Back in the 1970s, I was a medical student ready to take on the world. We had a student exchange program, where students from across the world would come to India to visit and learn. One year, there was a group of young doctors from the UK who were excited to be somewhere they could observe ‘rare diseases.’ Seeing the packed hospitals on rounds, they eagerly asked the Professor of Internal Medicine, “May we see a patient with tuberculosis?” The Professor, uncertain of their excitement, replied frankly, “Of course. We don’t just have one, we have wards and wards full!” Tuberculosis (TB) – the infectious disease that primarily targets the lungs - was, and continues to be, anything but a rare disease in India.
Having traveled to both East Africa and India over the past several weeks, I’ve been reflecting on what ‘innovation’ means in different contexts. It’s easy to get caught in a technology-centric worldview in places like Bangalore and even Nairobi these days. But when I get past the superficial stories and dig a bit deeper, I realize that impactful innovation is less about shiny tools and technology and more about ‘listening to users’ and transforming social processes to solve problems that matter to people.
My walk through a Delhi slum comes immediately to mind. While there I visited Operation Asha, a 2011 India Development Marketplace winner that is working to arrest the spread of tuberculosis (TB). India is one of the only countries in the world where the rate of infection is growing despite the falling incidence of the disease globally. The previous day, I sat with colleagues from Microsoft Research in Bangalore who explained the simple but critical advances they had made in writing open-source software to verify the identity of patients visiting clinics, aggregating data on missed doses, and using text messages to increase compliance.