Practical, socially relevant technology

explore app

People use the word  technology for  “everything that doesn’t work yet.” Danny Hillis, a computer scientist and entrepreneur, pointed out that the best technology is unseen: once technologies works, they simply become computers, telephones. cars, etc. People accept technologies, when they regard them as providers of reliable routine solutions of problems, most of them belonging to one if the the “3Ds” categories: dull, dangerous and dirty.

Take robots: as long as we talk about “robots” we imagine some fascinating man-like machines, trying to mimick human behavior as muc as possible. But just “trying”. We don’t see those robots as equivalents to our own race and we don’t expect them to live with us as other humans do. But if you think of robotech vacuum cleaners, a trolley moving beds around hospital corridors, or industrial workhorses used for automated processes in manufactural plants worldwide, they cease being seen as robots. They are simply named after their functionalities. How would you name the CoBot of Carnegie Mellon, which – standing by the lift door – displays a little sign asking passers-by to press the appropriate button for it (Arms are expensive and fallible – so self-navigating robots don’t have them).

Every technology is as good as its practical – or social – relevance. This is, what Neelie Kroes, European Commissioner for Digital Agenda, refers to in her contribution to a discussion about digital privacy. And this is -in my opinion – the biggest challenge of technology startups all over the world. In the aftermath of the dotcom bust more than ten years ago, a new generation of entrepreneurs has been leveraging mobile technologies to all sorts of more or less useful applications. As seen in the last ten years, the crash of the internet boom has not exactly brought an end to the internet, e-commerce or any other online business. If anything, the key players of those times are stronger than ever, with amazon as the poster child of a company having read its own obituary several times, but still being alive and well. In this light, the recent discussion of a bubble (in the technology business) should be assessed carefully. Most probably, many of the actual tech startups won’t survive their first liquidity droughts, and many will fail just because nobody needs their products or services.

And that’s where the above mentioned practicability comes in: if a product or service is practical and has social relevance, it will be used. If it only provides a nice-to-have feature but is nicely designed, it will only be used by the fans of that special feature. If it’s neither well designed nor does it provide a practical benefit, your startup presumably won’t survive.

With our own startup, Datarella, my business partners and I launched the app explore and we are trying to build a socially relevant service for smartphone users based on the app.

The three pillars of explore are:

  1. Everybody can use explore. The app itself is free and there is no need of using an additional gadget like a fitness band, or else. It’s in the user’s smartphone – with her all the time.
  2. It’s absolutely easy to participate: explore asks the right questions at the right time – nobody must be overly creative and fill in an empty diary – the user just answers short questionnaires in under a minute.
  3. The user gets individual personalized recommendations to change her behavior, if necessary. No standardized programs, but individual advice.

We think that with explore we match our own expectations of developing a technology which is practical and socially relevant.

Do you know other examples of socially relevant technologies? Be it an app measuring your radiation exposure, preventing wildfires or more. Please share them with me!

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