Insights from the Tech Awards on ways to improve lives using technology

Laureates of The Tech Awards. Photo by: The Tech Awards

One night a year, leaders in the technology and innovation sector gather for what some call the Oscars of Silicon Valley, where in a glamorous setting they turn their attention to the importance of not so glamorous technologies.

Launched in 2000, The Tech Awards is a program of the Tech Museum of Innovation, located in San Jose, California. This year was a retrospective of the past 15 years was recognizing technology that benefits humanity. Devex spoke with some of the leaders gathered about the ways innovation can improve lives in low resource settings.

“The key lessons were that smart, dedicated innovators who invest the time to learn what people living in poverty around the world actually want and need, can develop technological solutions that really make a difference,” said Craig Stephens, director of the public health program at Santa Clara University, and judging supervisor for The Tech Awards.

“It requires a commitment to work closely with people in need, the patience to learn as you go and keep refining the technology, and the courage to overcome adversity. The laureates we recognized were truly in it for the long haul, not short-term rewards,” he said.

The 2016 laureates honored onstage were selected from the 294 winners of past years of the Tech Awards. Of course, one of the criteria was scale of impact, but past Tech Awards honoree David Risher, the founder of the San Francisco-based nonprofit Worldreader, said that looks really different depending on the intervention, whether the focus is educating children or developing vaccines.

“From my perspective I don't see a lot of limits to the ways technology can address big problems, but the rate of change will be uneven based on how quick the payback is,” he told Devex.

Ensuring innovation in Silicon Valley is put to better global use requires a combination of understanding the user, leveraging partnerships across the public and private sectors, and finding new channels for distribution, PATH CEO Steve Davis told Devex. The Seattle-based global health organization received what was the equivalent of a lifetime achievement award, created specifically for PATH, in recognition for all that it’s done in scaling impact, said Leslie Zane, director of the Tech Awards.

Steve Davis of PATH talks with Devex about taking innovation to scale at the Tech Awards in Silicon Valley in November.

Technology can certainly help with scale but it can also help with visibility.

“If you took the world and you randomly reassorted it so that rich people on average would live next to people in developing world conditions, you’d walk down your block and say, those people are starving. Did you meet that mother over there? Her child just died. And of course basic human instinct would kick in,” Bill Gates said at the 2006 Tech Awards, where he was recognized for his work on global poverty at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “And yet because it’s not visible that doesn’t happen. Now technology can help us bridge some of that gap.”  

The Tech Awards do not frame technology as the solution in and of itself, but rather as a means to a solution, Ronni Goldfarb, the founder of Equal Access International, told Devex. She said she hopes that as the awards program evolves it can continue to champion this message in an area where it can sometime fall on deaf ears.

“Technology is just an enabler,” she told Devex. “Our model is being recognized and there is something fundamentally not technological about our model.”

When Equal Access International was first recognized at the Tech Awards in 2003, it was just launching in Nepal, but this year the organization received the 2016 Tech Award in the Microsoft Education Category in recognition of its dramatic expansion since to nine countries in Asia and Africa.

“Getting to impact is so much more than the technology,” said Krista Donaldson, the founder and CEO of D-Rev, which develops medical technologies for the poor. “All of us have developed systems, and a great product is one component of the system.”

D-Rev’s model is focused on delivering products to the people who need it and is motivated by the philosophy that technology does nothing when it sits on a shelf. In fact, D-Rev goes beyond human centered design, calling itself user obsessed, which means constantly talking about the end users and every person along the supply chain.

“Technology can help solve issues of global poverty — but critically, we all need to think about how that technology gets to the people who need it, and ensure they want to — and can — use it until something better comes along,” she told Devex.

Nithya Ramanathan of Nexleaf Analytics, a past winner of the Tech Awards, joins Devex for a Facebook Live conversation at the Social Capital Markets conference in September.

Tech For Global Good, a new initiative to recognize technology benefiting humanity was launched at the event in an effort to help spread the message beyond the annual event’s attendees. The initiative will include ongoing exhibits and events at The Tech Museum of Innovation to reach the 400,000 people who visit each year.

Hopefully this evolving model to recognize technology that improves lives can be part of what teaches Silicon Valley “that a great idea and a cool gadget or some clever software” won't be enough to solve the kinds of problems outlined in the sustainable development goals, Stephens told Devex.

“Technology can have a fantastic impact, but making a difference in the lives of impoverished or otherwise disadvantaged communities around the world requires meeting, learning from, and empathizing with these people,” he said. “It requires prototyping and testing, and working with people that may be very difficult to reach in many ways.”

There is no quick and easy path to “saving the world,” he added, explaining that it takes hard work, beyond what could ever fit in an awards acceptance speech, to go from innovation to impact.

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About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.