Presented by Prof. Rohan Samarajiva at SLAAS / SLIC Conference “From Innovation to Impact” 2019 on 22nd November 2019. Colombo, Sri Lanka
Innovation is inherently risky and is best done by those with skin in the game. Social innovations
comprise a subset that are unlikely to be supported by investors with profit in mind but are likely to
yield significant social benefits. How social innovation can be made most beneficial may be illustrated
by experiences of developing smartphone-centric assistive technology solutions for persons with
disabilities (PWDs) in Nepal and India.
Representative-sample surveys showed that smartphone use among PWDs in Nepal was lower than
among the general population and that “no need” was the main reason given for non-ownership,
indicating a justification for social innovation in this space. A two-stage hackathon was organized for
four-person teams from 10 leading computer-science programs. Descriptions of problems faced by
PWDs in Nepal were supplied and mentors assigned at the pre-hackathon. Two mobile apps that sought to assist speech and hearing impaired PWDs were selected as winners, based on six criteria including novelty, maturity and feasibility. Both could be implemented independently of an existing organisation or system and had potential for extension to users beyond speech and hearing impaired PWDs. State funds were promised to the winners, but in the end, did not materialize. Other good outcomes such as institutionalization of projects on assistive technologies at some of the colleges were achieved.
Based on the learnings from Nepal, systematic qualitative research was done prior to the hackathons in India and Sri Lanka and efforts will be made to have clear intellectual-property expectations and to
connect the innovators to impact investors. The research also opened up the possibilities of going
beyond stand-alone mobile apps to higher-impact solutions that would integrate mobile apps with the
backends of large systems such as the Delhi Metro. By focusing on systematic understandings of both
the actual needs of the beneficiaries and the constraints within which the solutions had to be
implemented, it would not only be possible to address significant problems experienced by PWDs, but
also to make the solutions sustainable. The cooperation of large organizations will be a critical
dependency for the success of this form of social innovation with impact.
Alternatively, it is possible to envisage social innovation intended primarily for a less-lucrative market
segment such as PWDs to be supported by impact investors who would be satisfied with low or no
returns. In the specific case of PWDs, there is also potential of expanding the addressable market from PWDs alone to the rapidly growing population of elderly persons who require assistance for
For social innovation to have true impact, it must be based on a realistic understanding of the actual
problems that are to be solved, the specific context, and institutional constraints. While social
innovations that are independent of the systems in place or will serve as workarounds may be easier,
only a few such innovations will be effective. Scalability and sustainability may be achieved in multiple
ways including state support, impact investing and normal investing.