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Today, in case you didn’t know, is Global Handwashing Day. An initiative launched by UNICEF and a number of other organisations, Global Handwashing Day has a simple goal: to promote handwashing with soap, and thereby prevent germ-transmitted diseases and infections from claiming millions of lives every year.

It is a great initiative, and highly necessary – but judging from history, it also faces very tough odds. We have known about the importance of handwashing since 1847, when the Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis discovered it in a maternity clinic in Vienna. And yet, lack of handwashing remains one of the leading killers in today’s world, not just in developing countries, but also in fully developed ones.

The issue of handwashing illustrates one of the most intransigent problems of innovation: the Practicality Gap. By its very nature, innovation requires people to change their behavior, and this is exceedingly difficult to do. Worse, when the behavior we need to change is a well-established daily habit, it is nearly impossible. This is the Practicality Gap: if a new behavior cannot be effortlessly integrated into your working life, chances are that it won’t get done unless somebody literally forces you to do it.

What, if anything, is needed to bridge the Practicality Gap? Read the rest of this entry »