I do research in an area called ICT4D, short for “information and communication technology for development” – the goal of which is to invent technologies that support socio-economic development of poor communities worldwide (http://research.microsoft.com/research/tem). But, the more I understand ICT4D, the more ICT4D disappears. I’ve come to realize that while technology is important, it’s nothing without people who are motivated to make a difference. Technology amplifies, empowers, and inspires, but it’s still people who have to learn to read, save for their future, or protest against injustice.
When we think of innovation, we sometimes become very focused on the product. Of course, the product is what we’re after in innovation, so, it deserves the glamour. The product, though, is also sandwiched between people: the people who do the innovating, and the people who benefit from the innovation. And, it’s only because of both sets of people that an innovation has impact. One of the research projects I’m involved in is called Digital Green, where locally recorded digital video is used to help spread sustainable agriculture practices through mediated instruction. The technology – digital video – amplifies the impact of the material, but it’s the people in the video, who are local farmers, that draw in other farmers to watch. We jokingly call the project “Farmer Idol,” because the farmers almost compete to appear in future videos.
The Imagine Cup is one of my favorite annual events, partly because it draws attention to both technology and people. The projects are amazing, with so much display of creativity, design, and brilliance, and the student teams bring it all to life with their passion and energy. This year, I’ll be judging for the Rural Innovation Award, where the technology and energy are directed to supporting rural communities. I can’t wait!