Originally published on The Guardian on 24 September, 2015. To view the original article, click here.
Innovation is the lifeblood of business – from the way rethinking hospitality has made Airbnb into one of the most talked-about brands (with a value of $20-$25bn (£13-£16bn), and the number of users roughly doubling each year since 2012), to Google’s determination to keep creating new ventures despite its position as the world’s most-used search engine. But innovation also has the potential to make a real difference to the lives of children around the world.
The private sector has a history of innovating in this area. Notable developments include ready-to-use therapeutic food, known under the brand name Plumpy’Nut – a high-calorie peanut paste used to counter malnutrition – and the India Mark II hand pump, which gives communities access to water in developing countries.
The Children’s Rights and Business Principles call on companies to support children’s rights or to take voluntary actions that advance their rights through core business activities, strategic social investments, public policy engagement and partnership with other stakeholders. But there are also strong business arguments for engaging in this type of investment.
Erica Kochi, co-lead and co-founder for UNICEF Innovation, which works with the private sector to develop solutions for children in poor and marginalised communities, thinks the reasons are two-fold.
“Secondly, it’s good for employee retention. People want to feel what they do is meaningful. When we talk to our private sector partners, that’s very much on their mind.”
ARM Holdings, which designs and licenses processing technology for digital products, is one of the companies accelerating progress in this area. In partnership with UNICEF and designer Frog, ARM launched the Wearables for Good initiative, which challenges developers, designers, problem-solvers and individuals to come up with “innovative, affordable solutions to make wearables and sensor technology a game-changer for women and children across the world”. Most wearable technology is still in the fitness and wellbeing space, but their potential extends to life-enhancing and life-saving applications.
There have been over 250 registrations from six continents, and the two winning ideas will be selected by November. The three organisations involved will then provide support and mentoring to make the idea a reality.
Of course, there are challenges that come with innovating for poor or marginalised communities. Even if a product is using the latest technology, for example, there may be barriers in terms of access to power or connectivity so designs must be appropriate for the particular environment in which it will be used. “In some places, there’ll be no cellular connection at all, or having a battery is going to be the wrong way to go,” says Ferguson. “I fully expect to see entries where the power source is not mains-powered and not battery-powered, and I’m sure we’ll see a whole load of energy-harvesting technologies.”
Royal Philips is another brand furthering innovation on child wellbeing. Through the Philips Foundation, it participates in the Maker Movement project in Nairobi, Kenya. Run in partnership with UNICEF, it supports entrepreneurs to create, prototype and scale up maternal and newborn child health solutions that address the needs of low-resource settings. The Philips Foundation is also one of five founding partners and steering committee members of the UNICEF Global Innovation Centre (GIC).
One initiative to have come out of GIC is the U-Report. This text message-based tool empowers young people to express their opinions about issues in their communities, and enables governments to identify trends and problems in real time. In Uganda, its use helped get a bill before parliament to ban corporal punishment in schools. As of September 2015, U-Report is live in 17 countries, available globally via Twitter and more than 1.6 million people send and receive messages every week.
Mobile operator Telenor, meanwhile, is looking at the possibility of using mobile phones to enable parents to register the birth of their child, in an effort to raise registration rates in Sindh and Punjab, Pakistan. Without a formal identity, children are much less likely to access health and education services and won’t be able to vote in later life, yet according to Kochi, only one in three children in the world are officially registered.
Looking ahead, there are a number of innovation areas identified by UNICEF as having a largely untapped potential. “We’re talking about wearables and sensor technology, logistics and transport, identity and personal data, learning and education, and financial inclusion,” adds Kochi.
“Probably the most striking example of private company innovation in this area is mobile finance: the ability to send, receive and save money,” said Kochi. “It’s really transforming the way people can access the global economy and is so important for remittances (people working abroad and sending money home). A lot of economic opportunities rely on those remittances. I also think it could provide a safety net for those families living in extreme poverty. But how do we build that?”
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