Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Its the title of a recent Current TV Vanguard episode that literally gets to the bottom of the 2.6 billion people worldwide who lack access to a toilet.  The topic is covered in an authentic, bold, and balanced way that is informative, shocking, disgusting, even entertaining at times– a must watch for anyone curious about the daily reality of 40% of humanity.

Featured early on is long-time InSPIRE friend Vimlendu Jha, of Sweccha, who takes Adam Yamaguchi on a tour of the Yamuna river.  Once sacred, its of course now a blackened, bubbling stew of sewage and industrial waste whose stench makes Adam lose his breakfast on its banks. Mixed in with the drama and cinematographic excellence, sanitation legends like Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak of Sulabh International and the charismatic Jack Sim of the World Toilet Organization are also featured prominently, though their compassionate spirit do not quite transmit through the script and editing.

While I laud Current TV for leading with programs like this, I wonder how far the same resources would go on a very different target audience.  Viewers in the West are edu-tained by such programs, but the impetus to act, if there is one at all, is dulled by a half-world’s distance from the problem and a lack of connections and savvy about how to engage with the issue.

Yet as a creative systems thinker, the program got my head and heart churning.

When we launched Lok Darshan in Gujarat’s largest slum, the very first program had an edu-taining segment on the need for toilets.  Narrowcast simultaneously with Manav Sadhna and the Environment Sanitation Institute’s toilet-building campaign, we heard of a large increase in inquiries and requests for toilets.  Though we did not have the bandwidth to actually measure our impact, it became immediately clear that the bottleneck in delivering on the demand was first limited organizational capacity & manpower, and then funding which came from both the NGO via the Gujarat Gov’t and a private donor from Singapore.  However, it was clear that edu-taining media was quite powerful when well-designed and targeted.

Some time later when working on few films for Gram Vikas,  Joe Madiath (the founder / executive director) and I discussed an idea inspired both by our success with Lok Darshan and with IDE’s success in marketing irrigation pumps across Bangladesh & N. India.  Why not create a Bollywood-like film that could be broadcast on a mobile van where the storyline ultimately edu-tained villagers into collectively signing up for sanitation?  After all, this is what Gram Vikas did anyways through countless meetings with village leaders across Orissa. Why not scale the messaging to move from supply-push to demand-pull?

Of course, Gram Vikas had no funding for the project and we did not have the expertise to make an appealing Oriya language film.  In addition, their deep and narrow focus means that its unlikely that they would ever have the idea or initiative completely on their own.

Enter Arvind Singhal.  He’s made a career of studying entertainment-education and social change.  A friend recently introduced us to his work with a stack of books and an offer to connect us personally if we’re interested.  The first chapter of one of his (long) books features Jasoos Vijay, a detective story with 125 million regular Doordarshan viewers in N. India that has successfully deconstructed social norms, values, and beliefs around HIV/AIDS.  At the time of the study, 5% of the audience had reported a positive change in their sexual behavior as a result of the program such that the cost per behavior change was 5 cents.  Like all change, I suspect that this first ripple has a much bigger actual impact that is perhaps immeasurable.

Examples now abound in media for social change at all ends of the spectrum.  Video Volunteers has expanded and scaled their community video unit model into a people’s media channel. Lok Darshan lives on through the instrumentality of MaM founders Meghna Banker and Madhusudan Agrawal.  Microsoft Research spun off Digital Green, a media-powered peer-to-peer farmer education network.  Avaaj Otalo uses radio broadcasts and a voice-enabled system to allow farmers to access timely agricultural information and knowledge.  Planet Read subtitles Bollywood songs in the same language to improve literacy.  And these are just a few examples from the South Asian context.  This phenomena is spreading all over the world, often funded by wealthy donors and agencies in the West.

So could this approach work for toilets?  The answer is “maybe”.

