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Getting back to basics

This article appears in the issue January/February 2018 [Volume 27, Issue 1]

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You have to admit, it’s a great time to be an enterprise of the future. Many of the breakthrough possibilities we’ve discussed in this column over the years, like driverless cars, growing body parts and space tourism, have become reality.

Only a few years ago we wrote about people using cryptocurrencies to reserve a seat on one of Virgin Galactic’s suborbital space flights. We never imagined that only a few years later, people would be volunteering for one-way trips to colonize Mars or providing crowdsourced funding for sending scouting probes to look for a habitable planet in the Alpha Centauri system.

While it’s easy to get caught up in all the excitement, we shouldn’t overlook the abundance of opportunities right in our own backyard. They entail a lot less risk and even greater reward, especially if you subscribe to the triple bottom line of financial, societal and environmental return on investment. We’re talking about investing financial and knowledge capital aimed at meeting basic human needs.

From outright survival to the innate human desire for peace and prosperity, there’s no shortage of needs. For our purposes here, we’ll focus on four that have come up repeatedly in our work: food, water, energy and health. Take care of those four and many of the others will follow.

Let’s start with food. According to the United Nations, despite shipping millions of tons of donated food to poor countries every year, one in nine people in the world, around 800 million, lack adequate food and nutrition. We need more permanent, systemic solutions.

That is where the world’s 7.6 billion minds come into play. Tapping into that vast pool of knowledge, especially at the very source of the hunger, is starting to produce innovative, low-cost solutions. Those solutions often employ unlikely methods from unlikely places. Take, for example, connecting the following four seemingly unrelated dots: food, water, cow hospice and Airbnb.

Here come the gaushalas

Cows typically produce milk for about five to six years, after which time they are usually culled from the herd. Hindus and other groups opposed to the slaughter of animals have established a network of “cow hospices” called gaushalas, where the animals are given care for the remainder of their natural life.

Wasteful, you might say? Maybe not. Gaushalas use the cow manure to produce fertilizers, which are more nutrient-rich and use less water, helping to grow more crops and feed poor people living in arid lands.

While traveling to remote planets may sound appealing, cheaper and more fulfilling down-to-earth experiences in eco-tourism and agro-tourism are also catching on, especially among millennials. One example is Activities range from gorilla photo safaris to helping locals turn milk into ghee. You can visit traditional fishing villages or tend to vegetable gardens, all while learning basic survival skills through stories passed down over the centuries. Or you can spend time in a village school interacting with children, many of them orphans, hungry for your knowledge.

Even the gaushalas are getting into the act. will soon be launching an app similar to Airbnb called Gaubnb. The app will allow you to reserve a stay in the gaushala of your choice, so you can experience real sustainability firsthand.

Basic stuff. Richly rewarding. All for around $50 a day.


The need for water is even greater than the need for food, at least in terms of accessibility. More than 2 billion people don’t have a safe, reliable supply of water, and 400 million of those people live in regions with severe water shortages. Many have to walk an average of three hours just to get to a water source, which is often contaminated, spreading disease in areas already stretched beyond the limit in terms of medical resources.

In response, business incubators and accelerators are popping up all around the world to support water technology startups led by waterpreneurs. Imagine H2O is one such accelerator. In less than a decade, it’s launched over 80 companies, with a success rate of more than 80 percent. Its water technology innovations, many of which make extensive use of data analytics, are deployed in more than 30 countries.

Purifying and, in many cases, desalinizing water takes energy. But the same 2 billion people in need of clean water have limited or no access to electric power. To tackle that problem, Manoj Bhargava, billionaire founder of the 5-hour Energy drink, has funded a lab in Michigan called Stage 2 Innovations. One of Stage 2’s products delivers several hours of stored electricity in exchange for an hour’s exercise. It’s also produced a variety of small, low-cost water purification and desalinization stations. You can view a 30-minute documentary at

In the area of health, similar low-cost innovations are being deployed. In the remote villages of Tanzania, medicines aren’t always available. But diseases like malaria require treatment in 18 to 24 hours. Taking a long trip to the nearest healthcare facility only to discover that the needed medicine is unavailable could prove fatal.

A simple solution called “SMS for Life” makes use of widely available mobile phones to coordinate supplies across 5,000 facilities. It’s a great example of using data and connectivity to make the most out of scarce resources. And yes, it’s being rolled out to other countries with more applications, including tracking disease outbreaks.

Opportunities for KM

The following may seem like old, tired concepts. However, they are more relevant today than ever.

1. We’re still drowning in data and starved for knowledge. You know the signs. Tremendous need (billions of people at the bottom of the economic pyramid), exabytes of data and millions of potential solutions. That presents a limitless supply of dots needing to be connected, developed, tested and implemented.

In the area of health alone, the data ocean is vast. PubMed comprises more than 27 million citations and links to the world’s massive corpus of biomedical literature. Better yet, the National Library of Medicine’s Center for Biotechnology Information provides free access to a treasure trove of research data, analysis tools, programming interfaces (APIs) and open source code libraries, giving anyone (especially small startups) a jumpstart on prototyping and testing innovative, low-cost solutions.

2. Tacit knowledge transfer is still very much alive. As we’ve seen, opportunities for experiential knowledge abound. Take a break from the traditional vacation and participate in the growing “global knowledge café.” Interact with indigenous people who’ve had to master tacit knowledge transfer to survive. Connect with them at an emotional level. Then return home with an entirely different perspective and some radically new ideas as well!

3. Think globally, act locally. The common thread in all of this is localization. People living in grass-roofed huts in remote villages are closer to the problem, its context and possible solutions than the world’s best-equipped laboratories. That’s where KM comes in: combining knowledge generated in the field with the scaling capacity of the developed world.

It’s mind-boggling to think of how many solutions are lying undiscovered. Or being applied in one narrow area while overlooking a wide range of additional geographies and applications. How many people are still living without bare necessities simply because they don’t know about a low-cost solution that might have been implemented only a few hundred kilometers away?

The demand for knowledge of how to make increasingly scarce natural resources available to a world approaching 8 billion minds is growing. The good news is, as more minds rise out of malnutrition and poverty, more innovative breakthroughs will begin to flow, creating a virtuous cycle.

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