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Ao: Technological innovation should be used for greater good

Bethany Ao, Columnist

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It is hard to go about our daily lives without technology. I check my iPhone at least five times every hour, and my MacBook travels everywhere with me in my backpack. With the hyped release of the Apple Watch approaching, it seems that more fancy gadgets will be added to our growing collection soon. It is incredibly difficult to imagine life without the technology we are used to having at our fingertips. Innovation, to us, is the invention of a new, sleeker cellphone with more functions or a thinner laptop with faster programs.

However, it’s time for us to expand our pinhole views on technology and innovation. We need to start questioning why we’re so focused on the effectiveness of Siri on the next generation of iPhones when 60 percent of the world’s population still don’t have access to flush toilets, one of the best innovations in human health. The reality is inventors are more interested in pushing the boundaries of their fields than making existing technology more achievable and affordable for people around the world. But that needs to change.

Before my freshman year, Northwestern assigned my entire class a book to read about how one social entrepreneur brought genetically modified corn to Kenya’s farmers. The increased crop yields the farmers harvested from the new seeds allowed them to avoid seasonal hunger and disease. Some of them were even able to keep their children in school. Even though the entrepreneur didn’t invent anything new for huge profit margins, he innovated by making a new method of farming available for Kenyans. He still made a profit from selling the new corn seeds, but he was also able to significantly improve the lives of many Kenyans.

Even though some people may think social innovation and entrepreneurship is not as exciting or rewarding as inventing the next generation of smartphones, I disagree. There is satisfaction to be found in discovering ways to adapt technology we already have to suit other people’s purposes. It’s just as exhilarating to take a smartphone and modify it in a way that allows a rural farmer to have access to extensive weather reports, soil moisture levels and crop reports at his fingertips. In fact, it may even be more rewarding to see how your innovation affects someone else’s life positively in such a concrete way.

Intellectual curiosity isn’t the only factor that needs to be considered when discussing social innovation. The markets for smartphones and laptops are just simply more lucrative for inventors. In order to incentivize more people to venture into social innovation and entrepreneurship, government funding should be provided. Private universities should also provide more grants and opportunities for professors and students to create technology that can help lower poverty rates and decrease world hunger. Perhaps then people will be more motivated to invent more altruistic things.

Like any other NU student, I love my iPhone and MacBook. But I recognize that these items don’t benefit the vast majority of the world’s population, and it’s time to start focusing on their needs on a larger scale. If we use technology to satisfy people’s basic needs, such as clean water and sufficient amounts of food, then why shouldn’t we focus more on innovating in this area?

It’s never too early to start considering where you want to invest your intellectual capital, especially at a school like NU. Innovating in more socially aware ways to innovate may bring you more fulfillment after graduation than joining a big technology company.

Bethany Ao is a Medill sophomore. She can be reached at bethanyao2017@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.

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