The Technology Exchange Lab (TEL) is dedicated to bringing communities out of poverty by fostering the exchange of innovative, cost-effective and sustainable solutions that significantly improve the lives of people at the bottom of the pyramid. TEL was founded in 2009 by two alumni from the MIT Sloan School of Management whose shared vision of bottom-up poverty alleviation was inspired by their respective experiences of working to improve lives and opportunities in emerging and less-developed economies.
We talked to Founder and CEO of TEL, Karen von Bismarck. She told us about why she founded the organization and what it has to do with the “empowering people. Award”.
Karen, why did you start the Technology Exchange Lab and how would you describe its role?
I began volunteering as an aide in a rural Haitian hospital (later also serving as CFO of the US-based parent organization). I was impressed both by the resourcefulness and ingenuity of very poor people in Haiti, and by the lack of relatively simple technologies that could bring huge improvements to their health and daily lives. Once back in the USA I was frustrated by the difficulty of researching and sourcing innovative technologies that I knew existed – somewhere! A fellow MIT graduate and I created TEL to fill that need: to bring innovators and last-mile end-users together.
Why is it so important to use innovative technologies in the fight against poverty?
Human beings are problem-solving animals. As the challenges of poverty and environmental degradation change and increase, people develop new solutions. The key to fighting poverty is to support, inform, and disseminate the best of them.
You have linked the products from the Solutions Database from the “empowering people. Network” to the TEL database. Why do you think international platforms that promote technology for development should cooperate with each other?
Let's reason by example: a household water filter developed in the Netherlands is a 'best solution' in Nigeria. A solar oven made in Malaysia is a hit in East Africa. A biomass cookstove from Indonesia can be licenced for local manufacture and used in all the world's rice-growing regions ... TEL might well have been named 'Solutions Without Borders.'
What is your motivation in supporting the “empowering people. Award” as a juror?
TEL has been a friend and supporter of the Award since before its first launch. Our philosophies are remarkably closely aligned. TEL is proud of this connection and continues, together with the “empowering people. Network” leadership, to look for ways in which our organizations can grow and deepen an effective partnership.
What, in your opinion, are the main criteria that a promising solution should fulfill?
a) It aims to make a meaningful improvement in poor people's lives.
b) It is not redundant. That said, I personally value significant improvement in an existing technology as highly as 'ground-up' creativity.
c) It is environmentally neutral or positive.
d) It is robust, not difficult to implement or repair.
e) It promises to become economically viable. That implies some degree of scalability, and consideration of e.g., distribution and financing.