Sitting in the eaves of her office at the Centre for Global Equality (CGE) in an historic building in Cambridge, Director Dr Lara Allen talks about how she is motivated to find ways of connecting the intellectual powerhouse of the “Cambridge ecosystem”, to solve problems resulting from global inequality: “Our goal is to enable genuine, meaningful co-creation of innovative solutions to challenges faced by poor communities globally.”
Her personal obsession is inequality in knowledge. As she explains, “So much knowledge sits within universities and there is so much need in many communities”. For over a decade her focus has been how to communicate and collaborate so the capacity of universities can be used for the benefit of the world’s poorest.
Having started out as an academic, she returned to her native South Africa to run a social enterprise in a rural community facing extreme inequality. That experience led to a deep interest in development and the question of how to come up with solutions for the three billion people who live on less than $3 a day. She describes how the South African learning experience underpins everything she does now: “When I got this job I realised I could ask the question that drives me at one of the best universities in the world, so it’s a very personal project”.
Allen describes CGE as “having three legs to our innovation cooking pot: a civil society network, an academic network, and a cultivator”. The two networks bring together academics, students, not-for-profits and businesses that collaborate to help achieve the SDGs. The focus is on using cutting edge new science and technology, with an emphasis on social innovation and making sure the technology is used well. Allen explains how at the moment most new science and technology efforts tend to increase inequality, “We aren’t going to achieve a liveable, fairer world unless this changes. Our mission is to focus top quality research on the interests of the bottom three billion.”
One of the main initiatives of the Centre is the ‘Innovation Cultivator’, which Allen describes as “a process and a place that merges a design thinking approach to innovation with the international development management cycle”. She goes on to describe how it helps innovative solutions to global challenges grow in different parts of the Cambridge ecosystem, for example in partner incubators, industry internships or university research programmes.
But before entering that process it is important to address the right questions. The Centre works with NGOs who work with local communities to identify the problems that need addressing.
For example, one problem presented was healthcare workers in rural areas struggling to track patients without ID documents. The risk is that patients could receive the wrong medicine, which can be particularly serious for some diseases such as HIV/AIDS. This problem inspired Cambridge students to develop a biometric thumbprint scanner to match patients with their medical records. The resulting start up ‘Simprints’ has attracted a significant amount of finance and is now rolling out in Bangladesh with the NGO BRAC.
Africa Voices Foundation is another example she gives. Using both old and new media the social venture has found a way of listening intelligently to local populations to understand why behaviour change programmes aren’t working as well as hoped – something that Allen sees as particularly important for governments, corporates and international NGOs running large interventions to understand.
For example in Somalia, Unicef wanted to know why parents were not inoculating their children against TB. Allen describes how Africa Voices staged debates about inoculation on local radio and invited people to text in opinions. She explains how the team then analysed the responses using big data techniques and how Unicef could then use the results to adapt their campaigns.
CGE is highly networked; Allen speaks of how it guides Cultivator ventures through the Cambridge ecosystem helping them attain capacity, expertise and resources as needed. According to Allen, “these sources of value have always been there, but all too often are not connected up and therefore not available”.
And what role for business in all of this? Allen believes that companies could improve business practices across the board – at the very least do no harm – and then they could work with civil society and governments to improve things.
She sees a real opportunity for business to contribute invaluable expertise, experience and social capital, along with financial support. She describes CGE’s vision to expand the R&D for development going on in its Cultivator beyond start-ups to the roll-out of breakthrough innovations at scale, which she believes will only be possible with the collaboration of industry. In the innovation sphere the challenge is not the invention but the R&D to make innovations useable in difficult contexts, “Often academic research is not ready for real world application.
Further R&D is needed and industry knows how to do this well.” This is the gap that CGE is aiming to fill in partnership with interested corporate partners. As Allen observes, “Cambridge is the ideal place to do this, given the strengths of the University of Cambridge and the Cambridge entrepreneurial cluster, but we also need the commercial expertise of industry”. She sees a real opportunity to make a significant difference: “That gets me out of bed in the morning (and stops me from sleeping at night!)”.
Originally posted in SustainAbility’s Radar Magazine – Issue 13.