Erica Dhawan

Legatum Conference: Progress Through Innovation in Action

Editor’s Note: This post first appeared on the Beyond Profit blog.

This image was the winner of the Legatum Photo Competition India track, in which women, trained by engineers, prepare food with solar cookers to sell to people in neighboring villages.

If you believe in these type of products and services that engage citizens and are commercially sustainable, then check out the buzz about the Progress through Innovation Legatum conference, held on October 2, 2009.

When I arrived Friday morning, I was thrilled to see such a diverse audience. The hall was filled with attendees ranging from entrepreneurs, investors, media, think-tanks, non-profits, business executives, and students.

The welcome remarks from Iqbal Quadir, Founder and Director of the Legatum Center at MIT, portrayed parallels with the most recent Economist piece on Mobile Money and referenced the 140th birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, a man who took individual action to bring about change. The panels and keynotes included a cross section of thought leaders in government, entrepreneurship, and development. Some key highlights were:

  • Keynote morning address from Esko Aho, former prime minister of Finland, who emphasized that the world did not face a lack of technology, but rather a lack of innovation.
  • A panel on “Entrepreneurs” including Sriram Raghavan, head of Comat, Lisa Conte, head of Napo Pharmaceuticals, and Tokunbo Talabi, CEO of Superflux, who stressed how systemic change started from bottom up approaches.
  • Inventors, such as Tod Machover, an innovator in music and Dean Kamen, who invented a $2000 generator that runs entirely on cow dung and a water purifier that makes 1,000 liters of water every day.
  • A panel on how the Internet is helping to empower people in low-income countries and Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the World Wide Web, who highlighted how 80% of humanity still does not use the internet.

The most dynamic panel of the day was on “Investing in Low Income Countries” moderated by Magatte Wade-Marchand. Alvaro Arregui, founder of IGNIA Fund, highlighted the important link between risk and perceived risk, asserting that in order for working with the poor to become “lower risk”, attitudes needs to change. Runa Alam, who launched Development Partners International, believed that investing in low income countries is as good as investing anywhere else in the world. Magatte Wade Marchand, founder of Adina, affirmed her vision to make Africa the sustainable manufacturer of the world.

Every social problem is a business opportunity. By 2050, the world’s GDP will be in emerging markets. The Legatum conference inspired me to get back to work to solve the key issues in organic economic growth and to address the underlying deep-rooted social and political problems.