Last week, the winners of the UNICEF Wearables for Good challenge traveled to San Francisco, California, for a “design sprint” at the UNICEF Innovation Lab.
Devex caught up with the teams behind Khushi Baby and SoaPen — the two organizations awarded $15,000 for the social impact potential of their wearable and sensor products — to find out what winning the challenge means to them.
Both teams agreed that spending time at Frog, the product strategy and design firm that houses the UNICEF Innovation Lab, helped them put users at the center of their design ideas. Together with Frog, the design teams zeroed in on strategies to ensure wearable devices deliver real outcomes in low resource settings.
SoaPen is piloting a wearable and portable soap with a crayon shape that encourages handwashing among children ages 3 to 6. One of the “aha” moments for the SoaPen team came from Terra Weikel of the UNICEF innovation team. She encouraged them to identify positive deviants — community members who are promoting better hygiene practices — figure out what drives them, then find a way to leverage their influence.
The teams behind Khushi Baby and SoaPen told Devex that design thinking, or working around the needs of end users, is part of what set them apart from 250 submissions from 46 countries around the world. But they said they found a lot of value in coming together with human centered design experts — like Frog designers who are increasingly taking on global development projects — around Post Its, Play-Doh, and Sharpies.
Blair Palmer, the innovation lab lead at UNICEF, told Devex the goals of the Wearables for Good challenge go beyond providing the two winning teams with concepts, funds and connections to further their work. It is also about provoking more people in Silicon Valley and around the world to consider the potential social applications of sensor technology as more of the world comes online. The challenge also demonstrates how development organizations can play a key role in supporting new or unproven technologies with broad potential benefits beyond counting steps, the popular wearable FitBit’s signature fitness contribution.
UNICEF’s innovation challenge is not the only pathway to developing wearable technology with social applications. Neopenda, a global health startup focused on wearables for newborns in developing countries, did not apply for the Wearables for Good challenge. Its team is looking at other competitions and challenges such as the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Saving Lives at Birth initiative and Innovation Into Action; and the team has launched a KickStarter crowdfunding campaign for its first field deployment in Uganda.
But while KickStarter funding typically comes without the bureaucratic delays that often accompany large grants, donor-driven challenges like Wearables for Good carry their own advantages: such as connection. Palmer made sure the SoaPen and Khushi Baby teams met with some of the leading innovators in Silicon Valley, from Factory X — which is dedicated to launching purpose driven companies — to GoogleX, a research and development facility that is a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc. For the design sprint, they divided up and learned from UNICEF mentors and “Frogs,” as the designers call themselves, before presenting to each other.
The Khushi Baby team is working with India’s Ministry of Health to build out a mobile health app. They took this design sprint as an opportunity to talk about the product’s functionality before tackling questions about its look and feel.
Contests like Wearables for Good also benefit their organizers — in this case, UNICEF, Frog, and ARM, a microprocessor company. By mentoring and incubating organizations like these, they can also learn from and leverage their models.
At the design sprint UNICEF Innovation Co-founder Erica Kochi asked the Khushi Baby team why they would not build on an app that already exists, like a UNICEF mobile app in India. They said they are not looking to duplicate apps that already exist, but rather to build something new that other designers can replicate.
“Through rebuilding, we’re discovering a lot of things most mHealth apps don’t consider,” said Ruchit Nagar, a cofounder of Khushi Baby.
Catherine Cheney covers the West Coast global development community for Devex. Since graduating from Yale University, where she earned bachelor's and master's degrees in political science, Catherine has worked as a reporter and editor for a range of publications including World Politics Review, POLITICO, and NationSwell, a media company and membership network she helped to build. She is also an ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network and the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute.
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