In 1879, Thomas Edison unveiled his incandescent light bulb. Within six years, electric power had spread across the nation and ignited an explosion of invention that created new industries and thousands of jobs and transformed every aspect of society. A century later, in 1978, Steve Jobs introduced the Apple personal computer and unleashed another wave of innovation that reaffirmed our faith in the power and potential of technology to drive human progress.
I was reminded just how high our expectations are for technology at two events in September: the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Frontiers of Development conference and the Clinton Global Initiative’s annual meeting, each of which showcased inventions, tools and concepts to improve public health and raise living standards. A few of the breakthrough innovations highlighted at these events or in recently announced grants include:
- New medicines and medical devices to improve maternal and neonatal health care, such as chlorhexidine, a low-cost antiseptic gel that could reduce neonatal death rates by more than a third
- The use of text messages to promote positive behaviors in everything from primary health care to agricultural decision making
- Mobile apps for money transfers and digital payment systems, education and skills development, real-time data collection and improvement in the quality and responsiveness of public services
- Solar power to light homes, recharge cell phones and provide off-grid communities with access to affordable electric power
Twenty-first century innovations are bringing a host of new actors and investors into the struggle to end extreme poverty. We now see giant multinationals alongside feisty start-ups; impact investors and local nongovernmental organizations; and inspired individuals, such as Jorge Odón, an Argentine car mechanic who developed a tool to ease difficult births. The development landscape is more diverse and dynamic than ever.
This new crowdsourcing of development solutions is exciting. But, there is also a danger that the allure of technology — and our fascination with it — will seduce us into concentrating our efforts on technical fixes when, in fact, there simply is no miracle pill or ingenious device for many of the most intractable problems facing us.
Confronting human development challenges takes more than 21st century technology. Our embrace of new technical solutions must be matched with attention to the far less celebrated, day-by-day work of diffusing innovations so that they are adopted and put into practice.