Social Innovation

5 examples of responsible technology: a new initiative puts AI to work for communities

Social innovator, Barefoot Law, uses AI-linked digital legal information and services with community stakeholders.

Social innovator, Barefoot Law, uses AI-linked digital legal information and services with community stakeholders.

Jean-Philippe Courtois
Executive Vice-President and President, National Transformation Partnerships, Microsoft
Claudio Sassaki
Entrepreneur in Residence, Stanford University, USA
Adedoyin Omidiran
Initiatives Lead, Global Alliance For Social Entrepreneurship, World Economic Forum
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Emerging Technologies

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • As businesses explore the vast array of AI applications, the potential for the technology to create positive impact is also receiving widespread attention.
  • Social innovators are leading the way in demonstrating the practical applications of various AI tools in their social enterprises.
  • A new initiative by the Schwab Foundation’s Global Alliance for Social Entrepreneurship, co-initiated by Microsoft, mobilizes support for social innovators and their support ecosystem to responsibly implement the AI for impact.

At the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting 2024 in Davos, the Schwab Foundation’s Global Alliance for Social Entrepreneurship has launched a new landmark initiative on AI for Social Innovation, co-initiated by Microsoft and supported by EY. This collaboration between social innovators, impact investors, academics, ecosystem actors and technology leaders – such as Microsoft, SAP, Salesforce and Verizon – aims to mobilize support for social innovators to adopt AI for positive impact. It highlights successful applications of the technology to benefit communities around the world and develops practitioner-led guardrails for its responsible implementation.

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Artificial intelligence (AI) has rapidly become the go-to technology for businesses to improve efficiency and reshape their business models. But AI also bears the opportunity to scale positive impact. Imagine a rural farmer using AI to learn when to plant his seeds or a mother in a remote village accessing AI-driven health advice for her sick child.

These scenarios are part of 450 AI use cases, highlighting AI's deepest impact in sectors like enterprise intelligence, healthcare, and agriculture. This transformative potential of AI is widely acknowledged. Yet, key questions remain around “how” it can be deployed responsibly to materialize these benefits. The new initiative supports social innovators and their ecosystems as they are already exploring and implementing AI for positive impact.

The following five examples have been awarded by the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, and some of them were part of Microsoft’s “Entrepreneurship for Positive Impact” programme. They showcase how AI can be put to use for creating and scaling positive impact - whether at the core of the operations of a social enterprise or as an enabler to grow their footprint:

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

'Access to justice using natural language models and machine learning'

Gerald Abila, Founder, Barefoot Law, Uganda

In a nation with one solicitor to twenty-thousand individuals, obtaining answers to fundamental and legal queries can imply survival or demise, and authority or disempowerment.

Gerald Abila and Barefoot Law are closing this gap by supplying a solution that utilises the substantial mobile digital penetration in Uganda. Employing a blended approach that integrates technology with individuals, Barefoot Law’s solution links digital legal information and services with community stakeholders. The company initially launched using only an iPhone 3GS to disseminate legal information. Today, the enterprise deploys an AI solution named Winnie, an AI-lawyer that provides pro-bono legal services to Ugandans, especially citizens of rural communities who would not otherwise access legal redress. The machine learning model complements existing tools to provide first-line, quality legal services. To date, Barefoot Law's solution has facilitated over 800,000 users to access their services and resolved over 20,000 cases.

'AI-enabled learning for children’s education'

Sooin Lee, CEO, Enuma Inc., worldwide

Enuma Inc. is a mission driven education technology startup that aims to enhance children's literacy and promote their learning autonomy regardless of diverse backgrounds. By utilising the company's proprietary curriculum and tablet hardware, children with developmental requirements, in migrant situations or who reside in underprivileged areas with limited digital access can teach themselves basic literacy and numeracy skills through gamified learning. Currently deployed in over 20 markets (including Iraq, Tanzania, Korea and the US) and using native languages, including Swahili, Malay, English, and Korean, Enuma's products utilise generative AI, including language learning models, for both the development of its learning infrastructure and the interactive educational activities in its curriculum.