The competency of building demand for toilets and sanitation is different than managing and constructing them well.  One organization is unlikely to have both competencies because of the numerous social and financial obstacles to this enterprise, creating a familiar chicken & egg problem often seen in the developing world.  You have to both create the demand for your service, and deliver it at market-creating price, similar to what Aravind Eye Hospitals did with cataract surgeries.

The strategy on paper, regardless of how difficult or seemingly impossible, can be worked out.  Summoning the compassion and integrity to make it happen is the challenge.  So often, those who have cultivated the spiritual foundation don’t go further toward the practical implementation processes of a legitimate social enterprise.  And without rigorous internal processes, no strategy on paper really works.

And that stinks.  Literally.


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People buy iPhones to be universally connected and have a ton of cool functions and features at their fingertips.  But as Rev. Heng Sure once said, everything we create in silicon already exists in carbon.  I’d add that the silicon technology is a poor facsimile at best.

So how exactly do you tap into the wonderful carbon technology you carry around with you all the time?

Meditation is a phenomenal tool to do just that.

Here are five areas where meditation beats an iPhone.

1. Connectivity

The truth is that you can’t really connect to anyone else unless you’re in touch with yourself.  The iPhone allows and encourages you to be marginally present when physically absent, and marginally absent when physically present.

Meditation gets you back in touch with yourself and helps you be present.  Period. Sometimes meditators are so present, they’re even present when absent!  And that makes their ability to connect way beyond what the iPhone allows!

2. Social Networking

Let’s face it: Twitter is often mostly random bits of irrelevant thought that you cursorily follow from people you don’t always know.  That Facebook’s popularity surpasses porn suggests that there is certainly something sexual about its magic, as 400+ million people compete for collecting more friends and appearing to have the most fun while waiting for the next ‘serendipitous’ connection.

Behind their popularity is the myth that quantity makes up for quality. 

How many of your Facebook friends could you call in a jam at 3am?  How many tweets will you ponder longer than a 160 character attention-span?

The truth is that quality is what counts, and meditation eases the disease of a random mind to add increased quality and relevance to ‘mental tweets’.  Random thoughts get slowly recycled into the mental soil, fertilizing the thoughts worth nurturing as attention stabilizes and intensifies.  The growing relief felt from all the chaos sloshing around in your head starts building sympathy for other people’s struggles.  You yourself start becoming a person willing to dash to the rescue at 3am, or just helping to make people around you a little bit happier, and that starts earning you deeper friends willing to respond in kind.

Cooling down with meditation

Suddenly you’re having real fun wherever you are, with no time left to tweet about it, snap pictures for facebook, or passively stalk other people’s lives.  Birds of a feather flock together, so you’re soon surrounded by like-minded people, paving the path for serendipitous connections that give you goosebumps in ways that connecting to your 2nd-grade-best-friend or unrequited-secret-lover-from-prom on facebook never can.

3. Features and Functionality

Is the iPhone’s 2-megapixel camera not enough for you?  How about the 324-megapixel equivalent of the human eye?  Not enough storage on your iPhone for those kinds of pictures?  Nobody knows a good way to calculate the storage of the human brain, but credible guesses say it can hold 1 to 1000 terabytes of information.  Can’t remember that much, you say?  Meditation improves memory, reverses memory loss, and delays or prevents Alzheimer’s and dementia.  How about GPS?  Meditation really grounds you and helps you figure out where you’re at and where you’re headed.  What about apps and games?  Meditation starts unlocking the games you play best and opening you up to more productive applications.

4. Environment

When 3G turns to 4G or 6F or whatever is next, your smart iPhone gets closer to becoming e-waste, full of toxic chemicals that California consider to be hazardous waste.  Be sure to recycle it when you’re done playing, and remind the other kids to do so too.

Meanwhile, meditation doesn’t add to your footprint on the planet, but might just soften it.  There isn’t much research on this, but a lot of anecdotal evidence that shows that you’ll start feeling the need for fewer material things.  And that’s great for the planet!

