilise the resources needed to scale up. Yet that too is changing, thanks to innovative forms of crowdfunding, microfinance and charitable giving made possible by digital platforms.
None of this innovation is designed to garner likes from our 70 closest friends via a badly taken snapshot and a line of text. Nor are these applications designed to make Silicon Valley tech companies more profitable or to extend the security service’s ability to review the contents of our emails. The young people joining the digital maker movement are far more ambitious than that. They are like Shubham Banerjee: they want to make a difference.
Banerjee was shocked by how expensive it was to buy basic assistive technologies such as a Braille printer. After trial runs with seven prototypes, he managed to build a machine and software programme that could render the six tactile writing-code dots. He used a standard Lego Mindstorms EV3 robotics kit, printing on to ordinary calculator paper and using a thumbtack as a primitive printer head. Braigo was revealed to the world in January 2014 when Shubham was still only 12 years old. “I’ve been building my whole life,” said Banerjee, whose father is an engineer. “When I learnt how many people can’t afford to buy a Braille printer, I realised I could probably build a solution . . . [and] thought it would be cool to make [it] completely out of Lego.”
Imagine how many Shubham Banerjees there are in the world, ready to make tangible products and create businesses with a social purpose even before they have sat their school leaving exams. Imagine what school would be like if it was designed to uncork rather than contain their talents and ambitions. It would be a business incubator where children also learnt how to read, write and add up.
The future of the web will not just be shaped in Silicon Valley by mildly socially dysfunctional boys wearing hoodies. “You don’t need to partner with the big companies in order to have impact, sometimes just some enthusiasm and access to basic technology through a mobile phone is enough,” says Tom Hulme, Nominet Trust 100 judge and general partner of Google Ventures. Increasingly, the most interesting applications will come from people putting technologies to use to solve problems in ways that often defy conventional wisdom. Look out, many more waves are on their way.
Charles Leadbeater is chair of the Nominet Trust.
Worldreader, a global non-profit set up in San Francisco, is using cheap ebook readers and mobile phones to make hundreds of thousands of ebooks available across the developing world. Created by David Risher, a former Amazon.com executive and Colin McElwee, a former academic, Worldreader has distributed more than 7,500 ebook readers to children in Africa, and more than 1.2 million digital books to children and teachers in 11 African countries.
Worldreader’s Mobile service, which allows books to be read on basic mobile phones, attracts more than 250,000 readers a month from all over the world (especially in sub-Saharan Africa and India), who read close to 20 million pages each month. These cover a wide variety of topics including educational material, health tips, love stories, prizewinning short stories, children’s books, classics and more, all on a device they already own: their mobile phone.
The organisation also helps local communities to become more self-sufficient by equipping them to digitise books, as well as to create content of their own and to repair ebook readers.
DuckDuckGo is a plucky little Philadelphia start-up doing the unthinkable: taking on Google’s near-monopoly in online search. The 20-strong team’s key difference is privacy: unlike Google, DuckDuckGo neither collects nor shares information, calling itself “the search engine that doesn’t track you”. It also has fewer ads and spam and doesn’t cross-promote services.
The site launched in 2008 and answered one billion search queries in 2013. With angel investors behind it, it has just been redesigned to look sleeker. Founder Gabriel Weinberg set out to build a search engine that was better than Google by developing an “instant answers” facility, which provides an immediate and direct answer to your search, gleaned from 50 top web sources such as Wikipedia, IMDb and Bing.
Weinberg, an MIT alumnus, says it’s the site’s privacy stance that is powering its rapid growth: “The data you share with your search engine is the most personal data [including, for instance, financial or medical problems]. You don’t hold back. I have a philosophical opposition to search engines that are set up to collect the maximal, not the minimal amount of information. This is not a fad. I think as people find out about [tracking and surveillance more] they’re going to be wanting to opt out.”
