January 24, 2011

2011: Innovation

Imagine a panacea pill, the most innovative novel product to date. Dr. Ahmed Mushfiq Mobarak from the Yale School of Management studies why it may fail. He began Monday night’s Global Health Seminar series for the professional schools with: “It’s not that we don’t have the solutions, but that once they’re on the market, people aren’t buying them.”

In true economist form, his presentation was entitled “Low Demand from ‘Apparently Beneficial’ Products and Behaviors.” His field research took us to Rangpur, one of the poorest and famine-ridden regions of Mobarak’s native Bangladesh where seasonal migration rates are also the lowest in the country. Mobarak’s research piloted cash and credit migration facilitation programs and found that having a migrant worker in the family was an effective source of income and thus, an increase in the health measurement of caloric intake. So why were there not more migrant workers before? Mobarak’s explanation is a behavioral one: regardless of the slim probability, the consequences of failure are too overwhelmingly devastating. No “culturally salient educational” intervention would be effectual enough to override this behavior but further development of his intervention programs might.

In the same way, Mobarak’s second project in the presentation involved discovering why technologically improved cook stoves that reduce indoor pollution were not being “taken up,” or used. You can read the details of his positive conclusions on social network marketing here, but what I’d like to note was how freely Mobarak shared the criticisms of his own projects, which will drive his next. The act of building a cheap, resource-sensible stove is a “complex engineering problem with a lot of constraints” and acknowledged that he was going back to the drawing board with engineers on developing more powerfully efficient stoves to market.

The Global Health Seminar promises themes of innovation, implementation, and maternal and child health for the semester. Although Mobarak lectured under the banner of innovation, I might say that his focus was implementation – on the difficult and oftentimes unexpectedly perplexing movement of technologies out of the lab and academia and into the real, developing world.

Connie Cho, GHLI Intern

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