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How 'Reluctant Innovators' are Transforming the World (Op-Ed)

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Jeff Nesbit was the director of public affairs for two prominent federal science agencies. This article was adapted from one that first appeared in U.S. News & World Report. Nesbit contributed the article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

When Laura Stachel watched physicians performing an emergency caesarian section during a research trip to Nigeria in 2008, something happened that stunned her. The lights went out. Stachel, an obstetrician, had a flashlight with her and the physicians finished the surgery. But during her trip, she watched this same sort of problem occur over and over.

What frustrated her was that this lack of electricity in medical settings in Nigeria (and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa) was commonplace. So she decided, somewhat reluctantly at first, to do something about it. She built a portable trunk equipped with solar panels that could provide electricity to maternity wards in developing countries like Nigeria.

We Care Solar was born — and Dr. Stachel has never looked back in her ever-expanding efforts to bring "solar suitcases" to under-resourced parts of Africa. She is the perfect example of a reluctant innovator who saw a social ill, was angered by it, and then decided to just do something herself to solve the problem.

Dr. Stachel — who may become CNN's Hero of the Year in 2013 for her work to bring light and electricity to medical settings across Africa — isn't alone. There are others, perhaps thousands, who are innovating to solve social problems in nearly every corner of the planet. Their stories are rarely told — but when they are, they're powerful.

Their stories are also now part of an extraordinary, new book by Ken Banks — a widely recognized pioneer of the social innovation movement that has swept college campuses in recent years — that hits the streets Nov. 20. "The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator" is a thoughtful, exuberant, irreverent roadmap for anyone who'd like to see firsthand how one person can change the world for the greater good.

"This book (shows) what's possible if people…don't take the easy option of turning their back, but instead doggedly search for answers to problems effecting not just the people in front of them but, in many cases, tens of millions of other people around the world," Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the winner of the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize for his anti-apartheid efforts in South Africa, writes in a foreward to the book. [Obama: Key to Future Is Innovation ]

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Banks is a PopTech fellow, an Ashoka fellow, a National Geographic emerging explorer, and the creator of an open source platform called Frontline SMS that is regularly downloaded by tens of thousands of NGOs all across the world who want to communicate in places where free speech and fairly contested elections aren't nearly what they are in the United States.

He's also one of those public speakers who literally makes you jump up out of your seat, buy a ticket to a remote part of the developing world, and single-handedly start a project designed to make at least that part of the world a better place.

Banks has inspired hundreds of social innovators who believe that they can alleviate poverty, solve healthcare delivery quandaries in remote locations, shine badly needed lights in closed societies and use technology to solve seemingly intractable problems in the developing world.

"One of the first bits of advice I give anyone who wants to make a difference in the world? Find your passion first. The rest you can learn later — if and when you need it," he says in the introduction to the book that, in typical bootstrap social innovator style, was successfully launched from Kickstarter.

The book will almost certainly create yet another wave of new social innovators who don't wait for someone to employ them in a struggling economy, but instead, forge their own path in an effort to right wrongs, care for people and communities and make a difference.

"(It's) an incredibly rare, personal and enlightening account of social entrepreneurs around the world. Their innovations demonstrate how technology can be a potent force for positive change in the world," says Katie Jacobs Stanton, Twitter's vice president of International Market Development.

The book tells 10 stories behind the creation of Medic Mobile, We Care Solar, Ushahidi, PlanetRead, DataDyne and others — and of people who saw a difficult problem firsthand and reluctantly decided that, if no one else was going to do something to right a wrong, solve a social injustice, spread knowledge or save lives, then they would.

Like Brij Kothari, who launched a literacy initiative that former President Bill Clinton says has had a "staggering impact on people's lives." Or Erik Hersman, who was worried about the struggle to share information freely in Kenya and mobilized a small team that revolutionized the way breaking news is disseminated worldwide. Or Lynn Price, haunted by the memory of being separated from her older sister during a childhood spent in foster care and distraught that other siblings might be suffering the same fate — she created an innovative way to bring foster care siblings back together.

"These real — occasionally raw — stories do more to capture the life of the committed social entrepreneur than anything else I've read. Inspiring, yes, but even better, it works as a real-world, case-based manual for how to create change for the better," says Kevin Starr, the managing director of the Mulago Foundation, which supports dozens of such efforts globally.

Thanks to Banks and the book's heroes, the roadmap for change surrounding the worst, most pressing or seemingly intractable problems just got a little brighter — and not a moment too soon for the next generation of social entrepreneurs coming into their own around issues like poverty, health care delivery or democracy movements in developing countries.

Nesbit's most recent Op-Ed was "Instead of Studying Gun Violence, Americans Just Argue About It." This Op-Ed was adapted from "The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator," which first appeared in Nesbit's column At the Edge in U.S. News & World Report. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on LiveScience.