5. Cost

After all your fancy data plans and minutes, you can spend $5 or more a day on your iPhone.  Meditation is free, barring what you pay to learn or attend a course.  If you decide to try Vipassana, a past student who benefited will pay for your course!  And if you’re serious about practicing, meditation starts paying you, as all of that focus makes you more productive, creative, insightful, and energetic.  I’d call that a fantastic investment in any economic climate  🙂

In short, meditation is an unparalleled technology that surpasses the iPhone by leaps and bounds.  In fairness, any technology simply amplifies the will you place behind it, and its possible to use things like iPhone, Twitter, and Facebook while minimizing their downsides just like its possible to misuse meditation.

Yet playing with our silicon technology seems to have a much more slippery slope than figuring out our carbon technology, and that will keep me away from iPhones for a while.

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Started in 1972 in Rajasthan, India by Bunker Roy, Barefoot College trains uneducated women to become highly qualified solar engineers. Lacking both a basic education and common language, today women from around the world receive instruction over six months to enable them to free villages in their home countries from the pollution of kerosene or wood. That’s a big deal when the WHO says that indoor air pollutants are the number one killer of women & children in the world, at 1.6 million people a year or one every 20 seconds!

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At least at $130 / barrel of oil, according to MIT prof Philip Greenspun’s math. Here’s how he breaks it down:

  • total oil consumption in the U.S.: 21 million barrels every day (CIA Factbook)
  • cost per barrel: $130
  • days in year: 365
  • total spent per year: $1 trillion
  • percentage of oil consumed by passenger cars: 40 (source)
  • total spent per year on oil for passenger cars: $400 billion [refining into gasoline, distributing, and retailing add even more to this; looking at the 138 billion gallons the U.S. consumed in 2006, at $4 per gallon this is about $552 billion every year (subtract perhaps 5 percent for gasoline used by non-diesel trucks; add 1 percent for oil used by diesel-powered cars)]
  • at 5 percent interest, how much we could we borrow and pay $400 billion every year in interest: $8 trillion [current 10-year T-bill yields enable government to borrow at 3.84 percent]
  • number of registered cars in the U.S.: 250 million (Wikipedia)
  • cost of a new electric car, if mass-produced: $20,000
  • value of a used car, if exported to Latin America or China: $5,000
  • cost to upgrade average existing American car to a brand-new electric car: $15,000
  • number that could be converted for $8 trillion: more than 500 million cars (i.e., twice as many as we have now)

There are some feasibility problems with this vision, and getting such a massive loan doesn’t = free, but its still an interesting idea that exposes our collective myopia in creatively solving one of our biggest problems.

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Switzer Fellows are highly talented professionals who have the ability, determination and integrity to effect positive change as environmental leaders in the 21st century. Only the most active, committed and focused individuals will compete successfully to join the network of over 400 Fellows selected since 1986.”

Dipti has been working on appropriate energy technology, and is currently the Energy Program Coordinator at Gram Vikas in rural India. We learned the news a few days ago, but were waiting for the official announcement before sharing with others. Asha and I were also on hand in Orissa as Dipti was writing her Switzer essay, and will be gently nudging for her to make her vision public on her blog!

Check out a short video on Gram Vikas.

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Hand-washing clothes in India is part of the daily drudgery for hundreds of millions of housewives who can’t afford the ‘professional’ male dhobis (or the electric washing machines) that urban middle-class & elites employ for laundry. The process is inefficient not just in terms of time, but also water usage and it often accounts for nearly half of a household’s daily water requirements. In a hot country with a billion thirsty mouths where most homes get running water for about 2 hours a day (if at all), saving water by making laundry more efficient should be a top priority.

Enter the Honeybee Network and National Innovation Foundation (NIF).

