When the term wearables is mentioned most people’s first thoughts go to devices like the Apple Watch, Fitbit Flex, or Nike Fuel Band. Wearables such as these solve first-world problems like how much exercise am I getting, or what is my heart rate. The developed world drives the development of new technology in most cases, and wearables are no exception. Nevertheless we see many instances where our toys and gadgets become important problem solvers for developing countries.
There are many examples of the application of high tech devices to solve developing world problems. Cell phones have brought communication to remote and hard to ‘wire’ locations. LED’s, lithium batteries and solar panels have brought light to places that had to rely on flame based light sources previously. Incidentally my son, Kevin Simon, is working at MIT on developing highly efficient water pumps for the farmers of developing nations that are optimized for solar and small scale power sources.
Many of us are familiar with UNICEF. It is the wing of the United Nations that is solely focused on improving the welfare of children in the developing world. UNICEF has 7 pillars that they relentlessly focus on: Health, Education, HIV/AIDS, Water, Sanitation/Hygiene, Child Protection, and Social Inclusion. UNICEF is partnering with ARM and the design firm frog to explore how wearables can effect dramatic change for the children in the developing world. This initiative is called Wearables for Good. They have set up a web site and have published collateral material.
At the heart of this effort is achallenge open to anyone who has an idea or wants to build something to use wearable and sensor technology that serves people in resource constrained environments. From now until August 4[SUP]th[/SUP] anyone is welcome to apply to participate. The combined resources of UNICEF, ARM and frog will be available to coach and advise applicants. After a project refinement phase, final judging will take place from October 2[SUP]nd[/SUP] to Novemer 2[SUP]nd[/SUP], when the winners will be announced. There is an excellent handbook for applicants to learn about considerations and guidelines that is available on their website.
The handbook talks in more detail about what is meant by wearable technology. Despite our preconceptions, they have expanded the idea to include mobile technology that is not only on a wrist or ankle. Wearables can be devices that are close at hand, worn, or even ingested. They need to do one or more of four things: Alert/Respond, Diagnose/ Treat/Refer, Change Behavior, and/or Collect/Analyze Data. At the same time these wearables must live within a design approach that includes these characteristics: Cost effective, low power, rugged & durable, and scalable.
Designing things for the developing world is tricky. They have to work in an environment that must be fully understood. There are cultural issues, infrastructure limitations, and all sorts of pitfalls, such as limited resources for repair and deployment. Users may not have skills that we take for granted. There are even political barriers, such as privacy concerns. The handbook has a list of use cases that are suggested as possible areas of focus. One of them suggests helping alert people in dense slums when there is a fire. Another is looking for a way to modify people’s behavior so they wash their hands more frequently, thus reducing disease. One of the most compelling was helping to document births so people have official ‘identities.’ Without birth records, it is impossible for individuals to get aid, education and even own property. They suggest that a portable/wearable device that could be used in remote villages to record birth records and convey them to official agencies to alleviate this problem.
ARM is offering its development tools and mentoring from their wearable tech experts to help bring projects to fruition. The design firm frog is making available its design and product strategy expertise to the winners. frog is the renowned company that had a hand in the distinctive design of many of Apple’s products. Finally UNICEF has a network of innovation labs and many partners that can provide valuable insight into the real world needs to the ultimate users.
Probably the best ideas will not come from someone in who grew up in Palo Alto or New York City, but rather someone who has encountered the environments where the final projects are destined to operate. The invitation to the challenge is casting a big net and there will be entries from all over the world. It’s exciting to see opportunities for applying technology to address pressing problems around the world. The value here will be a lot more than a higher stock price or better revenues – people’s lives will be improved in significant ways. When you read about the preventable infant mortality rate or the numbers of preventable infections in developing nations, it is clear that this could be a truly meaningful effort.