We kicked off 2014 in Benetech Labs by convening our inaugural Labs brainstorm meeting. It was a delight to bring together a great group of leaders from the technology, philanthropy, social innovation and education sectors—all interested in learning more about our Labs pipeline projects.
As we discover new fields where targeted technology applications could efficiently address unmet social needs, we are actively seeking the advice and expertise of thought leaders and change-makers, especially from our neighborhood, the Silicon Valley of California. In fact, exploring with them the many new project ideas in our pipeline in a transparent way is fundamental to the Benetech Labs approach. We see it as crucial to our ability to catalyze scalable tech-for-good applications.
We wanted an informed and engaged discussion so we decided to do a deep-dive on only two of our pipeline projects. The first is a clean water project, in collaboration with Avina, a Latin American foundation that advances sustainable development in the region. One of Avina’s focus areas is access to water—indeed an enormous challenge in Latin America, where 50 million people live without access to clean water due to fragmented, underfunded water distribution and sanitation services.
The proposed solution we’re exploring in the Labs: build mobile and web apps for local clean water organizations that serve the poorest people in Latin America. These will enable better monitoring, evaluation, capacity building and sharing of best practices. Our preliminary plan is to run a pilot project in Costa Rica with local partners, including a diagnostic survey for organization capacity based on online and offline apps, as well as the collection, analysis and mapping of relevant field data.
We wanted to hear from our convened guests ideas and thoughts on questions such as: What else could we do with our proposed solution to improve the capacity of community institutions? Is there an asset here that could shape regional and national policies? What additional partners should we be reaching out to?
The second Labs pipeline project that we examined was 3D print-on-demand for students. 3D printing has been making many waves recently, but our interest in this evolving technology lies in its potential to open the world of spatial concepts—especially in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math)—to students with vision impairments. The problem, however, is that 3D models are resource intensive and out of the reach of most students who need accessible materials.
Thus, we’re exploring how to make it easy and fast for educators and parents to find and buy 3D models of science and math concepts. Possibilities include linking textbooks and teaching materials to repositories of quality 3D models, and making these models available through local printing networks, lending libraries and partnerships with schools.
We’ve been doing some preliminary research into 3D printing for accessibility in education as part of our DIAGRAM Center’s work, but, of course, there’s a lot to figure out yet. At our brainstorm session, we were interested in our guests’ thoughts on questions such as: How do we solve the problem of timeliness of 3D printing for the education sector, given that 3D printing is still extremely slow, taking a long time to build even the smallest piece? Are there other 3D printing social enterprise opportunities we should be thinking about? How can we improve the ways in which students interact with 3D models?
It was a great discussion that definitely got us thinking! There were challenging questions back at us, offers of expertise, ideas for whom to partner with for technology (and funding!) and plenty of food for thought.
We’re tremendously excited about the potential impact of Benetech Labs, and looking forward to working with our growing circle of partners and collaborators on figuring out the next steps as we continue to explore new projects in our pipeline.