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6 ways social innovators are harnessing 4IR technologies for social change

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Schwab Foundation social innovators entrepreneurs children with technology tablets smartphones STEM education

From transforming healthcare to providing billions with a digital identity, social innovators are solving big challenges. Image: Enuma

Pavitra Raja
Community Lead, CEO Action Group On Nature Pillar, World Economic Forum
This article is part of: Global Technology Governance Summit

Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) technologies present us with myriad of opportunities for social and human services – reaching more people, especially those who are vulnerable, hard to reach or left behind – on our most vexing social and environmental problems.

Social innovators are tackling some of the world’s greatest threats with the aid of 4IR tools. The Schwab Foundation’s social entrepreneur community has improved the lives of more than 622 million people in 190 countries and distributed $6.7 billion in loans or value of products and services to improve livelihoods.

From transforming mental healthcare to providing a billion people with a digital identity, this is how social innovators are embracing the power of disruptive technologies to better solve the world’s big challenges.

Medical doctor Makoto Kitada demonstrates a telemedicine application service called 'CLINICS', developed by Japanese medical start-up Medley Inc., in Tokyo, Japan, July 8, 2020. Picture taken July 8, 2020.  REUTERS/Issei Kato - RC2CPH979SUE
Telemedicine is delivering accessible, affordable and accountable healthcare. Image: REUTERS/Issei Kato

The doctor is a call away – and telemedicine is here to stay

Sabahat Azim, CEO & Founder, Glocal Healthcare

Telemedicine comes in many shapes and sizes and offers many advantages over the traditional healthcare visit, but it is still largely underutilized. Sabahat Azim, CEO and Founder of Glocal Healthcare is changing that. Glocal Healthcare Systems is a process and technology-based healthcare platform focused on delivering accessible, affordable and accountable healthcare.

Glocal Healthcare was founded in 2010 in response to the vast need for healthcare services in India, especially in rural areas where more than 28 million people living in remote and under-served areas are estimated not to have access to affordable and accountable healthcare services.

Glocal Healthcare Systems is credited with achieving vast improvements in healthcare service delivery. Over the past 10 years, the company has built 10 fully functional, 100-bed multi-specialty hospitals in states including Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal. It has set up 250 digital dispensaries, which provide video consultations, examination, investigations and automated medicine dispensing.

"We all should feel privileged for the life we have got. We must try to do good for others and respect the support we have received from our parents. That is my philosophy in life, and I feel great if I can do something for my countrymen," says Azim.

Image: Enuma

Harnessing the power of Artificial Intelligence to foster social inclusion

Lindiwe Matlali, CEO & Founder, Africa Teen Geeks

“COVID-19 had catastrophic results for the developing countries – and the tragedy of trying to catch up in technological advancement can be worsened by exploitation of specific resources through techxploitation”, says Lindiwe Matlali, Founder and CEO of Africa Teen Geeks.

“Further the lack of policies further exacerbates the situation.”

Founded in 2014, Africa Teen Geeks is one of Africa’s largest computer science NGOs, impacting over 600,000 children and 10,000 teachers with 2,000 volunteers. The organization plugs a vital gap in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education in South Africa, where only 5% of South African schools are adequately prepared to teach these crucial subjects.

“Social entrepreneurs from developing countries should collaborate to promote systemic technological change in order to harness citizens potential and better equip them for the future,” says Matlali.

Africa Teen Geeks makes use of an AI-based learning platform MsZora, developed for STEM subjects and easily accessible to students regardless of their socio-economic circumstances.

“Africa Teen Geeks work is focused on giving young Africans the necessary skills as early as possible to equip them to take their future in their own hands through innovation and entrepreneurship,” Matlali explains.

Transforming addiction treatment

Lisa McLaughlin & Robin McIntosh, Co-Founders, Workit Health

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated digital innovation around the globe – including spurring a revolution in telemedicine. Digital rehab start-up Workit Health, which offers group meetings and one-on-one counselling in the comfort of people’s homes, now helps 10,000 people through its recovery platform – and it could be the key to tackling another epidemic afflicting the US: opioids.