Mama is as simple as it could get: it texts life-saving health information to new and expectant mothers. The project began in Bangladesh, where 5,200 women died in 2013 from avoidable, pregnancy-related causes: it took just 18 months for 500,000 women to subscribe. Aponjon, its Bengali name, sends messages twice a week in SMS for those who can read or 60-second mini-audio-plays for those who cannot, with pregnancy and child-health-related storylines. They are free or just 2.5 US cents per text.
The project’s success and scalability led its founding partners to roll it out in South Africa and India where, like Bangladesh, there is a high coincidence of mobile phones and poor maternal health. The Mama (Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action) alliance has invested $10m to build tools and content used in 70 countries, reaching 1.2 million women and their families.
In South Africa, a country where 40 per cent of maternal deaths are HIV/Aids-related and there are more Sims than people, Mama South Africa launched in May 2013. “We have long known how to keep a pregnant woman healthy so she can deliver and raise a healthy, happy baby. With the spread of mobile phone technology, even to the poorest communities, we now have the ability to get that information directly into the hands of the women who need it most,” says Kirsten Gagnaire, executive director of Mama.
Duolingo is a wildly successful language-learning platform that cleverly matches the huge demand for good translation services with the abundant supply of students keen to learn a language for free.
Like many language courses, Duolingo allows students to practise their skills through translation. The difference with Duolingo is that some of these translations are for real clients, paying real money. Its students have the option to translate the texts, vote for the accuracy of the translations, and clients, which include the likes of CNN and BuzzFeed, cough up a fee which funds the programme. (The translation industry is lucrative: worth £15bn a year.)
The platform, which launched in 2012, already has more than 50 million users, its free app had one million downloads in its first month and it was selected by Apple as its iPhone App of the Year. It offers 39 courses, including Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, French, German and Italian for English speakers, and English for Russian, Polish, Japanese and Hindi speakers. The founder, Luis Von Ahn, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, funded the site with a MacArthur fellowship and plans to offer certification with a Duolingo language test you can take on your smartphone for $20.
Look behind most of the pioneering websites pushing the frontiers of government transparency in the US and you’ll see the vast majority were brought to you by the Sunlight Foundation.
From its launch in 2006 — founded by Ellen Miller and Michael Klein in response to growing concerns about the influence of money on politics — the Washington outfit has grown into a serious anti-corruption, activist organisation.
The Sunlight Foundation funds and builds popular digital tools that make it easy to navigate the complex machinery of US government, hold lawmakers to account and expose corruption. Their products and services, which often rest on access to big data, were used 400 million times in 2012.
Sites range from OpenCongress.org, which tracks legislation, to the Influence Explorer, which tracks campaign contributions and lobbying, and Ad Hawk, which identifies political ads as they air in the same way that Shazam identifies a song. There’s also Politwoops, which archives politicians’ deleted tweets — such as Jeff Miller’s questioning of Barack Obama’s citizenship.
Last year’s NT100 featured Cell Slider, an app from Cancer Research UK that harnessed the power of “citizen scientists” to classify images of cells, helping researchers move more quickly towards finding a cure for cancer. Cellslider’s citizen-science approach meant that in just three months, one million images were classified by people using the app. Reverse the Odds reached that milestone in just two weeks.
Combining state-of-the-art game design, expertise in data analysis and remarkable production values, Reverse the Odds is a mobile puzzle where players are challenged to save a race of adorable minions within a magical world. The mini-puzzles are enough to engage thousands of players but in helping these colourful creatures, players are actually analysing real cancer data, which helps the scientists at Cancer Research UK to move more quickly to finding cures. The charity has terabytes of images of cells that can only be analysed by humans — computers can’t identify the patterns required.
Human rights activists are under threat around the world, often subject to violence, torture or kidnapping. These individuals are on the front line of repression and harassment from their own governments for carrying out their legitimate work and exposing human rights abuses.
