James Chen is founder of Clearly, a global campaign that seeks to address the challenge of poor vision, and accelerate a revolution in eye care. In this article he explores how innovators around the world could work together to generate ideas capable of tackling this global problem.
The speed and scale of the advances in technology today is incomprehensible.
In only a few weeks, the meteoric rise of ‘Pokémon Go’ has made augmented reality, which only a few years ago was the stuff of science fiction, utterly mainstream.
Just months ago, Amazon rolled out its grocery delivery service to the first postcodes in the UK. Suddenly, it doesn’t seem long until grocery-delivering-drones will be filling our skies and landing on our doorsteps.
Elsewhere, inventor Elon Musk has brought the goalposts forwards again on his space-race, announcing that we’ll put a man on Mars by 2024.
The pace of innovation can be dizzying, particularly when faced with seeming lack of progress in innovations designed to tackle the fundamental challenges still facing the developing world.
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When faced with the millions around the globe who still go without food, or the billions who go without a simple pair of corrective glasses, grocery-drones and augmented reality might seem an unnecessary investment.
In a time of such rapid tech innovation, can we claim that tech is really being used ‘for good’?
Innovation is good
Cynicism certainly lingers around the necessity of advances like UberEAT and many have questioned the necessity or value of developments like Amazon’s delivery drones or Google’s ‘Glass’.
However, the technology that drives Amazon’s grocery-delivering drones is now powering aircraft in Malawi, carrying HIV tests to hospital laboratories at transformational speeds.
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Trials by the startup Matternet in South East Africa are helping healthcare workers to overcome the existing unreliable and costly transport infrastructures, transforming connectivity between rural communities and city-centre hospitals, and eradicating the need for long-distance car journeys.
Elsewhere, drone technology is also powering vehicles delivering vital blood transfusions and vaccinations to rural healthcentres in Rwanda.
In east Africa, an estimated 325 women per 100,000 die every year as a result of hemorrhage during childbirth. Today, Zipline, the California-based robotics company, is delivering life-saving blood supplies to those women, cutting delivery times from a number of days to 40 minutes.
The potential of drone technology to help overcome limited transport infrastructures in the developing world is enormous.
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Similarly, recent advances have begun to quell some of the skepticism surrounding the 2012 unveiling of Google Glass.
A team of doctors at the University of Massachusetts Medical School have recently developed an app for the much-maligned device, allowing off-site specialists to perform emergency medical consultations.
Google Glass can allow those in-demand specialists to reliably and accurately observe and diagnose patients in real-time. Advances in Remote-consultation technology could have a transformative impact on healthcare in the developing world.
Universities in the US have also been developing applications for the device to help combat broader disabilities. Students at Georgia Tech have developed an application for the hard of hearing, which recognises speech and turns it into real-time on screen captions. Applications are also being developed to help enhance the vision of the blind and visually impaired, helping users to identify objects and environments.
From Amazon to Google, the innovations being driven by tech giants, is generating incredible change. The challenge today, is how to embrace, evolve, and funnel down those innovations to the transform the developing world.
Creativity and collaboration
Take the problem of poor vision, an area I’ve been working in for the last 12 years.
It’s been 700 years since the humble spectacle was invented, and yet there are still 2.5 billion people across the world with poor vision, without access to a means of improving it.
This is a problem in desperate need of our creativity, innovation, investment and attention.
Particularly in the developing world, current rates of poor vision are having an enormous impact on economic growth and social development. Recent research found that poor vision costs the global economy $3tn a year – more than the GDP of the entire African continent.
Preventing children from accessing the benefits of education, slowing productivity in the work place, and stunting personal development and individual well-being, poor vision remains the largest unaddressed disability in the world.
However, in a world of such rapid advancement, I firmly believe there is a solution.
There are already nascent, small-scale innovations at work, demonstrating the incredible potential of tech innovation to solving this global problem.
To take one example, a new app used in Kenya has allowed healthcare workers across the country to take retinal images capable of assisting in detecting everything from diabetes to glaucoma with only a smartphone, and a low-cost adapter.
That singular app has the potential to transform access to affordable eye care across the globe.
The challenge we face with this one problem, as with so many, is how to unlock the combined potential of innovations from drone-tech to augmented reality to solve the issue of poor vision, on a global scale.
From NGO’s to individual governments, we are increasingly turning to the tech community to generate solutions capable of improving infrastructure, connectivity, healthcare, power and transport in developing countries.
The challenge to the UK’s diverse tech sector, from big data start-ups to supply-chain innovators, and hardware developers, is to harness their expertise to generate solutions capable of solving the world’s biggest challenges.
This requires the macro-level advances of the tech behemoths, as well as the creativity and agility of the startup community.
Collaborations between these two communities can generate solutions of a scale and impact capable of correcting a global problem like poor vision within a generation. Technology can and will generate paradigm shifting ‘good’ all over the world.