In 2014, before the opioid epidemic was labelled as such, Workit Health co-founders Robin McIntosh and Lisa McLaughlin – who met at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Oakland – quit their jobs to find a way to “leverage technology to make recovery easier and cheaper”.

“If you can order your food online, but you can’t order your recovery online, it’s a crazy state of affairs. How hard do you have to fight to be sober and clean in this world?” said McIntosh.

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Fighting COVID-19 with location technology

Chris Sheldrick, Co-Founder and CEO, what3words

“In the battle against COVID-19, directing people, services and equipment from place to place efficiently and safely has been, quite literally, a matter of life and death,” says Chris Sheldrick, Co-Founder and CEO of what3words.

what3words is a global address system that divides the world into a grid of 3m x 3m squares, each allocated with a fixed and unique three-word address. This precise yet simple solution means that everyone can easily talk about a specific location.

“what3words is proving an essential tool for many UK health services, enabling them to direct volunteers, key workers and patients to the correct parts of Nightingale hospitals, or to testing and vaccination sites around the country,” explains Sheldrick.

“The Government has recommended our app to the UK’s nomadic population – those who live on boats or traveller sites – as a fast way to give their exact location in an emergency.”

“We’re very proud to see our technology helping people in such difficult times,” he says.


What is the World Economic Forum doing to champion social innovation?

Joseph Thompson, CEO & Co-Founder, Aid:Tech

A legal identity is about more than opening a bank account. Access to healthcare and your right to vote may depend on it. But just under 1 billion people in the world can’t prove who they are, according to the World Bank.

It’s an issue that Joseph Thompson has found a way to tackle. His start-up AID:Tech has created a digital app that allows people without official documents to create a personal legal identity.

Thompson’s app uses blockchain to preserve the user’s digital identity from interference, making it accessible only to the person whose ID it holds. As a digital solution, it goes with the grain of how many people in emerging economies manage their finances using smartphones.


“We’ve got projects in Tanzania where we had the first baby in the world born on the blockchain,” says Thompson. “The mother who gave birth – she owned the data for the child. So, she was building a data credit profile. She could prove she got the right medicine.”

AID:Tech, which recently signed off on a project that will help 2 million people, is also working on financial inclusion projects in Uganda, Nigeria and Southeast Asia. Now it’s turning its attention to helping the almost 40 million Europeans who lack access to financial services.

Concocting tasty scientific treats to better the planet

David Yeung, CEO & Founder, Green Monday

“With the global population soon to reach 10 billion, the current meat-reliant food system is bound to collapse, leading to pressing crises of climate change, food insecurity and public health,” says David Yeung, CEO and Founder of Green Monday.

Green Monday OmniPork
Asia's leading plant-based food company created a meatless pork. Image: Green Monday

Green Monday is one of Asia’s leading plant-based food companies. Green Monday is creating new social norms and offering viable alternatives to meat-based diets by empowering people to adopt a plant-based diet at least one day per week.

“We must rethink and re-engineer the entire food supply chain, with the reduction of animal protein being a top priority,” Yeung explains. “Alternative protein technology is a breakthrough that is win-win-win for the planet, human health and animal welfare.”

In 2018 the group created a meatless pork alternative, OmniPork, which debuted in mainland China via Alibaba in 2019. OmniPork has partnered with fast-food restaurants including Taco Bell and White Castle as well as local restaurants to expand its footprint.

Related topics:
Forum InstitutionalSocial InnovationEmerging TechnologiesFourth Industrial Revolution
The doctor is a call away – and telemedicine is here to stayHarnessing the power of Artificial Intelligence to foster social inclusionTransforming addiction treatmentFighting COVID-19 with location technologyGiving everyone a legal identityConcocting tasty scientific treats to better the planet

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