Technology can be an amazing tool for social and economic development. It can help people get a better education, learn new skills to earn a living wage, or start a business. It can also enable organizations to meet community needs by broadening access to healthcare, education micro-banking and other essential services.

Technology today has been greatly impacted by the growing connectivity among devices, mobile phones, the PC and the browser. This convergence allows people and organizations to access information and to communicate and collaborate in more powerful ways. It is being driven by a number of factors:

  • The widespread availability of mobile devices (up to 4 billion people now have access to mobile phones)
  • Advances in software with powerful new applications
  • The maturation of the internet as a gateway for “cloud” computing where data and applications are delivered through and run on the web
  • Access to broadband continues to expand in remote places in the world – we’re not there yet, but the trends over the next 3-5 years promise much greater access to broadband connectivity for those throughout the developing world.

Over the next 3-5 years we will see a new paradigm in computing where the use of devices will be increasingly seamless. You will be able to use your phone, your PC and browser, and even your television in an integrated way, regardless of location.

This new paradigm offers great potential to improve how we all work, but even greater potential for nonprofits to manage their operations and deliver services more effectively and achieve greater impact for the communities they serve.

How can these technologies be used by social mission organizations, social entrepreneurs, NGOs and nonprofits to benefit the most vulnerable people in society? I see four new models of social change:

  1. New Business Models – Innovative new ways of doing business for social change are emerging by those nonprofits embracing the cloud. Kiva.org’s development of the world’s first person-to-person micro-lending website is facilitating micro-transactions that were previously prohibitively expensive thereby helping alleviate poverty and raise awareness on a different, more personalized, level.
  2. New Service Delivery Models -- Organizations are finding new ways to extend their reach and reduce costs through cloud-based services delivered on intelligent devices. Many communities, especially in impoverished and remote locations, lack sufficient healthcare services. A team led by the International Institute of Information Technology in Hyderabad, India, is working on a battery-powered diagnostic device, costing less than US$100, which can monitor a patient’s heart rate, blood pressure and oxygen levels. This device can send the information through a cell phone to a physician hundreds of miles away who can then offer expert diagnostic and treatment advice to the local health care provider.
  3. New Information Exchange Models -- the creation of new models of collecting and sharing information via the cloud results in more transparent, open, group-driven sharing. Effective collaboration is critical in emergency situations that require multiple nonprofits and development agencies to work side by side. Shortly after Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar in May 2008, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) created a web-based collaboration portal for aid workers in the region that enabled more than 100 relief organizations to communicate, share information, manage resources and coordinate with workers in remote or heavily damaged areas.
  4. New Networking Models -- Lastly, new networking models are starting to change the game for the community development sector. Social networks like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube keep many of us connected to a continuous stream of information. Nonprofits are also seeking to effectively use these powerful tools for social change. Removing barriers to nonprofits telling their stories, making it possible to engage new and different stakeholders who may not have traditionally been engaged without a PC. We are connecting otherwise isolated groups to share information about parenting, cancer recovery, etc.

These new models hold great promise for the social sector to transform their work and create tremendous impact. The reality is, however, that many nonprofits do not feel prepared to take advantage of these new models.

Together, we must all take a proactive and methodical approach to ensuring nonprofits are adopting IT effectively and planning appropriately so that they can benefit from the solutions and platforms that will be available and use them to advance social change.

Editor's Note: a longer paper from Microsoft's Community Affairs team on this topic, entitled Unleashing Technology to Advance Social and Economic Development, is available for download here.