It has collaborated with global organizations, including the UN, to deliver AI-enabled education to Rohingya refugee children, to support their language needs.

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How is the World Economic Forum creating guardrails for Artificial Intelligence?

'Creating impact at the intersection of technology and conservation'

Tasso Azevedo, Founder, MapBiomas, Brazil

In Brazil, the most biodiverse country in the world, conservation is of utmost importance. MapBiomas has a mission to lead the way in making Brazil the first net-zero country by improving land use changes using data. AI and machine learning tools are at the centre of this effort to reduce emissions and enable better decision-making processes for the conservation and protection of Indigenous people.

By utilising remote sensing technology, computer science and collaborating with local land use experts, MapBiomas has generated maps equivalent to 35 years' worth of work in a fraction of the time it would normally take using conventional techniques. Additionally, this measure ensures the protection of the rights belonging to both Indigenous and local communities, with data guiding the way. Its solution is made possible through the synergy of machine learning algorithms integrated with Google Earth's engine platform and live data sets hosted in Google Cloud storage, allowing data processing in real time.

'Philanthropic investments in large-scale AI-enabled solutions as digital public goods'

Shankar Maruwada, Co-Founder and CEO, EkStep Foundation, India

EkStep Foundation, a philanthropic organization based in India, which believes in designing for large-scale inclusive and public innovation, has been at the forefront of technology deployment long before AI gained popularity. Employing a multi-faceted strategy encompassing the development of digital public infrastructure, thought leadership and collaboration, as well as capacity building, it aims to improve crucial development outcomes at a systemic level, at the scale and diversity of India.

Anuvaad, an AI-based open-source platform backed by EkStep, assists in digitising and translating documents in Indic languages. Sunbird (sunbird.org), an open-source collective founded by the enterprise, has created a versatile, expandable set of digital building blocks that operates on open-source technology (MIT License). As a digital public good, Sunbird’s applications range across the public and private sectors, across sectors like education, skilling, health, agriculture, urban, legal and across countries, and are already having a positive impact on development outcomes.

The development of Diksha, the primary educational initiative by the Indian government, is built atop these Sunbird building blocks, which have empowered more than 180 million pupils and over 7 million educators to date, with more than 61 billion minutes of learning and 140 million teacher trainings completed.

'Improving digital solutions in low-data-access regions'

Njideka U. Harry, Founder, Youth for Technology Foundation, Nigeria and Kenya

Operating in in Nigeria and Kenya, countries with relatively low data and internet access rates, Youth for Technology (YFT) is not only committed to providing AI training to high-school and college-aged youth in these countries but is also strongly focused on ensuring that the training in turn contributes to the development of local language learning models.

As the speed of AI advances, experts and ethicists warn about inadequate diverse language models and non-representative data in the technology and the implication of these biases on development design and decision-making. YFT addresses this by collaborating with the private sector, international organizations, and government stakeholders to create a proprietary, dynamic curriculum to help develop homegrown AI solutions from the world's youngest continent and largest youth region.

Strengthening the support ecosystem around AI for impact

These examples showcase the role of AI for social impact. They highlight the importance of thoughtful and responsible AI application, showing that when used with care, AI can be a powerful ally in solving some of the most pressing issues facing our world. But to apply the technology more broadly, the ecosystem for social innovators needs to be educated, support mechanisms must be in place and guardrails need to guide entrepreneurs in how to apply the technology responsibly and without replicating historical biases.

The new initiative co-initiated between the Schwab Foundation’s Global Alliance for Social Entrepreneurship and Microsoft, supports this readiness of the sector and individual social entrepreneurs. It invites other technology leaders, companies, academics, impact investors, intermediaries and foundations to join its efforts to make a tangible difference in the lives of individuals and communities through technology.

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