Pamela Hartigan

Guest Post: Imagining Sustainable Solutions

I am an unlikely choice to judge the final round of an event that touts itself as the “world’s premier student technology competition”. Ask any of my tech-savvy and much younger co-workers – and when they stop laughing at the thought -they will undoubtedly and forcefully concur that I am technology-challenged. But there I was, one of five judges that came together in Cairo at the beginning of July for Microsoft’s Imagine Cup 2009 Worldwide Finals.

For the more cynical, Microsoft’s investment of millions of dollars to plan and stage this event is a good way of getting college students focused on IT hooked on its products, if they aren’t already. But for me, a true believer in the power of markets as an instrument of positive social change, the event’s most important outcome was getting IT students to realize excitedly that, as one team noted, “it is not just about writing lines and lines of codes and making money… it is more about creating a human solution touching communities and making a difference”. So Kudos to Microsoft!

But why did I agree to participate, given my technology handicap? Well, I find working with college and graduate students as exciting as working with entrepreneurs with a social mission. Why else would I have agreed to head up Oxford’s Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Said Business School after a decade of identifying the world’s leading social entrepreneurs and their exemplary teams?

For me, it is equally energizing to be with the leaders of the future as with the innovators of today. And while my focus is on MBA students and the business school curriculum, which as we are painfully aware desperately needs to change, it was enormously exciting to realize that thousands of university students specializing in IT are also keen to apply their talents to addressing some of the world’s most important challenges[2].

And I only saw a small fraction of the finalists – the five that were in the “Design for Development Award“. Their focus was to create a software solution that is accessible and relevant to the 5 billion people who live on less than US$8 a day. With the UN Millennium Development Goals as their North Star, students were challenged to “Imagine a world where technology helps solve the toughest problems facing us today”.

So who were the finalists? As one who spent over a decade in the area of public health, I was delighted that three teams had chosen to focus on health – and two on environment, which is of course strongly related to health.

For me, the most innovative was Unique Studio, the team from China’s Huazhong University of Science and Technology. This impressive group of four 18 to 22 year olds had invented an embedded device hooked up to a stethoscope and a basic mobile phone. It allows rural doctors in remote regions to diagnose childhood pneumonia, one of the biggest killers of poor children, mainly because rural doctors do not have the expertise to diagnose it.

This cheap and easy to use device allows the rural doctor to collect the child’s lung sound and transmit it through the mobile phone to an expert -usually working in the city – who conducts the diagnosis by receiving the mobile signal with a computer and analyzing the results- telemedicine meets the mobile phone.

What motivated them to pursue this path? One of the team member’s four year old cousins living in the countryside died of pneumonia while the team debated which of the 8 Millennium Development Goals to pursue. That clinched the decision. And as they worked and refined the technology and saw its impact among those rural doctors and experts who were testing it, they became more committed to ensuring they deployed the solution. Next steps? Piloting it in the hospital attached to Tongji medical school.

The most amusing presentation – and perhaps the most widely replicable technology – was created by Cosmic, another team of four students, this time from Universiti Sains Malaysia. Their challenge? The health system’s reliance on paper-based vaccination records and in-person visits to remind parents about missed vaccinations, a costly and ineffective system resulting in a high number of vaccination defaulters. The team had come up with a highly replicable web based immunization registry which allows for local health workers, doctors and nurses to manage immunization records and send vaccination reminders to parents via SMS. It also provides easy retrieval of vaccination records by healthcare providers and individuals worldwide via the website or SMS – which to date has been a nightmare. I could certainly see this tool as one that could be implemented widely, not just in Malaysia! (Team Cosmic was the eventual winner of the award).

The other groups included a Ugandan team with a solution for farmers and traders to buy and sell crops through an SMS based auctioning system as well as providing weather forecasts, market information and agricultural advice via SMS; an Indonesian team with an SMS system that reminds TB patients to take their daily medication; the approach includes motivational messages and a help line where patients can get answers to TB-related problems via SMS. Finally, Capricorn, the second Malaysian team, gave a powerful presentation on their online and offline application of agricultural information and alerts to farmers via SMS.

But there was one aspect that was less well developed in all five presentations – and which justified perhaps my being on this distinguished judging panel. To a greater or lesser degree, each team needed to focus more clearly on its business model. While it was exciting to see how these projects were leveraging the SMS and voice capabilities present in basic mobile phones to solve problems of the poor, it was not clear how these projects would be implemented and become financially sustainable.

And this is where the current crop of ’socially-committed MBAs’ can help (that is no longer an oxymoron). The critical need for multi-disciplinary teams to come up with simple, effective, user-centered, replicable and SUSTAINABLE solutions to challenges of the current and future billions is more urgent now than ever before. Perhaps next year’s Imagine Cup can include IT teams with MBAs?

Imagine that??