Emerging Technologies

How robotics can help humanitarians bridge the digital divide

Image: WeRobotics

Viviana Laperchia
Communication Manager, WeRobotics
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This article is part of: Annual Meeting of the New Champions

The aura surrounding robots, AI and drone technology is a dazzling mixture of hype and alarmism, from drones saving lives and protecting the environment, to robots stealing humans’ jobs and threatening our emotional intelligence. Behind these tensions in the public perception, there is an even more urgent question that needs to be addressed:

Is the growing presence of new technologies increasing the digital divide?

While the truth is usually to be found somewhere in the middle, largely untold facts about organizations localizing the use of robotics in the global south to foster job and economic growth might provide useful new perspectives.

The 4IR’s inequality effect

In his book The Fourth Industrial Revolution, the founder and Chairman of the World Economic Forum, Klaus Schwab, lays out a realistic description of the current technological uprising and its incredible potential, and the way it will impact if not utterly disrupt how we live, work and interact with our world.

However, he also warns against some of its most dangerous pitfalls, which may lead to a more segregated job market where the divide between “low-skill/low-pay” and “high-skill/high-pay” segments only grows bigger. “In the future, talent, more than capital, will represent the critical factor of production,” Schwab wrote in an article that addresses how to respond to the inevitable repercussions of Industry 4.0.

While new technologies translate as an immediate benefit for the developed world’s countries – they simplify our lives, provide entertainment and create job opportunities for future generations – limited access to the same resources in emerging economies from an educational and professional perspective cannot but fuel economic inequality.

In a recent interview with WSIS Forum 2018, Sonja Betschart, the co-founder and chief entrepreneurship officer of WeRobotics, explained how robotics can, indeed, be part of the solution when placed in the hands of local people.


Just recently, the Foundation for Ecological Security (FES) has endowed Indian villagers with mapping technology skills to help them manage 50 million hectares of “wasteland” that had been previously confiscated by the government. The Composite Land Assessment and Restoration Tool (CART) is an open-sourced software that allows for an easy assessment of slopes, rocks or porosity. For local trainees, it’s a chance at exiting poverty.

Humanitarianism in the age of 4IR

As early as 1962, professor Everett Rogers explained in his book Diffusion of Innovations that the adoption of innovative technologies is influenced by factors including the technology itself and our social system.

Today, well over 60% of international organizations are already favourable to integrating drones to support their humanitarian efforts, opening the door to job opportunities for highly skilled drone pilots, data scientists and the likes. Notwithstanding, hiring local drone pilots in the global south is still not common practice for many global humanitarian stakeholders involved in disaster resilience.

It is crucial that young people in emerging economies learn marketable skills so that they can be used by international humanitarian organizations such as the United Nations or the World Bank for local crisis management. Knowledge transfer, education and training of robotics for social good are the answer to counterbalance the inequalities emerging as a result of technological innovation.


As a local extension of WeRobotics in Africa, Latin America, Asia and South Pacific, the Flying Labs consist of local drone and data experts who liaise with a variety of local stakeholders such as NGOs, government agencies, youth, entrepreneurs and like-minded organizations, and even incubate businesses with the goal of building capacity, creating jobs and foster economic growth.

Whether to improve disaster risk management, public health services in remote areas, environmental or development efforts, organizations are moving away from a more conservative approach to “localization” and working toward a bottom-up sustainable system that trains local talent.

The sustainability challenge

Localization in the aid sector is generally intended as a collective effort from public and international players to empower communities in countries with limited resources to participate in disaster-response operations at a local level. However, a recent IRIN report sheds some light on how localization programs discussed in the first ever World Humanitarian Summit in 2016 to “reform the way aid is delivered” have now suddenly come to a halt.

The gap between slow advancement of complex humanitarian reforms on the one hand and fast development of robotic manufacturing on the other has contributed in the past two years to create ideal conditions for leaner and more innovative nonprofits to flourish at a surprising speed.

It is challenging, yet of utmost importance that organizations who leverage emerging technologies as a way to foster the economic development have a sustainable business model that supports and integrates the following areas:

1. Demand: Understanding local needs and their local prioritization

2. Offer: Viable solutions to meet such needs

3. Technology: Assessing the feasibility of a technology to facilitate the exchange between offer and demand

“It’s very easy to get hung up on the technology and lose sight of the impact we want to make,” says Betschart. “New technologies naturally come with excitement, legislations and other factors that can make us lose sight of the bigger picture.” In the end, a sector solution – be it CGIAR’s interest in Drones for Agriculture, the tech-focused WILDLABS, the humanitarian data network DataKind, or other social good-driven initiatives – is the answer to building local markets and promoting economic equality.

With the Fourth Industrial Revolution in full swing, robots, AI and drones are here to stay, but need to be made accessible to the most vulnerable. The key to bridging the digital divide between emerging and established economies is not just robotics for social good, but a sustainable sharing of new technological skills that sees local communities in full control of their countries’ future.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Emerging TechnologiesFourth Industrial RevolutionNature and BiodiversityGeographies in DepthEquity, Diversity and Inclusion
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