Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Back to School

It is that time of year... students are coming back on campus, faculty are scrambling to finalize syllabi. Sustainable design, social entrepreneurship, and and international development are hot topics on campus. If you are a teacher planning coursework in these areas (or at their "intersection"), or if you are a student that wants to do a project in one of your classes, check out these resources:

1) Get the juices flowing. The Cooper Hewitt Museum had an exhibit "Design for the Other 90%" last year. Gives some nice examples of some of the designs in this show. There are also teacher lesson plans for K-12 on this site.

2) A few ideas to get started. Paul Polak founded International Development Enterprises and helped organize the Cooper Hewitt exhibit. He recently wrote an excellent book called "Out of Poverty" which discusses design approaches for the poor (particularly the rural farmers). On his website, he has posted some products that he thinks will have large markets. See his wishlist here.

3) Who is the customer? The Economic Lives of the Poor by Banerjee & Duflo (2006 MIT Poverty Action Lab) provides some background on how much money the poor have and how they spend it. It will break down some assumptions/ stereotypes and can be a great tool for class discussions.

4) Is there a need? The Next 4 Billion (2007) by World Resources Institute can help. The introductory chapter gives a good overview, and then the other chapters focus on the needs in specific areas (water, energy, health, etc.) Appendices contain country-by-country info. This can be a way to dig deeper into specific needs. Move from general "the world needs clean water" to "in BOPistan, they need a pump to access groundwater at 10 meters, and a filter system to eliminate dissolved solids."

5) Who else is working on this? Google away. Identify organizations working on related projects or in the region. Have students find out "what is working and what isn't" and profile the organizations.

6) What approach will work? Consider setting up student debate teams to get them thinking critically about these challenges. For international development, try Easterly vs. Sachs, or for climate change try Gore vs. Lomborg. Neither of these debates will happen in real life, so it is useful to have students roleplay and apply these perspectives to their projects.

7) Do no harm. While projects may be motivated by good intentions, unfortunately they don't always end well. "Parachutista" projects of quick, one-time visits may help students learn, but they contribute little or nothing to the community. To sensitize team members, read over the BOP Protocol and check out Tori Hogan's blog and documentary "Beyond Good Intentions." In addition, if the project involves designing a new product, please consider Cradle to Cradle and biomimicry principles. Challenge the team to create as much value with as little waste as possible.

You may also want to take a look at the current online discusion on "Design for Social Impact" led by Jocelyn Wyatt of IDEO.

Now I have to get back to scrambling to get ready for my classes...

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Be the change...

"You must be the change you wish to see in the world." One of Gandhi's most famous quotes, and one that ends up on t-shirts and bumperstickers. Perhaps some of the better known (and funded) social entrepreneurs would do well to keep this in mind. They don't seem to react very well when the prevailing wisdom of the field is questionned or criticized, based on at least three responses I've noticed in recent months.

1) Earlier this year, in "Just Another Emperor" Michael Edwards (of Ford Foundation) questioned whether "philanthrocapitalism" was the best solution to poverty and international development. The debate has ranged from escalating hostility (See Jim Fruchterman's recent posts and Edward's responses on the Benetech blog) to polite disagreement (WRI bloggers at NextBillion). Reminds me a bit of the response to the "Death of Environmentalism" a few years back, or how Bjorn Lomborg is treated as an environmental pariah for questioning whether climate change is the biggest challenge the world faces.

2) Recent studies have questionned the impact of "social marketing" and instead advocated a return to free distribution of bednets, medicines, etc. This also provoked a less than considered response by some social entrepreneurs. Apparently the approach of using validated research methods, such as the projects of the MIT Poverty Action Lab, is threatening to some in the social sector.

3) Professor Paul Light questioned whether social entrepreneurship should be defined more inclusively in a Stanford Social Innovation Review article last year. Bill Drayton of Ashoka and Sally Osberg of Skoll Foundation both asserted, based on anecdotal evidence, that it was dangerous to let too many people claim to be social entrepreneurs. John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan sound a similar theme in their book "The Power of Unreasonable People." Look for Paul to reengage on this topic in his upcoming book "The Search for Social Entrepreneurship."

I have personal anecdotes of less than civil behavior in the civil sector. I am a big believer in the power of entrepreneurship as one tool to tackle social and environmental challenges. But I am also a big believer in letting markets, including markets of ideas, operate freely. My concern is that momentum and talent are lost to the field when new ideas from new people are met with personal attacks and this sort of defensiveness. The needed innovations will come through hard work in the field, not the labeling and sorting of who is, and who isn't, a true social entrepreneur by those who apparently know the secret handshake.

A more interesting, but still spirited, debate on a closely related topic can be found at Creative Capitalism.

