We traditionally think about solving the world’s most intractable problems — providing clean drinking water, eradicating disease, and feeding the world’s growing billions — as being so immense that only the most powerful governments and multilateral institutions could solve them. But that may not be the case. Thanks to the emergence of tech philanthropy in places such as Silicon Valley, new innovations that are cheap, local and high-tech could upend everything we thought we knew about global development.
Take, for example, the Slingshot water purification system invented by Dean Kamen — the same entrepreneur who gave us the Segway and the FIRST robotics competitions. As Kamen explains in a documentary short about the Slingshot, this innovation has so much power to change the world simply because nearly one half of all diseases around the world can be traced back to pathogens in polluted water supplies. Using approximately the same power required to power a hair dryer, it’s now possible to provide clean drinking water every day in nearly any community in the world. (On Stephen Colbert’s TV show in 2008, Kamen even jokingly admitted that it could purify a “50-gallon drum of urine”). Each Slingshot machine is capable of producing 30 liters of distilled water per hour.
Now imagine thousands of these machines, operating all over the world, working 24/7 to create clean drinking water. All of a sudden, you’re talking about the types of exponential gains promised by Silicon Valley.
That’s the thinking behind a new initiative funded by Coca-Cola that plans to bring the Slingshot — in addition to electricity and free Internet — to over 20 countries and more than 1,000 communities around the globe by 2015. The company’s new EKOCENTER kiosks — essentially giant shipping containers that can be plunked down anywhere in the world — are powered by solar panels, have satellite dishes for wireless communication and feature the Slingshot water purification system. Coke, which unveiled new details about its vision for the EKOCENTER concept at the recent Clinton Global Initiative in New York, already has one functioning prototype in South Africa. Coke’s experiment will start in places such as Ghana, Paraguay and South Africa before being rolled out around the world. The goal is nothing less than to reach the four billion people around the world who subsist on less than $2 per day.
There is, perhaps, a limit to what tech philanthropy can achieve on a global scale. Some plans proposed by tech innovators sound a bit quixotic — such as Google’s plans to bring Internet connectivity to the world by way of hot air balloon. Others — such as Coke’s EKOCENTER kiosks – might strike some as being a bit too capitalistic (assuming, of course, that Coke decides to sell Coca-Cola at the same time it’s handing out free Internet and clean drinking water to the world’s billions). Yet, at a time when the financial limitations of the U.S. government are clear, it’s much more likely that the current generation of forward-thinking tech entrepreneurs with innovations that can be shared at the grassroots level will be more effective than large institutions and big governments in solving the world’s problems.
As Malcolm Gladwell suggests in his new book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants, sometimes disadvantages can work in our favor. In the case of David and Goliath, it turns out that tiny David armed only with a slingshot against a massive Goliath had the upper hand, if only because he was more nimble and more agile. In the same way, it may turn out to be that the modern tech philanthropists and social entrepreneurs are like the tiny David armed only with a slingshot against a massive Goliath. Instead of looking for a complex and sophisticated solution to these problems — or assuming that the disadvantages in the fight to solve humanity’s problems were just too great to even try — it may turn out that all we needed was a bit of tech-agility and a Slingshot.