November 4

Rolf Huber

Identifying and Connecting Promising #Socents: Siemens Stiftung awards meant to help bottom-up solutions achieve high-level goals

Photo: A man pays for water in Mungetho, north of Nairobi. Photo by Frank Schultze/Zeitenspiegel


In September, global leaders met to discuss the goals for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Once again they renewed their commitment to reducing poverty, promoting clean energy and ensuring the fair use of resources. Once again they agreed upon the role of technology and innovation as critical underlying factors for change.

This aligns with the work we do at Siemens Stiftung, the charitable foundation of Siemens AG, where we strive to combine economic, environmental and social development so that change can be achieved on many levels. We believe this integrated focus will drive innovation in developed and emerging economies. (Note: The author is managing director of the board of Siemens Stiftung.)

Based on our experiences working in these regions, we value using basic technologies to help tackle deficits in basic supply. We see that appropriate technologies can make a substantial difference. And, the best thing is, these technologies are already available today. The challenge is deploying them in the right way. In this context, the key challenge is to create links between the people with the ideas and those people working on the ground, who have local knowledge of how the product might work. Then comes ensuring that people benefit from the sustainable business models created around the technologies.

Siemens Stiftung is supporting this vision with a global initiative that seeks to identify low-tech innovation and provide a lively platform for inventors and social entrepreneurs developing low-cost engineering solutions, to get their ideas out to the people who stand to benefit most. Our second “empowering people. Award” is searching for the next generation of affordable technologies that can help the world’s most vulnerable people build a better life for themselves. Designed to benefit people without access to crucial basic services, the competition offers change-makers all over the world the chance to submit promising technologies embedded in business models. These social businesses are not only ready to scale up and replicate, they are crucially ready to make a difference.

We’re talking about sustainable technology for development. But what do we mean by that?

Varied technologies are already playing a key role in promoting social, environmental and economic development. One of our award winners in 2012 manufactures sanitary pads using recycled products such as papyrus and paper waste, which are available locally. Building a business around this basic-needs product, the company Technology for Tomorrow Limited employs women from a refugee camp in Uganda, providing them with a source of income. This high-impact product enables schooling for girls who are otherwise stigmatised once a month.

Or, consider the growing energy sector. The price of solar energy has fallen, resulting in a surge of energy entrepreneurs using the technology in some of the poorest parts of the world. In 2012, SolarKiosk started operations with one kiosk in Ethiopia. To date this company has delivered more than 100 kiosks across Africa and Asia. This is a fast-evolving sector and we expect the next stage of solar solutions could be more mini-grids for African villages, and more community solutions. This is sustainable technology and illustrates the kind of solutions we are looking for.

These models and their local success suggest an opportunity for wider roll-out to solve similar issues around the world. However, it’s not that simple. We have found that there are two common barriers faced by those developing sustainable technologies: one is having a network of contacts necessary to bring a design to market and the other is the ability to scale up solutions to make them sustainable and more widely accessible.

To address these issues, we have developed a two-pronged approach: Identify such promising technologies through the award, so we can add them to our ever-growing solutions database available to the international development community and, in particular, to financial backers and organisations working on the ground; and connect these innovators on a common platform and offer them help where they need it. This includes scaling up their business, marketing their solutions or simply providing a forum for discussion, networking and creative exchange.

We hope that this will encourage and fast-track them so that they can introduce their vital products to the regions in which they are so needed. Sustainable development cannot pause for breath, it must be continual if we are to fulfil the goals laid out in the 2030 agenda.

The “empowering people. Award” is open to inventors until Nov. 30.


Rolf Huber is the managing director of the board of Siemens Stiftung.


Photo courtesy of Frank Schultze / Siemens Stiftung.

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