Sonal Shah and ICTs in Social Innovation

If you did not see Sonal Shah’s speech tonight, you missed out. She was inspiring and discussed a lot of topics that we have been talking about in class. Her background is diverse. Shah most recently has been serving as the Director of the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation in the White House. She has worked in development initiatives by holding positions in the U.S. government as well as in the private sector at Google.org as the head of Global Development Initiatives and Goldman Sachs. Shah also co-founded a non-profit Indicorps, which offers fellowships for people of Indian origin to volunteer in India.

Tonight she spoke on social innovation and sited some of the business models that should serve as models for future businesses. Shah mentioned Ushahidi as an example of a successful social business model and Sarvajal as a franchise model using technology in a productive way. The organization enlists local entrepreneurs to operate and distribute clean water to villages in Africa from company-owned filtration units. They provide maintenance, marketing and back-end operations support. They are able to track water production and quality, control filtration operations remotely, and manage maintenance issues before they occur with the usage of ICTs such as mobile phones. Their business model is for-profit and making a social impact.

Shah mentioned another institution using SMS notifications: the U.S. government. Low income women can sign up for cell phone alerts to notify them of what they need to be doing in terms of proper health care with the text4baby initiative. Since most of these women use texting over the Internet, it is proving to be widely successful. The cell phone companies provide free texting. This is an example of a public-private partnership as the U.S. government, Johnson and Johnson, and a few non-governmental organizations are in collaboration.

Shah emphasized the need for new businesses models and innovative solutions that make an impact. Our generation needs to break the barriers and change the models that are not working. We can start by creating a wedge into the model and making a successful change that others will want to follow. This can be applied to ICT initiatives especially in the for-profit world.  It is exciting to see that ICTs are gaining attention in all sectors by successes in tackling environmental and social issues.

Sonal Shah: http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/sonal-shah/gIQAWBsq6O_topic.html

Sarvajal: http://www.sarvajal.com/

Text4baby:  http://www.text4baby.org/

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One response to “Sonal Shah and ICTs in Social Innovation

  • jessalynkunz

    I was not able to attend Sonal’s speech on Wednesday night, but amazingly she showed up at my Application to Development class the next day. She spoke about some similar things that you mentioned in your post. I was especially surprised about how much she talked about ICT4D projects. One of my favorite things she said was in response to a question about failed projects she has had. She made it very clear that the main reason a project would not be successful was because of a lack of local acceptance or real need of the service they were providing. She gave a good reminder that even if we as the implemeters or inventors think a population needs our product or service it doesn’t mean they want it.
    Sonal also made the point that even if a projet doesn’t fail, it won’t always have the outcome we necessarily wanted. She had a extreme frisbee project in India that was supposed to cause a social connectedness between the different groups among the youth. Instead of bringing the community together however, teams would form based on their traditional divisions, now just with good sports teams. Although this project isn’t direcly related to ICT4D, its a good representation of the different results you can experience in any development project.

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