20 tiny strokes of genius: Mercy Corps puts social innovations on display

20 tiny strokes of genius: Mercy Corps puts social innovations on display

Women bring water to their community, Kgautswane, South Africa, using Hippo Rollers. Photo: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/projecthdesign/2659671225/in/set-72157606118868601/">Project H </a>(flickr)
Women bring water to their community, Kgautswane, South Africa, using Hippo Rollers. Photo: Project H (flickr)

so·cial /'sōSHəl/ - the welfare of human beings as members of society.

in·no·va·tion \ˌi-nə-ˈvā-shən\ - a new idea, method, or device.

Social innovation: A novel solution to a problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable or just than existing solutions and for which the value created accrues primarily to society as a whole rather than private individuals.

Simply put: A social innovation makes our lives a little bit easier. Angled bristles on your toothbrush. Wheels on your office chair. Insoles in your shoes. We might not even notice them unless they weren't there.

But what about the 1.7 billion people worldwide who can't afford the most basic needs? A social innovation designed with their needs in mind - or better yet, designed BY them - doesn't just make their lives easier, it can actually save them.

Take the JANMA clean birth kit. It costs around $3. If you make less than $2 a day, as do most of the 1.7 billion people mentioned, this is more than an entire day's wage. But if the kit's sterile pad, hand wipes and clean scalpel blade save a mother's life and that of her newborn, those are wages well spent that will be returned tenfold through healthy family members.

How about PeePoo bags: This solution turns out to be a lot more attractive than its name. At 3 cents a pop, these personal sanitation bags are generally affordable and a much more sanitary option than overflowing urban slum latrines. In the bio-degradable bag is urea, a non-hazardous chemical that breaks down human waste into high-value fertilizer. The United Nations estimates 4 out of every 10 people don't have access to any basic sanitation, and 1 child dies every 15 seconds from contaminated water. This little bag could make a big difference.

Or the Hippo Roller, invented by two South Africans to ease the burden on women who traditionally carry their family's water in buckets on their heads, often in excess of 5 gallons. In just one day, more than 200 million hours of women’s time is consumed collecting this most basic of human needs. This lost productivity is greater than the combined number of hours worked in a week by employees at WalMart, United Parcel Service, McDonald’s, IBM, Target and Kroger, according to Gary White, co-founder of Water.org.

The recipe for a game-changing innovation is understanding how people live, the challenges they face and the resources they have. Angled bristles on a toothbrush may not save any lives, but a Hippo Roller will.

Visit Mercy Corps' Portland-based Action Center to view these inventions and more as part of the exhibit, "INNOVATE: Design for the Developing World." Through December.

In Fall 2012, Mercy Corps will host "Design With the Other 90%: Cities," a Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum exhibit now on view at the UN headquarters in New York.

"INNOVATE: Design for the Developing World," a gallery of appropriate technology at Mercy Corps' headquarters in Portland, Oregon. Photo: Kyla Springer/Mercy Corps.
"INNOVATE: Design for the Developing World," a gallery of appropriate technology at Mercy Corps' headquarters in Portland, Oregon. Photo: Kyla Springer/Mercy Corps.

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