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Technology Is Useless If It Doesn't Address A Human Need

Facebook is great for checking out photos of your exes and all, but for social innovators working in the developing world, there’s no point to new technologies unless they make life better for the people they’re trying to help.

When our Women Barefoot Solar Engineers return to their isolated rural villages in the poorest countries, finish setting up their workshops and solar electrifying their communities, then what? How do we build capacity once their training time with us is over? How do we allow them to keep communicating and reinforcing the strong bonds built during their courses?

These are just a few of the questions we needed a solution to. We found the answer in the Skoll Foundation and Sundance workshop, Stories of Change Impact Lab, earlier this year. We were asked to craft a solution to a "pain point" in our organization, Barefoot College, which among other programming, trains women to become solar engineers. It was an uncomfortable process.

In guiding an organization that has, for 40 years, been defined by its human approach, it’s been a redefining year. We need to collaborate with technology to support a very fast scale-up within several of our Barefoot Solution areas, but it’s not our comfort zone.

Social media, for example, presents an inner conflict for organizations like ours. We are constantly challenging ourselves. What can we live without? Rather than what more do we need to have?

In the Lab, we were asked, "What were the bottlenecks to our growth and sustainability"? It was daunting, largely because introspection for any organization can be an uncomfortable process. With programming in more than 38 countries, self-criticism is an intricate and time consuming exercise. We focus so much of our energy on our programming. We had definitely never approached the solving of an operational challenge through a design-centric process.

We sat down with experts from Google, Frog Design and Firebelly U., who listened and learned, then quietly opened the doors to possibilities we never imagined.

How can our illiterate and semi-literate grandmothers use technology to tell the stories of their ongoing transformation once they return home? How can we help them communicate, measure, and evaluate their success? A challenge, indeed, but one crucial to our ensuring sustainability and full-scaling the "Barefoot Approach."

I’m sharing this story because simply participating in the Lab was "potentially disruptive." What we learned through the four-month process, which ended in a week of identifying and pitching a solution, went far beyond our expectations. It did not disrupt our focus, as we thought it might. It taught us a new thought process for analysis of challenges. I went into the process thinking we had no limits to our creativity and resourcefulness, but realizing our information deficit in and of itself, was a limitation.

Silicon Valley expanded our learnings around innovative process. We learned what key-placed resources can catalyze within an organization, essential to maximizing and leveraging them to drive more significant change.

We in turn can teach Silicon Valley about the human link between the design function and the impact for a human being’s quality of life. We do not regard the users of technology as "customers," but as human beings whose lives must be improved by the demystification of and access to technology. Otherwise, technology has no place in the basic human needs we see in the developing world. Sustainable design of technology must address real challenges; this is non-negotiable for us. Social enterprise stands alone in its responsibility to ensuring sustainability and impact in every possible aspect of our work.

What came out of the Lab, you might ask? The Barefoot Tablet. It’s a solution beyond our imagination. It’s a device designed for the 850 million illiterate in the world who are excluded from most of what is designed in Silicon Valley. It is purely visual and intuitive, can withstand tough conditions and lets the women Barefoot Solar engineers communicate in different languages based on audio input.

Now, we can break down the transformation of our students and understand where we can support them. We know how to use a narrative approach to trace their experiences.

We faced a challenge we had not clearly defined, with a group of people we did not know, in a place far away from those we are dedicated to working beside. We could not have placed ourselves in a more uncomfortable position—nor have come away with a richer learning experience because of it.

One risk taker always recognizes another. They are both repelled and attracted to the other. This is what connects us. It’s more likely the self-introspection and critique that forms the discipline of how we apply each other’s principles and innovations.

It is not so much what Silicon Valley can teach social entrepreneurs, or what we can teach Silicon Valley, but the opportunity to teach and learn outside our comfort zones. That’s what drives maximum impact, great innovation, and the best solutions.