Wearables For Good: Unicef Challenges The Tech Industry


Adam Forrest, Contributor

May 26, 2015

Apple and other tech giants are banking on a growing market for wearables, the smart devices making it easier to connect, communicate and monitor your fitness.

Now that the Apple Watch is strapped to the wrist of early adopters, the industry is expected to take off. Analysts predict a revenue-generating market of $22.9 billion by 2020.

But what if wearables were put to problem-solving use in the developing world? Could smart, wearable devices offer something more than convenience? Could they be life-changing, even life-saving?

UNICEF thinks so. The humanitarian charity has challenged the design world to come up with devices that work for people in the poorest and most remote parts of the world. Erica Kochi, cofounder of UNICEF Innovation, has talked of wearables which are “not just nice to have, but that people need to have”.

UNICEF has partnered with design firms ARM and Frog to launch the Wearables for Good initiative. It’s a contest to find a wearable device offering a solution “to pressing maternal, newborn or child health problems”. Two winners will be selected following the August 4 deadline, and each will receive $15,000 funding and mentoring from ARM and Frog.

Is UNICEF expecting too much from technology? Is the potential for wearable technology in danger of becoming over-hyped? Back in 1979, Douglas Adams’ novel “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” dismisses people on Earth as “so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.”

They may be the “pretty neat” consumer products of 2015, but can smartwatches (or smartwatch-like devices) really solve urgent, fundamental problems in the rural economies of the developing world?

The most encouraging comparison is the cellphone. Affordable cellphones have become widespread and transformative in the Global South. They are used not only to communicate, but to open bank accounts, manage small loans and connect up to pay-as-you-go solar technology.

UNICEF hopes new wearable technology might be the next revolution in mobile technology. Wearable devices could used to monitor and diagnose health needs in pregnant mothers, or encourage behavioral changes around things like washing hands. They could also be used to capture data about the safety of water wells or even alert people quickly to fires.

A wearable, after all, is simply something worn as a solution to a problem. Unicef actually already uses some low-tech wearables, like the multicolored arm measuring tape which shows whether a child is receiving enough nutrition. Or the Embrace infant warmer – a sleeping bag containing a wax-like substance to help prematurely born babies regulate their temperature.

They demonstrate how useful wearables have already been, and suggest how much more effective they could be with digital advances.

There are still big technical challenges, like making sure products have enough battery life in remote places. And there will be questions about data collection and privacy. If, for example, everybody in a refugee camp is to be outfitted with a digital band to monitor their health, how do you ensure people consent to wearing them?

But the possible advantages of wearable devices are huge. And UNICEF’s initiative is a reminder that the latest in neat consumer technology might also provide neat solutions to life-threatening problems in some of the poorest parts of the world.

This article was written by Adam Forrest from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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