Spearheaded by IIM Professor Anil Gupta, the Honeybee Network takes teams of volunteers on exploratory journeys through rural India where they scour the countryside for innovations that they hope to spread to other parts of the country. When innovations have commercial value, they pass the product on to the NIF (also sprearheaded by Anil Gupta) which aims to streamline the manufacturing process and formalize the intellectual property so that an entrepreneur can easily & efficiently buy the rights to bring the product to market.

Except there is nothing easy or efficient about it.

The Honeybee Network found Remya Jose more than 4 years ago in rural Kerala. Faced with an ailing mother and the demands of continuing her high school education, Remya developed a pedal-powered washing machine that saves time, energy, and water as a 10th grade student in rural Kerala. Through NIF’s instrumentality, her innovation was featured in Outlook magazine in 2005 followed by a Discovery Channel feature, an NDTV story, an even an award from India’s then-President, Abdul Kalam. With all that attention, you would think Remya machine would be all over India by now, and she would be collecting royalties amounting to millions of rupees.

Think again.

The NIF ‘helped’ re-design Remya’s washing machine from a device that cost Rs. 1500 to manufacture from scratch in rural india, to machine that cost Rs. 3000 to make in an urban factory. Since it would be competing with low-end single-cycle electric washing machines that cost Rs. 5000, it’s price-point is above what India’s poor can afford while simultaneously being below what the middle class demands when compared to the Rs. 5000 electric alternative. A wonderful case study in perfectly sub-optimal pricing.

Further, though the NIF helped to patent Remya’s intellectual property, the licensing agreement is designed so that NIF recovers its ‘investment’ on Remya’s innovation by taking a percentage of payments and royalties, adding another layer of expense and complication to something they ostensibly work to simplify.

NIF boasts a small handful of success stories, including generating attention in the mainstream Indian press and sparking interest among socially-engaged Indian youth. Yet it remains an open question as to whether their successes outweigh their failures, and the few opportunities they have created make up for the glaring missed opportunities of the effort.

Besides Remya’s washing machine, other innovations they have failed to capitalize on include a mobile phone-activated irrigation pump that saves farmers from manually turning on & off the water to their fields, a system to eliminate train accidents on Indian railways, a geared pedal rickshaw for faster transport with less effort, and a floating bicycle that can save lives during floods. Some of the early press coverage quotes Anil Gupta and others lamenting the huge untapped potential of rural innovators, but lacking in the candor to admit how much NIF’s own systems, processes, and personnel are part of the problem.

I approached the NIF in mid-2007 to find innovative products to demo and advertise (at no-cost!) on our newly-created social marketing platform, Lok Darshan. We were looking for products that would help the poorest of the poor, and the pedal washing machine definitely had the potential to lift people out of poverty through creation of efficient dhobi micro-enterprises. Besides a partnership that would get their products seen by the urban poor of Ahmedabad who would actually demand them (as opposed to the middle & upper-classes on Discovery & NDTV for whom the innovations were mere entertainment), I also seriously looked into purchasing the intellectual property for Remya Jose’s pedal washing machine despite the unfavorable conditions that NIF had created. After enthusiastic meetings and a few rounds of email exchange, communication with NIF dropped off with the following message from NIF’s national business development manager:

“Dear Mr. Brown,
We do agree in principle, We are discussing with our team for follow up. We need your patience and allowance for more delay from our side.”

My follow-up several weeks later yielded no response, and I’m still waiting patiently.

To his credit, Anil Gupta seems genuinely interested in serving India and in uplifting the poorest of the poor. Yet for an organization working with innovators, NIF has remained remarkably stagnant in the way it operates, and its staff lacks the creativity and vision that its clients bristle with.

The enterprising, brave, and patient should try their own hand by reviewing NIF’s list of products to see if they have any more success in bringing innovation to market.

Meanwhile, I wouldn’t be surprised if Alex Gadsen’s Cyclean beats Remya Jose to the Indian mass market.

An American pedal washing machine

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The prime source of extreme chronic poverty and destitution globally is the unsustainability of livelihood options for people living in rural communities.