It would seem to me that of all fields, social entrepreneurship should be the one modeling how to engage in civil conversation and debate. There is lots of room for passionate diagreement, and I am, after all the one that posted the "no rules in a knife fight" clip. But I gotta say I am not too enthusiastic about the change these leading social entrepreneurs will bring about if this is the way they behave when confronted with criticism or new ideas. We need to respect the early leaders in this field, but not be dogmatic in applying their approaches to the many challenges we face. Hero worshippers rarely become heroes.

PG has done it again

On a completely different note, Paul Graham has once again hit the nail squarely with a great essay on Fundraising for start-ups. Great advice, and as is often the case, applicable beyond his IT domain.

Campaign for a Sustainable Planet

The Nature Conservancy has set a Big Hairy Audacious Goal with this new campaign: "protect at least 10% of each of the world's major habitat types-forests and grasslands, oceans, rivers and lakes and deserts and aridlands- by 2015." Sounds like a good way for the new CEO Mark Tercek (from Goldman Sachs) to rally the troops.

One Acre Fund

Kudos also to this organization, which continues to quietly make progress. When I first met Andrew, he struck me as a humble, smart, persistent guy. He talked about proving the model before scaling up. Click here to read their most recent report. Here is an excerpt: "One Acre Fund farmers increase their raw harvests by 3-4x on average, resulting in at least a doubling of their farm income. They not only feed their own families, they create surplus food for their communities. Our farmers, instead of relying on handouts, operate like business people, and earn their harvests for themselves." They are now going to scale up the organization and I wish them the best in their efforts to have 30,000 African farmers as customers in the next few years. Andrew and crew are being the change I'd like to see!

Disclosure: I donate to Ashoka, One Acre Fund and The Nature Conservancy and think they do great work. I am also a fan of Benetech and Jim F's pioneering work there.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Biomimicry: Back to the Future for the BOP?

Last week I was invited to participate in a workshop by the The Biomimicry Institute (TBI) on education and biomimicry. The workshop was held on the shores of Montana's Flathead Lake and was a great chance to interact with educators and designers who are pioneers in this field. I was definitely the "newbie," having been asked to come give the group some background on designing products for the poor.

One of the big challenges is that as the poor move up the development ladder, the demand on the world's resouces increases... for all 6 billion people to live at U.S. standards, we would need several more Earths. Designing new planets seems to be a stretch, so it's probably better to figure out how to design products, organizations, industries and communities to be more sustainable. And biomimicry may be an important tool in doing this. As TBI points out "While humans have a long way to go towards living sustainably on this planet, millions of species – each with nearly 4 billion years of field testing – contain technological ideas to help us succeed in our all-important quest to become a sustainable species on a biodiverse planet."

Yes, Doc, "Design Inspired by Nature" has a definite Back to the Future feel to it! By looking back at how life has evolved over the millenia, we can gain insight into how we can make better, more sustainable products in the future.

Some highlights for me were hearing/seeing:

- Carl Hastrich talk about some of his students' projects at the Ontario College of Art and Design... including hockey gear inspired by a squirrel's seasonal coats (the summer fur is different than the winter). What do you expect from Canadian biomimetics, eh?

-Torrey McMillan show the project her students did in her elective science class for seniors at the White Mountain School in New Hampshire. As part of designing and building a living machine water filtration system, the students also needed to write a manual for science teachers who wanted to build one for their classes.

-Prasad Boradkar from ASU talk about his multidisciplinary Innovation Space program and the way he is planning to integrate biomimcry into this program.

-Tom McKeag and Margot Higgins discuss their upcoming graduate seminar at UC Berkeley "How Would Nature Do That?." If I were a Berkeley grad student (Luke O!) I would definitely check this one out.

As for my section of the program, TBI has identified the BOP as a strategic priority (along with Climate Change and Chemicals/toxics). Mitesh Gala and I have been doing some work on how biomimicry and "cradle to cradle" concepts might be used to improve BOP design, and I gave some background on BOP product design concepts. I told some stories from Enviofit, IDE and SELCO. I went through the evolution from the early models of large corporations' "repackaging for the poor" to IDE's "designing for extreme affordability." I shared my hope that we could come up with leapfrog designs for the poor, that allow them to bypass technologies that rely on existing infrastructure. For instance, many developing countries have better mobile telephony systems and leapfrogged over the copper wire systems. Perhaps it will be possible to leapfrog the electrical grid, or large scale water and sewage systems.

I also emphasized my belief that new design approaches must encompass not just the product, but also organizations, business ecosystem (industry and supply chain) and communities. I hope that some of the ideas helped the other participants expand their ideas on how to use their vast knowledge of design and nature to begin to look at applications for shelter, energy, and water treatment.

Kudos to Denise, Cindy and Sam for putting on a great workshop.