Innovating for Social Impact

A brief tour of the Berlin tech-for-good community.

von Jennifer Bencivenga, October 23, 2019
Laptop in the Dark

With Millennials and Gen Z-ers making up an increasing segment of the workforce and gaining buying power, their economic influence–logically–is on the rise. So too are headlines about the industries they are changing. But while it’s true that many companies are scrambling to keep pace with the changing consumption norms of young people, rarely do we hear about the positive impact of these shifts.

According to the most recent Deloitte Millennial Survey, young people are more interested than ever in spending – and earning – their money ethically. Increased awareness of the impact of the capital flowing through their wallets (or perhaps more accurately, through their credit cards), and a corresponding effort to act more responsibly, has caused a proliferation of businesses and organizations promising positive social or environmental impact. Accelerated by technology, the social impact and innovation sector is growing, and has found a home in Germany’s capital city, Berlin.

The social and sustainable businesses, non-governmental organizations, and community projects attracted to the city enjoy a number of digital and physical spaces designed to facilitate scalable positive change. Among them are community-focused workspaces like Social Impact Lab and Impact Hub Berlin, and, a crowdfunding platform for social projects. Berlin is also the birthplace of the Entrepreneurs Pledge, a network of founders whose projects focus on environmental and social challenges, and who have committed to re-investing at least 50% of profits into their cause.

The Tech for Global Good Meetup is another place where this sector regularly convenes, attracting a wide scope of participants – from entrepreneurs and investors to students and job-seekers – who share a conviction that innovative ideas and technology have the potential to improve the world for the better. Here, attendees gather to connect, share knowledge, and create opportunities for collaboration in the sector. The series, the next of which is scheduled for the end of this year, is organized by the German office of eHealth Africa (eHA), an international tech-for-health nonprofit. Each Meetup features different topics, co-hosts, and presentations from a range of themes related to social innovation.

eHA, whose largest office is based in Kano, Nigeria, has used digital health technology to strengthen health systems across Africa for close to ten years. The Germany team, which started as a group of software developers rapidly assembled at a coworking space to write code for digital tools used in the 2014 Ebola outbreak response, has since established itself among the Berlin’s ever-expanding health-tech scene. Managing Director Johanna Roegele, who represents eHA in the Women in Global Health’s Germany Chapter, leads a young and close-knit team of software engineering, design, and communications experts that collaborate with colleagues across Africa to develop data tools for public health initiatives. Most notable among them are various mHealth and eHealth tools used in Nigeria and neighboring countries for polio eradication initiatives, and the electronic Integrated Disease Surveillance and Response (eIDSR) system in Sierra Leone. With the implementation of eIDSR throughout the nation, Sierra Leone has become the first African country with a fully digital health reporting system.

While their impact is focused on the global stage, the Meetup series was an intentional turn towards the local for the non-profit. As explained by Roegele, “Our work moves the needle towards health security on the global scale and our teams deliver essential services and solutions in some of the hardest to reach places. We need to think about sustainable systemic change at a large scale. In our day-to-day, this can make it easy to forget about the valuable resources available to us right next door. Berlin has a thriving community that leverages technology for global good across sectors. We want to be intentional in connecting value-driven individuals and organizations that share our passion for innovative problem-solving to build stronger systems that provide people everywhere with the tools they need to lead healthier lives.”

Within that space, eHA is one of a number of dedicated, data-driven organizations that work to improve health and wellness. Ada Health, for example, is a Berlin tech startup behind a symptom checker app that combines artificial intelligence with medical expertise. Recently, they’ve partnered with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to explore how the Ada app can improve healthcare delivery for underserved populations around the world. Also based in Berlin, the women-led team behind Clue has developed an app to serve unmet health and wellness needs specific to women. The menstrual tracking tool, encyclopedia, and female health resource has been globally successful and is used in over 180 countries.

The sector also includes entities involved in a broader scope of health projects, like the company-builder Digital Health Factory. Their team of “doctors, engineers, techies, data scientists, writers, marketers, communicators, designers, creatives, and entrepreneurs” is involved in a wide-range of ventures that build digital tools for health therapeutics. Young Leaders for Health, a non-profit organization and international network for global health, isn’t strictly focused on health technology, but they consider innovation one of their four pillars and organize an annual a four-day Social Entrepreneurship Challenge on eHealth.

For tech experts wanting to use their skills for good, social impact enthusiasts with an innovative approach, or entrepreneurs and investors seeking to initiate positive change, the city of Berlin has a seemingly endless pool of like-minded entities. Whether they are seeking to improve health, combat global warming, or support social cohesion, the overarching idea – that innovation can make the world a better place – is shared by a large local community that is always looking for new members. If you’re in Berlin and looking to get involved in the sector – you can rest assured that you’re in the right city. Get started by checking out some of the above-mentioned spaces, or by joining the next Tech for Global Good Meetup.

About the Author:

Jennifer Bencivenga is part of the global Programs and Impact team at eHealth Africa, an organization that works with partners to create and deploy digital data solutions to strengthen health systems across Africa.