The “Geeks” in our works

15 Jun 2017

 "Geek for Good", China’s first ever UN-led open design challenge.

By Louise Xi Li - Communication and Innovation Officer, UNDP China

  • A giant, intelligent, multifunctional six-legged robot which can be deployed for early-stage recovery in disaster situations
  • A device for converting sign-language hand signals into a phone type input to facilitate smooth communication for people with hearing and/or speaking difficulties
  • A machine-learning system continuously collecting agriculture-related data to provide tailor-made solutions to farmers, reducing cost on both finance and the environment and cultivating eco-friendly farming behavior

The above might sound like “geek” works from SXSW or TechCrunch, or any of those silicon-valley-style tech events, but these are just a few contributions of winning teams from a UNDP-led prize challenge: “Geek For Good”!

In China, “innovation” is a buzzword, one of the most frequently-used words in government policy documents. In the “13th Five-Year” National Science and Technology Innovation Plan launched on August 2016, the government laid out its vision for leveraging innovation as a prime force for development. The aim is to substantially improve China’s technological capacity and raise the country’s innovation capabilities into the world’s top 15.

Initiated and promoted by Premier Li Keqiang, China also adopted a top-down nation-wide innovation strategy. The “Mass Entrepreneurship and Innovation” strategy calls for harnessing innovation to stimulate the creativity of the public, expand employment, increase incomes and contribute to vertical social flows of equity and justice.

The national innovation strategy is clearly on the right track, with more than 10 million new market entities registering every year over the last three years. However, while sectors at the leading-edge of technology are benefitting tremendously from a burst in innovation, these perks need to be directed more effectively towards solving global development challenges and benefiting people living in poverty and marginalized communities in China.

To identify these challenges and see how UNDP China could bring added value, we convened with China’s Academy of Sciences and tech giant Baidu to come up with a strategy to foster innovation for development. This collaboration led to Geek for Good (G4G).

G4G called on creative minds across China to team up and generate solutions to tackle one or more of the four major development challenges: Poverty Alleviation, Transportation, Disaster Prevention, and Environment.

As China’s first ever UN-led open design challenge, the response was surprisingly strong, with over 2000 proposals submitted through the Geek for Good online portal. These proposals went through a two-stage selection process before being narrowed down to 10 winning teams, who were invited to the final prize challenge event to showcase their ideas.

The level of engagement on all fronts has been astonishing. Our Country Office innovation champions toiled day and night with technical teams and participants to review the applications. With solid support from senior management and colleagues from across programme teams, we also managed to establish a board of expert board from diverse backgrounds, including the principle scientist from Google, research leads from the MIT lab, government officials, and renowned academics.

There were no easy decisions. Most of the proposals presented strong value, and justification on how technology, if used in properly, could make a big difference to those in need. However, for this prize challenge, we deliberately focused on early stage initiatives, emphasizing the importance of scalability.

The 10 select teams proceeded to the Geek for Good Final Competition, and received seed funding and support to help take their ideas forward to The Final Prize Challenge that provided a public platform to showcase the innovative ideas. The winning team, Sign Out Loud, gave a clear example of how innovative technologies can be harnessed in a simple way, in this case through a mobile phone app, to support people with hearing difficulties in smooth communication.

Of course, awarding prizes is just one step in a very long process of driving solutions to create real change. Much follow-up is needed, especially in collaborating with the winners on testing their solutions and monitoring the effects of the application on solving development challenge at hand. A key to innovation is to constantly seek out opportunities to scale-up new ideas to create long-term benefits. UNDP firmly believes in designing for longer-term outcomes, not event-focused outputs.

For us, Geek for Good is just the opening. By continuing to leverage the innovative power of the public, we believe we can unleash a hidden creative potential, harnessing innovative technologies to drive international development.

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