Behind-the-scenes look at design for social impact

February 8, 2009

We talked about design for social impact last fall. If you want to learn more about how the design approach can be applied to problems in the developing world, check out this blog.  It follows Jeff Chapin, a designer (or engineer?) who is taking a sabbatical from IDEO to work on a low-cost latrine with International Development Enterprises (IDE).  Jeff is blogging daily about his experiences working in Cambodia.  A great read if you’re interested in design for the other 90%.

As well, I’m taking a fantastic class this spring in the civil engineering department called Design for Sustainable Communities.  Taught by Ashok Gadgil, the class takes a hands-on approach to designing innovative products to address critical needs in both developed and developing countries. I’m working on a cross-disciplinary team (2 mechanical engineers, 1 environmental engineer, 1 business school student – me!) to re-envision the solar box cooker for the Indian market.  Solar box cookers have been around for many years.  The technology is simple – sun hits box, box cooks food inside.  But in the last 30 years, there has been almost zero innovation to the design or materials — advances have generally focused on increasing energy efficiency, rather than usability.  So there’s a huge potential to create a better, more relevant solution to spur mass adoption.

Other projects that my fellow students are working on include:

  • Solar water heater for Guatemala (technology = solar panels on urban roofs for heating water)
  • Arsenic remediation in Bangladesh (arsenic is colorless and odorless, but can be removed using a Lawrence Berkeley National Lab (LNBL) technology)
  • Bioclimatic design for “kit” houses in South Pacific

Very inspiring stuff indeed!


Google funding internet initiatives in Africa

February 2, 2009

Google is starting to enter the world of ICTD (Information and Communication Technologies and Development) by funding initiatives to bring internet to small, rural villages in Africa.  One such project, implemented by three engineers from University of Michigan, involves installing satellite dishes powered by solar panels to hookup computers in the local community to the rest of the world.

The head of Google’s East Africa office, Joseph Mucheru, notes that “building infrastructure is not necessarily Google’s objective, but if you look at all the areas that Google has gone into, in many cases it has been to fill a gap… The market should see the opportunity.”

Google’s entry into ICTD seems to be an especially appropriate fit for a corporate social responsibility strategy.  Google can help rural villages get “online,” and also ensure their place in a new market.

It will be interesting to see if internet adoption in Africa and other developing country follows the same trajectory as mobile phone adoption – e.g. leapfrog over “standard” infrastructure like electricity grids by using solar-powered mobile phone towers.

Click here for the full New York Times article.

Poverty-fighting tool: conditional cash transfers

December 30, 2008

The New York Times recently published an in-depth article about a poverty-fighting program called Oportunidades in Mexico.  Instead of traditional government welfare programs that offer subsidized food or healthcare, the program gives the poor cash on the condition that the money is spent on “activities designed to break the culture of poverty and keep the poor from transmitting that culture to their children.”   Some examples of these conditional cash transfer activities include:

  • Money for school fees, contingent on the child’s attendance record
  • Money for food, subject to preventative health checkups
  • Money, on conditions of attendance at monthly educational workshops on health topics (like purifying drinking water)

Initial objections about Oportunidades stemmed from the program’s potential to increase domestic violence, given the machismo culture of poor, rural Mexico. The program is targeted towards women who are the primary spenders in the family.Women must leave the house to receive payments, attend workshops, and visit the clinic.  Workshops are about women’s rights and self-esteem.  Women also get their own money and control how it is spent.  Indeed, the stories reflect the shifting balance of power between the husband and wife; transitions that are fraught with tension and anger in the beginning, but fade over time when the program’s benefits are realized.

Overall results have been impressive thus far.  In Mexico, rates of malnutrition, anemia, and childhood and adult illnesses have dropped.  Children enrolled in the program drop out less frequently, repeat fewer grades, and stay in school longer. In some rural areas, the percentage of children entering middle school is up by 42% and 85% for high school.

Similar programs are being rolled out in 30 other countires (mainly in Latin America) including Turkey, Cambodia, and Bangladesh.  New York City is also starting a pilot program under Mayor Michael Bloomberg called Opportunity NYC.

To learn more, read the New York Times article and the World Bank case study on Oportunidades.

Everyone A Changemaker: Social Enterprise Conference with Muhammad Yunus.

November 14, 2008

“If we don’t do it, noboday else will.” Muhammad Yunus’ words echoed over a captivated crowd of students, professionals, and social entrepreneurs. Yunus opened as the keynote speaker for the conference honoring the 2008 Tech Laureates, for “Technology Benefiting Humanity” at Santa Clara University. Muhammad Yunus opened, explaining that his work started with a “simple idea, and a simple action.” Yunus founded the Grameen Bank (, a bank dedicated to serving the poor. The Grameen Bank went from one village, to now having over 7 million borrowers. Yunus has since expanded the Grameen initiatives into IT, education, irrigation and health.

