Left out in the cold: Tech innovation favors the rich

Young, affluent innovators come up with things that appeal to -- surprise! -- young, affluent urban dwellers

Technology innovation is something anyone can undertake these days. Or so we are told.

The notion that low barriers to entry (via low cost or free online office management tools, open-source software and Internet connectivity) enable anyone with a laptop, a cell phone and a good idea to become an instant tech entrepreneur is one we hear often in tech circles.

But what we don't hear or talk about is the fact that the new innovators fit a very narrow profile. They mostly come from more affluent backgrounds, are well educated and are rarely minorities. Many have gone to well-known business schools and colleges and fit comfortably into the mainstream business culture found in places like Silicon Valley. The obsession with hiring engineers and other employees from top schools at companies like Google is Exhibit A.

It is no surprise then that much of the gadgetry and Web services leaping from the minds of talented young innovators are geared toward young, well-educated, affluent white kids -- people just like them. When was the last time you heard of a groundbreaking tech product targeting seniors, the disabled or young black men?

Not only does this myopic approach create a design bias toward social elites, but it also relegates a large percentage of the population to the role of passive consumer of products and services they may not be able to afford or are unable to use. In a society where the pocketbook rules, so go the innovation tools.

And even when a genius residing in an urban ghetto or poor rural enclave does have an amazing new solution, he or she will likely never make it to Stanford or the doorstep of a major venture capital firm due to cultural barriers and a lack of connections and capital.

The issues that matter to those in low-income communities (e.g., crime, jobs and housing) are in most cases overlooked by the best and brightest. It's a tremendous lost opportunity to change the world for the better, and to empty another stream into the river of creative possibilities.

Fortunately, a younger generation of innovators has taken up the mantle of social innovation -- developing new tools and services for the social good -- everything from the Web-based granting of money to the needy to mobile phone banking for the unbanked.

But even the most good-hearted among this new breed of innovators tend to interpret the needs of others instead of knowing them from personal experience.

That is not to say that people who have not lived the plight of the underserved cannot innovate on their behalf. If that were the case, we wouldn't have online microlending platforms like Kiva.org or the text messaging donation services that raised so many millions for the victims of the Haiti earthquakes. But it does beg the question of what remains undiscovered as a result of the particular world view of those primarily steering the innovation ship?

So how can we create a more inclusive and diverse engine for innovation -- one that could benefit everyone?

Here are some things we could establish that would help:

  • A way to identify, aggregate and share under-the-radar innovations found in overlooked communities, similar to the Honeybee Network in India.
  • Community-based innovation centers and incubators centered in poor neighborhoods, community centers, and churches -- not just in IT company labs and on the laptops of developers.
  • Venture funds run by and targeting more diverse communities, including minorities, the disabled and seniors.
  • Collaborations between community service organizations and techies to develop locally relevant tools and services.
  • Traveling roadshows where new technologies could be demonstrated in out-of-the-way places and then re-imagined by nontraditional customers.
  • The training of low-income and underserved individuals to both leverage existing tools and to become locally based developers, innovators and entrepreneurs.
  • The marriage of formal engineering and innovation training with community service and advocacy training, or collaborations between top universities with community-based organizations.
  • University computer science and engineering programs and internships that are community-based.
  • Urban training camps for designers and entrepreneurs. Just because innovation barriers to entry appear low to some, they are not necessarily low to all. Tech access and training - along with the active empowerment of those hidden in the shadows -- are desperately needed to remove those invisible barriers. Ultimately, we need an environment in which underserved populations can innovate on their own terms and in direct response to their needs and aspirations.

It's about time the next big thing came from the hood and not from MIT.

Paul Lamb is the principle of Man on a Mission Consulting and a founder of the Stride Center , a technical training program for low-income and underserved populations.

Read more about web 2.0 and web apps in Computerworld's Web 2.0 and Web Apps Knowledge Center.

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