Can digital health+sustainability lead to use-inspired innovation?

The idea struck Andy Ruben while he was watching his 5-year old daughter play soccer.  As he told SmartPlanet,

"My [then] 5-year-old daughter was starting soccer.  We bought shin guards online.  As I sat at her first game and watched the field full of 5-year-olds and the adjacent field full of older girls who had likely outgrown their shin guards, it occurred to me how insane the whole model is. I am fairly certain the shin guards we bought new were sitting in my neighbor's garage, from a year earlier - and my neighbors would have loved to have seen them used again."

Ruben knows a thing or two about sustainability - he was part of the leadership team driving Wal-Mart's high profile sustainability initiative.  It occurred to him that if there was a way of sharing resources - a sharing community - there would be less waste, and it would be better for everyone, including the planet. 

As a result, he (with some colleagues) founded Yerdle, a bay area startup that seeks to create communities of sharers.  It launched Black Friday, as Ruben recently described in this engaging USAToday commentary.

I've no idea whether this effort will succeed; however, its mission seems right, and reminds us that the needs, and benefits of sustainability apply to many other domains, including healthcare.

If you stretched it, of course you could argue that what we're really talking about is optimizing capacity, a niche ZocDoc and others try to fill.

But there's also the very specific problem of hospitals having a lot of perfectly good medical products and other equipment sitting around that they use only occasionally (if at all), and which in theory might be of great value to someone else.

I was intrigued to recently learn about a Washington State-based startup called H-Source that aspires to address this exact need, serving as a platform where participating hospitals and care centers can sell medical products they don't need or buy products they do need - a "virtual warehouse for members of the medical products industry," as H-source describes it.

There are obviously many significant hurdles associated with the implementation of this idea, and again, I don't know whether or not H-source, specifically, has got it nailed.  But the opportunity they are describing certainly seems real (anyone who's ever worked in a hospital appreciates that inventory management can be far from perfect). 

It's also intriguing to consider whether the increasingly detailed surveillance of industry (related to the "internet of things" - see this recent NYT discussion) will increase the demand for a second market or reduce the need, by creating a leaner system.

I also wonder whether the availability of relatively new technology at reduced costs might inspire more use-based innovation, an aspect of technology evolution we often underappreciate, but which is of profound global importance.

Reviewing historian David Edgerton's powerful book, "The Shock of the Old," Steven Shapin eloquently writes,

"Old technologies persist; they even flourish.  In that sense, they're as much a part of the present as recently-invented technologies.... Most of the world's mechanical ingenuity is devoted to creating robust, reliable, and highly adapted ‘creole' technologies, an ingenuity that is largely invisible to us only because we happen to live in a low-maintenance, high-throwaway regime."

Perhaps if sustainability-focused startups such as Yerdle and H-source are successful, they'll extend the life of today's products, and lead to fascinating new uses in ways - and geographies - never originally contemplated.

 

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