When faced with danger of arrest, attack or torture, there is very often no time for activists to alert colleagues about their situation or to seek assistance. This leaves them in a precarious position without friends, families and colleagues knowing anything about their whereabouts or being able to take immediate action to help them.
In 2014, Tanya O’Carroll, technology and human rights officer at Amnesty, and her colleague Danna Ingleton, working with partners iilab, engine room and Frontline Defenders, launched a new app designed to allow activists to quickly hit a “panic button” through their mobile phone. This immediately sends out a pre-customised message and location information to three selected contacts.
Amnesty won a Google Impact Award of £100,000 in 2013 to launch the app globally, and to train more than 100 activists in 16 countries in how to use it most effectively.
Innovations in finance such as crowdfunding, using digital technologies, are feeding the entire field of digital social innovation. In low-income countries, poor people are often denied access to credit, financial services and economic opportunities. LendwithCARE.org is a microfinance site developed by leading aid agency CARE International to help people lift themselves out of poverty.
It lets you browse the profiles and small business ideas of people in 10 countries, from Cambodia to Bosnia, Pakistan to Ecuador. You simply click “Lend Now” on a candidate, select a sum starting from a minimum of £15, then Check Out.
CARE International, through its network of microfinance institutes (MFIs) vets, gives training and manages the repayment of your loan, as well as providing updates on how your money has made a difference. You also get the choice of whether to reinvest your money at the end of a loan to seed-fund another entrepreneur, donate your money to CARE International or withdraw your capital.
DonorsChoose, meanwhile, is an almighty US crowdfunding site. American teachers post details of materials and experiences they want their economically disadvantaged students to have but which the public purse will not fund.
It has grown from a tiny experiment by Charles Best, a 25-year-old teacher, to see if he could raise funds to get 10 small-scale classroom projects off the ground in his school in the Bronx in 2000, to a national education platform. DonorsChoose generated $58m in 2013, with 1.2 million donors choosing 400,000 projects listed by 175,000 teachers and supporting 10 million students.
HarassMap is an Egyptian innovation to crowd-map sexual harassment, in a country where 83 per cent of women, and 98 per cent of foreign women, have experienced sexual abuse and assault.
The NGO, founded by Rebecca Chiao and three other women in 2010, uses the same technology as Ushahidi did in mapping violence in Kenya’s 2007 elections. Anyone can report and detail each instance of an attack, filed by category, from ogling and catcalling, to indecent exposure and rape, using their mobile phone to upload information to a database which then generates the map.
Victims get an instant, automated message of support including where to get legal aid, psychological counselling, learn self-defence and how to make a police report. The data generated allows the NGO to properly measure the problem of sexual harassment for the first time and help engineer a shift in how the Egyptian media reports sexual attacks. It also gives their network of 1,500 trained volunteers the ammunition to make sexual abuse socially unacceptable by challenging community norms, using hard facts.
HarassMap has a distressingly large potential market. The group has given training and technical assistance to activists from 28 other countries to run similar projects, everywhere from Palestine and Yemen to Bangladesh, Pakistan, Syria, India and the UK.
2014 Nominet Trust 100
The complete list of ventures to make it on to the 2014 Nominet Trust 100 can be found at socialtech.org.uk/nominet-trust-100. The 2014 Nominet Trust 100 judging panel was chaired by Annika Small, CEO of Nominet Trust, and included: Tom Hulme, general partner of Google Ventures; Sherry Coutu, angel investor and entrepreneur; Dawn Austwick, chief executive of the Big Lottery Fund; Nick O’Donohue, CEO of Big Society Capital; Simon Devonshire, director of Wayra Europe accelerator; Dickie Armour, internet entrepreneur; Lucy Bernholz, senior fellow at the Stanford University Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society; Alice Fishburn, deputy editor of FT Weekend Magazine; and Charles Leadbeater, chair of Nominet Trust.
Photographs: Getty; Worldreader; Timoteo Freccia for Not Impossible; Mama; Peek
Be alerted on FT Magazine