Technologies are more often tools than solutions (and no, that’s not the same)

A team of Temple University Fox School of Business MBA students who won a March 2011 innovation contest for improving the North Broad Street corridor in Philadelphia.

When re-purposing technology tools as  solutions, the core problem and end user are often ignored and so little will be accomplished.

Back in March, I was on a panel of judges for Temple University’s Center for Design and Innovation NorthBroadband DesignWeek competition.

In short, nearly 100 Temple students from six different schools were broken into cross-disciplinary teams and given a week to conceive of plans to grow opportunity along the beleaguered North Broad Street corridor in Philadelphia. Community members, leaders and other thinkers on the subject were brought in, student teams were encouraged to take to the streets and employ what they already knew.

On Thursday, March 17, in a big, open, light-filled seventh floor room of the university’s Alter Hall — minutes after watching the Temple men’s basketball team beat Penn State in the NCAA tournament — I was joined by a dozen other volunteer judges from different industries to hear final presentations, which were being tied together just then, in the collaborative, messy, fun space around us all.

An undergraduate team pitching 'Teacher Dashboard,' a collaborative social network for teachers.

There were 15 teams, though I only heard from five of them first and then final pitches from the best ranked half dozen. Of the 20 or so presentations I saw, all but one was technology driven: a website, a mobile application, an industry-specific social network, a cable-driven access point and the like.

The favorite of the judges — and of myself — and the eventual winner was from a team of first-year MBA students who wanted to partner with a bank to create financial literacy and savings incentive programming at area barbershops and salons.

Most of the 20-somethings were fixated on something glitzy and modular. Many of the ideas were fine tools in concept but very few seemed to attack the actual problem or pay any attention to a clear constituency.

While a hornet’s nest of obstacles face the banking-salon co-location idea — namely enormous socio-economic reasons why cash checking storefronts and barbershops out numbers banks in much of North Philadelphia and incentivizing the creation of a prototype — the idea was the most innovative and end-user focused.

The premise: many people in the surrounding neighborhoods were lacking basic financial literacy and so struggled to save for a better, more stable future of upward mobility, adding to a cycle of poverty. In walking these neighborhoods, the team said they found just how many more friendly, welcoming salon/barbershop hubs of activity were awake, while banks were intimidating and limited. We need to think of the consumers we’re trying to attract, and not force a limited vision of what a bank looks like and its roles.

That’s about thinking of the end user first, and trying to think innovatively about solving a problem. Technology doesn’t have to have anything to do with the solution. Instead, in this case and many others, technology tools can be used to make the solution more viable.

Thanks for the opportunity Center Director and Professor Youngjin Yoo.