Fast Company magazine has been around for decades…but is it relevant for digital development work? The publication was founded in 1995 at a time when business was changing the world in new ways. Today, 26 years later, we are still coming to terms with the ways that technologies are transforming the ways we work and live—especially during the COVID-19 global pandemic. As I work with clients and projects focused on digital development, the businesses and organizations featured in Fast Company offer new ideas, inspiration, and out-of-the-box thinking to those of us heads down in global development projects.
This week, I wanted to share some of the winners of Fast Company’s 2021 World-Changing Ideas Awards—and how these innovations could apply to our work. World Changing Ideas is one of Fast Company’s major annual awards programs and is focused on social good, seeking to elevate finished products and brave concepts that make the world better.
The overall winner this year is Microsoft’s Premonition Platform. This platform combines internet of things, artificial intelligence, and biology to attract mosquitos, capture them to test for diseases like malaria or zika, and monitor the presence of and spread of insect-borne pandemics across a network of hardware and software devices physically placed in a geographic area.
“The team built a new robotic platform that can attract mosquitoes and other bugs; a small, cube-shaped device emits CO2 and light to lure insects inside, then automatically identifies species and captures selected insects so their genes can later be analyzed to find critical information about viruses and larger animals that might be infected.”
Application: Platforms like Premonition present opportunities for digital development. Combining hardware and software tools to generate better data from dispersed, networked locations could revolutionize response and tracking in a host of areas. In addition, they could contribute to the global imperative to do a better job of prepping for pandemics. Overlaying opportunities for MakerLab hardware—using sensors and low cost, locally sourced materials, and open data tools could increase affordability and extend the benefits of these types of platforms to more emerging markets—solving digital development challenges and innovating locally.
The winner of the developing world technology category in Fast Company’s 2021 World Changing Ideas Awards—is a money storage solution that allows individuals to carry digital cash into Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda, where Leaf Global currently operates. “It is a digital wallet that goes with the customer wherever they go,” says the founder, X Samples. Leaf aims to reduce remittance costs by rolling out a distributed ledger (blockchain) based technology that works across different types of mobile devices. The company hopes to ultimately create a lending product to help refugees as they set up enterprises in new countries, so that these unbanked or underbanked individuals can benefit from a financial identity and transaction history.
Application: Development has seen serious innovation in the financial services space. What is interesting about this technology is that it is focused on digital cash in emerging markets from the outset and is already getting traction from other funders. I think iterating on new business models that can reduce costs and increase the speed of financial products to consumers—such as Leaf is doing through the use of blockchain tech—could take the digital financial services sector to the next level. COVID-19 has only underscored the importance of using digital cash transfers and also ensuring marginalized groups are not left behind.
Based in Rennes, France, Mahali—the winner of the Europe, Middle East, and Africa category of is backed by Paris-based mobile network, Orange. Mahali provides a way to link sellers with buyers and identify delivery locations based on descriptions rather than fixed addresses—given the dearth of physical addresses that exists for millions of people globally. Currently piloting in Cote d’Ivoire, the tool has the potential to integrate with the Orange Money platform in the near future.
Application: For e-commerce to achieve real momentum in lower- and middle-income countries, innovation is essential. The models that work in early adopting countries such as the United States won’t work unless we iterate on the significant barriers to scale such as a lack of physical addresses, payment channels, and overall trust between buyers and sellers. Opportunities to combine solutions to reduce multiple barriers simultaneously and partner with a mobile network operator like Orange, which has a 10 percent market share in Africa, are going to be key.
These are just three of the many winners of Fast Company’s 2021 World Changing Ideas Awards. I encourage you to check out the full list and look at these ideas and organizations as powerful allies in identifying equitable and appropriate digital development solutions that can continue to improve people’s lives. A little optimism goes a long way these days.