Original article published on Barron’s blog on 19 May 2015. To read the original article, click here

Apple‘s (AAPL) Apple Watch is nice, but some people are still ponder the question that has haunted wearable tech as a category for some time: Why do I need this thing?

And so it was with perhaps a wink and a nod that a group of smart people on Tuesday morning set out to explore more profound terrain for wearables at a panel discussion at the offices of theNew York Academy of Sciences at the World Trade Center in Manhattan.

Simon Segars, chief executive of ARM Holdings (ARMH), the chip design powerhouse that is the brains of most of the world’s semiconductors including those inside wearables, was on stage with Erica Kochi, the head of the eight-year-old “innovation labs” tech effort of UNICEF, the non-profit that does lots of good for children in over 190 countries around the world.

They were joined by Andy Zimmerman, president of famed industrial design house Frog Design, and by Ellis Rubinstein of the Academy, to announce a competition to design truly useful wearable tech for the developing world, something called “wearables for good.”

The competition has some first key dates to assess progress and results of September andNovember of this year, although Segars noted this is intended as the start of a multi-year collaboration with UNICEF. More information can be found about the competition at wearablesforgood.com.

The idea is to take wearable technology into places fraught with everyday challenges: helping a mother with limited access to health care know how her pregnancy is faring; helping remind people to wash their hands, say.

Never mind counting your steps or remembering to go for a run, “hand washing is one of the most imprint things you can do for your health,” noted Kochi. “It’s the kind of thing that if we it was done more regularly throughout the world, we could avoid a lot of deaths.”

One astute audience member pointed out that users of fitness bracelets and the like don’t always know what, if anything, to do with the data on the “quantified self” that is divined using these gadgets. Won’t the same issue bedevil efforts of this kind?

Kochi pointed out things could be different if wearables in the developing world are linked to services, such as a bracelet that might detect malnourishment in a child and also have a wireless link to relay that information to health care providers.

There’s a precedent: Kochi noted, in answer to my question about what wearables are already used, that there is a very inexpensive, simple device to see if a baby is malnourished, called a “MUAC,” an acronym for “middle upper arm circumference,” a piece of tough paper used like a tape measure that an aid worker slips around a baby’s arm to measure whether the fat on them indicates sufficient nourishment. The tape tells the aid worker instantly, via color-coded green, yellow and red strips, if everything’s okay, not as good as could be, or near a danger point for the child.

Segars, who himself sports a Motorola 360 smartwatch, noted that a lot of wearables in the first word “are interesting, but what we are talking about here are successful projects with a purpose.

Each party offered up their expertise: Frog Design’s Zimmerman expects the studio to both act as coaches to those competing to design wearables, and also to compel interest and enthusiasm through its many connections to design centers and its vast network of design alumni.

Segars noted ARM’s many industry partnerships could bring companies in with substantial resources, providing there’s also a business case for selling products and services.

Kochi offered that UNICEF’s substantial knowledge on the ground makes such a partnership more effective.

Ellis, a “lapsed journalist,” by his own admission, provided some of the most interesting perspective to things. He noted that innovations in the developing world would eventually pay dividends in the first world, where there are plenty of instances of things that could be ultimate ultimately done better here in the States.

“We have thousands of children who are homeless, right here, in this city, and parents who don’t know how to provide food to their babies and educate them the way a middle class family would,” said Ellis.

An interesting note for tech heads is that Kochi and her team have already had some successes with technology. They have used an open source software toolkit called RapidPro to design applications such as “UReport,” which is a way to let kids in schools text to the authorities in a country whenever they witness instances of abuse in their school. She said the program has led to policy changes in places such as Uganda — things such as banning corporal punishment of students.

 

I asked at the end whether tech is really a preferable solution to the many other ways to help, such as pouring money into communities, building a new hospital, brining in more aid workers. Kochi responded that it doesn’t have to be either or

“Technology is one way, and it’s not either, or,” said Kochi. “It’s how do we user technology to deliver value in our social programs and how do we use it to deliver business value as well?” she said.

“Dumping a whole bunch of money in, or technology, for that matter, never works. You have to be in these communities and for business, it is the same thing: to know your customer or end user.”

Segars added that “technology can actually make some of the other programs going on more effective — you may not be able to build a massive hospital in a certain area, for example. Technology may make what’s invested more effective.”

It’s a fair point: technologists and designers hoping not to have the only answer, but at least one good one in the context of a technology that’s gotten some substantial skepticism in the market.

Here’s hoping they get lots of success for a very good cause.

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