Yunus emphasized the importance of mindset; of how we make our minds. As we grow, we need to set our minds to lead us in the right direction, to help, to empathize and to believe. Many people told him his ideas could not be done; their minds were set in a different way. Yunus had confidence in people, he believes every human is an entrepreneur, given their chance. He explains, sitting down with a beggar and understanding their story, gives him confidence that they can work out of it. Grameen is owned by the poor; he puts the bank in the hands of his lenders. His confidence in the poor may seem risky; to that he explains, “just because I don’t know, doesn’t mean I can’t try.”

He talked at length about the idea of social business. He explained business solely driven off of profit, assumes people are very one-dimensional; but they’re not. Social business allows people to express they’re selfless side in they’re work. He defines social business as a non loss, non dividend venture with a social objective. His visions for the future include a social stock market, a social wall street journal; where investors and entrepreneurs are motivated by their return on social impact.  It may seem crazy to some, but it poses many interesting ideas. Why aren’t we concerned more with our gain on social impact when valuing a business? Some  controversial points in his views, are whether a social business should be profitable; Does it limit the talent and motivations necessary for driving social business forward?

Bill Drayton, the founder and CEO of Ashoka (, was the next speaker. Ashoka builds an amazing community and network of powerful social entrepreneurs to collaborate across the world to make a holistic change. He talked about the difference between business as usual and social enterprise. He argues that there should be a difference in the type of management, measurements, etc and that we shouldn’t try and mold social enterprise into standard business. Which makes me wonder… social enterprise thrives because they implement a lot of the practices that make business successful. So where is the line; how close can social enterprise really come to competitive business models without losing what makes them unique and powerful in the first place…?

Drayton emphasized the need for people to “give themselves permission”. He described an Ashoka fellow as giving himself persmision to change the world. It’s amazing how much things can change when people believe they can make a difference.

Part One: The Assassination of the Third World

October 17, 2008

At what point did the term “third world” become a cultural slur? Rising anxiety surrounding this nomenclature seems to have coincided with a number of events in the late 1980s and early 1990s: the U.S. assault on Panama; the beginning of a long period of jobless growth in the U.S.; the fall of the Soviet Union (“the Second World”). With the collapse of the ostensible global hierarchy, and a rising necessity for the U.S. to maintain relationships with nascent, burgeoning nations to sustain jobless growth, the terminology seems to have been quickly replaced with more strategic ‘phrases du jour’: developing countries, emerging economies, etc. But Vijay Prashad argues that this liberal nominalism missed the entire significance of the Third World, the ideals it originally represented, and how it was assassinated.

Last week I attended a lecture given by Prashad, Chair in South Asian History and Professor of International Studies at Trinity College, genre-busting political and social historian, and prolific author. In his most recent work, The Darker Nations: A Peope’s History of the Third World, Prashad explores the notion of the Third World rather as a intentional ‘project’, originating with the first sparks of anti-colonialist rebellion in the 1920s and dying in the embers of the global debt crisis of the early 1980s. The objectives of this project, which was hoisted to global significance by post-colonial intellectuals and leaders such as Nehru of India, Castro of Cuba, Nkrumah of Ghana, Mandela of South Africa, was to develop a universal platform for newly emancipated nations to come to the table, in the United Nations and elsewhere, with the countries to which they had for too long been subordinate. These leaders held strong to their beliefs that a new world order would require peace (disarmament), economic and trade reform, and justice (gender and racial equality).

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2008 Social Capitalist Awards

October 6, 2008

Fast Company is my favorite business magazine, hands down.  Every year, the magazine chooses 45 Social Entrepreneurs that are changing the world.  Some of the top picks include organizations that have been highlighted in the Market-based Approaches to Poverty course, like Acumen Fellows, KickStart and Scojo Foundation.  Definitely check out the list if you’re interested in working for an innovative social enterprise – I’ve got my eye on a few of them as well!

The role of design and social impact

September 30, 2008

Another fantastic round of speakers at our weekly seminar series – Market-based Approaches for Reducing Poverty. This time the speakers were our very own senior lecturers: Jocelyn Wyatt of IDEO’s Design for Social Impact and David Lehr of Mercy Corp’s Social Innovation team.  While Jocelyn and David have done a great job facilitating dialogue with other speakers during class, it was really interesting getting to hear about their own experiences and background.

Jocelyn, and her colleague Sally Madsen, kicked off the session with an introduction to IDEO’s design approach and how it can be applied to achieve social impact in developing countries.   Development is a topic we’ve heard about many times before, but this time Jocelyn and Sally emphasized a different perspective -a bottoms up approach, talking directly to the people being affected, and coming in with no preconceptions but an open mind and a willingness to listen.  The ideas weren’t necessarily revolutionary, but sparked the “a hah!” and “well, of course that makes sense” moments of insight several times throughout the presentation.  A couple of examples:

  • Place individual behavior in the broader context (e.g. don’t ignore the role that culture plays, as illustrated by Yang Liu’s East vs. West)
  • Realize that design trade-offs are necessary for different audiences (For example, both IDE and KickStart have irrigation pumps. IDE pumps are made out of bamboo and are affordably priced to the mass market. In contrast, KickStart has a more reliable, but expensive metal pump.  Both products serve the same need, but with completely different business models).
  • Understand that owning a business is risky and most entrepreneurs in developing countries would prefer a more steady source of income if given a viable alternative

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