By Leah Laucher
Photo Credit: John Werner
Ramesh Raskar was returning to his car after a conference in LA, when an unusual sign caught his eye. It was meant to be a friendly reminder to double check that any personal belongings, such as CDs or a camera, hadn’t been left behind. It struck him as odd that things that were once a part of our everyday lives had begun to gradually disappear.
Raskar pondered what would be next. “Things that we thought were really critical and stand-alone are disappearing into the fabric of our lives.“ Even things we still deem necessary ⏤ like keys and wallets ⏤ are nearing their end. On a larger scale, imagine receiving healthcare without hospitals; learning without schools; growing food without farms; or transacting in currencies that aren’t mandated by the government. This is the scale in which Raskar thinks.
Raskar is head of the Camera Culture Group and an Associate Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at the MIT Media Lab. He and his team developed a platform called Emerging Worlds, which focuses on the intersection of emerging technologies and emerging communities. Their primary focus is finding solutions for today’s most pressing challenges in India and other developing countries.
In July, Raskar spoke to over a hundred innovators and entrepreneurs at an MIT Emerging Worlds workshop in Mumbai, in collaboration with ReDx (MIT Media Lab) and the WeSchool (Welingkar Institute). The event centered around using impact innovation to solve grand challenges.
Traditional innovation is an incremental process, and progress is sometimes slow because it’s based on linear progression. Impact innovation, on the other hand, combines innovative ideas with cutting-edge technology to leapfrog forward and achieve game-changing results.
How can one-dollar wearables change our society? How can smart objects perform more efficiently? And how can we spread predictive health throughout all communities? Questions like these are shifting perspectives toward innovations that could impact the next 5 billion people.
Making an Impact
Raskar’s mentor, Desh Deshpande, says that there are three types of people ⏤ tolerators, complainers, and problem-solvers. Obviously, problem-solvers seem like the go-to preference; however, Deshpande emphasized that a balance of all three is necessary for change within a community. But a balance isn’t the norm.
Consider a talent-rich environment like Silicon Valley, filled with brilliant and innovative people who likely think of themselves as problem-solvers. Unfortunately, many of them are working on problems that affect only a small number of people. Because it’s such a talent-rich group, a small percentage of them will eventually go on to focus on problems that actually matter to society.
In most of the world, however, problem-solvers are scarce. There’s no time to work on non-priority problems first. Furthermore, innovation models used in places like Silicon Valley simply don’t work for the rest of the world because they stem from traditional innovation models.
The way Raskar sees it, innovation and impact are different from startup and venture models. That’s why Emerging Worlds is passionate about models that can scale. They want to look beyond the Internet of Things, Big Data, and digital citizens to how we can leapfrog through technologies in order to solve problems.
For Raskar, the journey began with the question of how to solve the problem of vision for people in need of prescription glasses ⏤ poor vision often leads to illiteracy and unemployment. He and his team invented a hand-held device called EyeNetra that provides an immediate, low-cost prescription for nearsightedness, farsightedness, and astigmatism. It has done incredibly well.
Success aside, however, Raskar felt that this solution was a somewhat inefficient way to address the billions of people in need of eye care. With a larger goal in mind, his team spawned a new innovation platform called the REDX Model (Rethinking Engineering Design eXecution). They collaborated with the L V Prasad Eye Institute to launch LVP MITra ⏤ a unique program designed to build and deploy the next generation of screening, diagnostic and therapeutic tools for eye care ⏤ and have been making incredible advancements in eye care ever since.
Raskar then took that model a step further to consider how innovators can move beyond contests and hackathons, incubators and accelerators to make the most difference.
Building a Culture of Innovation
Raskar sees co-innovation as the most promising route for solving the grand challenges of our time. Emerging Worlds has worked in India throughout the past four years ⏤ collaborating with corporate leaders, business leaders, educational institutes, small businesses, and corporate partners ⏤ to discuss solutions that could truly make an impact. During this time, Raskar and his team have been delighted by the sheer number of people that have come together with a shared vision for impact innovation. For Raskar, it was a great experience “to see how we can expand our thinking.”
There are now three permanent co-innovation centers in India (Hyderabad, Mumbai, and Nashik) with the purpose of tackling major problems that most startups simply aren’t interested in. Instead of investing in e-commerce or dating apps, Raskar and the Emerging World initiative want to create solutions that will influence and improve billions of people’s lives.
These co-innovation centers will take a close look at solutions like monetizing garbage, automating a blood supply chain, and viewing crime in an entirely new way. How can one-dollar wearables impact issues like school attendance or improve transport system efficiency? How can we create detailed maps and solutions for agriculture using satellite imaging?
They’ll look at new ways to improve and expand healthcare, asking questions like: How can we significantly advance instrumentation? And even further, how can we go beyond thinking about simply advancing medical instruments or doctors?
The list goes on, and it will always be evolving ⏤ along with the questions, ideas and solutions. Raskar hopes that the success of this model “will inspire others to think of innovation” in far greater terms than just venture or entrepreneurship.
At an Emerging Worlds event in Mumbai in July 2016, Dr. Raghunath Anant Mashelkar, one of India’s most prominent scientists, followed Raskar’s presentation with his own powerful talk. He pressed the need to shift our innovative vision to encompass billions of people. “India is at the tipping point. Its potential impact is enormous.” “We are talking about over 1.25 billion ⏤ you make an impact on 25,000, it means nothing.”
Whether it’s an outdated sign or a decades-old movie, reminders of how rapidly the world is changing are all around us. As a society, we can continue to try and solve problems the same way we have in the past, or we can embrace Raskar’s vision and forge a new world where technology and collaboration empower citizens to create impactful innovations to truly change the world.