Oct 1, 2013

If you have a smartphone and a strong signal, you can access a world’s worth of knowledge with the tap of a finger. But the mobile revolution won’t be judged by connectivity alone; how this resource is put to work will be the true test.

Therein lies the opportunity for organizations: How can you exploit this powerful technology to solve society’s most pressing problems?

Africa, for example, is now the second-largest cellphone market in the world, with 649 million subscribers at the end of 2011. The numbers are impressive, but the creative ways in which cell phones are being used are even more remarkable. In countries such as Kenya and Uganda, mobile phones fill gaps in essential services from banking to farm advice and ad hoc health insurance.


Until recently, banking in rural Africa generally entailed hiding money or walking great distances to a city. The M-Pesa (mobile pesa [Swahili for “money”]) transfer service employed by telecom provider Safaricom changed that for millions in Kenya. Through M-Pesa transfers, people can easily deposit, send, and withdraw money using cell phones. Suddenly, the ability to purchase goods, pay bills, and make person-to-person transfers, became far simpler. Today, about 70 percent of households in Kenya have at least one M-Pesa user. “It’s made our lives easier because we don’t have to travel long distances to give our relatives and friends money,” says livestock herder Emmanuel Sironga.


Through text messaging, mobile networks are also being used to spread vital information about farming and health care to isolated rural areas in India and Africa—areas particularly vulnerable to the effects of drought and disease.

The Grameen Foundation is helping bridge this digital divide by leasing smartphones to farming communities in the Ugandan countryside. The foundation pays “community knowledge workers” via mobile money to share with their communities important information such as weather reports, crop prices, planting advice, and disease diagnostics. They also collect farming information and relay it to agricultural organizations and food programs. To date, Grameen has trained five hundred knowledge workers in thirty-two Ugandan districts, reaching a hundred thousand people.

It may be no exaggeration to say that mobile devices already have had a greater impact on parts of Africa than decades of foreign aid. “Foreign aid changes people’s lives temporarily and that’s it, when it’s gone it’s gone,” explains Michael Joseph, the former CEO of Safaricom. “People in Kenya tend to be quite industrious. The mobile phone has been almost perfect for that because it allows people now to create jobs for themselves.”


The Satellite Sentinel Project hopes that a community of video journalists will help shed light on the conflict in the Sudan. The George Clooney–supported watchdog organization is enlisting the public to monitor and report on human rights abuses. The project’s tagline says it all: “The world is watching because you are watching.” The takeaway is simple: help others by letting them help themselves. All you need to do is provide them an enabler, like a smartphone, and a platform to amplify their impact.


In Singapore, schools are experimenting with a program called Learning on the Move, which uses mobile devices to orient students on field trips or “learning trails.” Students travel through wetland reserves and national parks, scanning barcodes along the trail to pull up location specific information on their phones. At certain checkpoints, teachers can administer geography and science tests to see how students are doing and pinpoint their knowledge gaps. The aim is ubiquitous learning: learning anywhere at any time.


Each day, nearly a billion people commute by car. Swerving, double-parking, and U-turning their way into a spot, drivers seeking parking places generate as much as 30 percent of downtown traffic congestion. A UCLA researcher found that drivers within a fifteen-block district in Los Angeles drove an estimated 950,000 miles a year just looking for a parking space.

To clean up the streets and the air, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) offers drivers an app that provides real-time updates on parking availability and rates. Sensors installed in seven thousand metered spaces and 12,250 slots in SFMTA-managed garages communicate wirelessly through iPhones, Android devices, and, showing which blocks have spaces available and which are filled, saving drivers time and the stress of cruising around on the hunt.

If every city in the United States adopted the model, it could be worth about $391 billion in time savings to the economy.


Mobile technology’s biggest impact may be how personal health monitoring revolutionizes health care. Between health apps, lightweight medical devices, online communities, and rapid advances in health analytics, individuals of modest means can now calibrate their bodies to a level of detail that a decade ago, professional athletes would have envied. When anyone with a phone can use mobile technology in new ways to address his or her most immediate needs, the reach of the technology far exceeds even the most forward-reaching expectations of its original engineers.

How can you use mobile technology to solve society’s most pressing problems?

Learn more about how others are doing it – and how it’s paying off – in the new book theSolution Revolution. Buy your copy today at


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