The Sounds and Effects of Impact Innovation in Emerging Worlds

by Beth Zonis

Can you hear innovation?

Hushed chatter. Chairs scraping against the floor. Someone jumping up and down. Footsteps running. A loud exclamation. A drone buzzing around the room. Giggles. The tapping sounds of computer keyboards. Fist bumps. Smart phones ringing with phone calls and texts.

These are the sounds of innovators ideating and creating solutions that will change a billion lives. They are developing technological prototypes using mobile devices, machine learning, crowdsourcing, Big Data, and the Internet of Things.

They could be anywhere in the world. However, these young people are in Hyderabad, Mumbai, and Nashik, India, working with a unique innovation platform that Professor Ramesh Raskar and members of the MIT Media Lab’s Camera Culture group helped make possible.

A Selective Program

The innovators have been carefully selected from independent applications and applicants from collaborating institutions; they are talented students and young entrepreneurs who apply to participate in a year-long innovation program. They are leveraging their knowledge of the local market, they know where the needs are, and they have a good sense of what kinds of inventions are most likely to work.

Emerging Worlds at the Media Lab

Emerging Worlds, a new Special Interest Group at the MIT Media Lab, has developed a platform that enables innovative, bottom-up, citizen-based technologies to address pressing problems in areas such as health, education, financial inclusion, housing, and agriculture. These “emerging worlds” — cities, states, or regions — present great opportunities to test and deploy truly innovative, non-conventional ideas. One initial focus is a collaboration in India that convenes people with diverse interests, skills, and backgrounds—such as young engineers, business people, and designers—to work openly with government officials, business leaders, and academics.

Several times per year, a team from the MIT Media Lab participates in week-long camps or buildathons to advance inventions. These efforts foster relationships that are critical to the innovation ecosystem. Government, industry, and academic leaders, as well as other stakeholders, provide mentoring and advice. Media Lab members are critical to this equation, both as participants during the week-long camps, and also as advisors throughout the year. Government officials work closely with the teams to ensure that the inventions are relevant and that they get traction in the market.

The innovators and others in the ecosystem are inspired by the opportunity to create big things, and also to work alongside Media Lab researchers, some of the world’s most brilliant scientists and engineers. In the process, the innovators are empowered, and they become smart citizens.

“We are firmly committed to identifying and encouraging creative inventors from all walks of life who share a passion for addressing the world’s most pressing problems.”
– Joi Ito, Director of the MIT Media Lab

A Sampling of Projects from MIT and Collaborating Institutions

For your eyes

How can we determine the peripheral vision of babies who cannot yet communicate in words? How can a visually impaired person use augmented reality? How can we create an eye prosthesis that fits all patients comfortably? The teams in Hyderabad are collaborating with the L V Prasad Eye Institute to develop solutions to these problems. Having served close to 20 million patients to date, LVPEI has the capacity to test solutions in the hospital, and help refine them so that they can support thousands of patients in India and perhaps millions of people worldwide.

To your health

How can we detect emotions with great accuracy, by using facial scans? How can we diagnose skin conditions, such as skin cancer, with a device that you wear like a cuff? How can we detect carie-causing bacteria in saliva, without a visit to the dentist? In Mumbai, the Welingkar Institute of Management Development & Research (WeSchool) hosts a visual health diagnostic-focused innovation center that is addressing these questions.

Cities can pop up anywhere

Pop-up cities may be controlled or uncontrolled, predictable or unpredictable. In any case, how can we track and manage crowds in order to avoid congestion and stampedes, using data from cell phone towers or foot traffic? How can we enable people who don’t know the local language to navigate the city on their own, without a smart phone? How can we provide sufficient and low-cost housing for millions of people on short notice? How can we monitor crowds of people for epidemic outbreaks? How can we distribute healthy food in a low-cost and efficient manner?

Teams in Nashik deployed solutions to these problems at the Kumbh Mela festival that attracted 30 million visitors in a four-week period in August and September 2015. Innovation teams will continue to explore new solutions and further develop some of these solutions to make them relevant to other large and pop-up cities, such as religious festivals, refugee camps, sporting events, and concerts. These solutions empower smart citizens for smart cities.

Digital citizens

Billions of people around the world are becoming newly digital citizens. There are many possibilities for new solutions in health, education, transport, agriculture, food, hospitality, and finance. There are great opportunities to connect digital and physical layers and to leapfrog existing technologies from the developed world.

The World is Our Lab

Now that the platform has been proven in India, we will explore the possibility of new innovation efforts across the globe, with specific interest initially in Slovakia, Mexico, and Brazil. Each location will identify grand challenges, host a buildathon camp, and maintain an ongoing relationship with the Media Lab, mentors, stakeholders in the local ecosystem, and local innovators. Selected innovators could be given opportunities to spend time at the MIT Media Lab, and Lab researchers could utilize the centers to test their innovations. This movement of talent strengthens us all.

“Our aim is to solve billion-dollar problems that will touch a billion lives. The whole world is our lab.”
– Professor Ramesh Raskar, head of the Camera Culture group and leader of the MIT Media Lab’s Emerging Worlds Special Interest Group

Beth Zonis is an innovation strategist with the Emerging Worlds SIG at the MIT Media Lab.

Photos by John Werner.