My first reaction to that statement was that it depends on what you mean by ‘unsustainability’. Villages in India have had specialized members of the community in hereditary crafts and trades for hundreds, if not thousands of years. From an environmental perspective, these practices are the definition of sustainability. Yet in a globablized world where Colgate manufactures a Rs. 15 plastic toothbrush, suddenly the environmentally sound and infinitely sustainable practice of using twigs from a tree to brush your teeth is suddenly economically unsustainable for the twig vendor. Ironically, Colgate simultaneously makes the environmentally sensible option economically unviable and the economically expedient option environmentally unsustainable.

Proponents of using business to tackle chronic poverty are well-served to remember that modern business and modern poverty are the Siamese twins born of the same mother greed. Though we like to pretend that they’re separate entities, careful consideration often reveals that they’re connected at the heart and that enrichment of the few is freakishly proportional to the impoverishment of the many.

The knee-jerk response of every economist is to disagree, pointing out that trade is not a zero-sum game but a value-adding transaction by virtue of the simple fact that it took place (if both parties weren’t better off, why would there be a transaction at all?). That’s all good and well, but economists operate within the opaque bubble of ceteris paribus [all things being equal] and the devil is often in those details just beyond where they’re willing to look.

Modern capitalism has its roots in the Industrial Revolution that started in 18th century England. The nutshell history goes something like the following: some guy rich enough to not have to work to survive figured out a way to use a machine to do part of the job that his workers normally did, thereby making himself even richer. Thus began a race by many other rich people to get even richer (ya gotta keep up with the Jones’) by using machines to do the work of people. The first big problem they had was that nobody was willing to work in their hot, unclean, and unsafe factories (going from a village to festering, reeking London wasn’t on the top of anyone’s to-do list). No problem, they just convinced their rich friends in government (nobles) to enact the Enclosure of the Commons whereby villagers no longer had right to use, or even live on, the common land of their ancestors. Thus was born the first chronic poverty in rural communities. This made the decision a simple one for the villager: work in a factory or starve to death. Since factories were just a notch above being dead, off to the factories they went. Soon, these few newly minted super rich industrialists could make more stuff in their factories than the entire domestic needs of England. No problem, just create an empire of colonies that supplied you with raw material in exchange for finished goods from your factories. Nice concept, except there were already local sources of finished goods in every corner of the world. No problem, just use your governmental and military authority to systematically dismantle indigenous industries around the world so they have no other option than to be raw material suppliers for your factories. Thus was born global chronic poverty in rural communities.

The American Industrial Revolution has a distinctly different feel than that of Europe. There was always a shortage of labor, typical of migrant entry into unspoiled land. The use of machines to do the jobs of humans was more of a necessity and didn’t involve the deliberate impoverishment of rural people to feed it. Instead, America relied on the tired, poor, and huddled masses displaced by natural and man made disasters & persecutions already perpetrated by the Europeans to fuel the economy. And of course, imported slaves. America’s growth, and ultimate emergence as a global superpower was rooted in the manifest destiny of expanding (genocidally) into Native American land, while strategically trading with squabbling European powers battling for territory around the globe. While WWI is outwardly traced to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and an intricate web of alliances that entangled all of Europe into conflict, its rooted in the continuation of enmities exacerbated by the growing wealth of industrialization and the development of better killing machines that seduced the elite of each country into believing in the possibility of usurping the sovereignty and riches of their rivals. Let ’em duke it out for a couple rounds from the safety of about an ocean’s width away, and voila, emerge as a superpower.

I could write paragraphs and paragraphs about the genius with which America operates on the world stage, but suffice to say that its fundamental principles of operations have not strayed too far from the New World Order rooted in European mercantilism. Funny how closely Colgate copies the British Raj.

Which brings us back to the core question: does/can business have a role in alleviating global poverty?

On Sunday, I’ll be participating in a new ‘Article Club’ (like a book club, except shorter!) asking this exact question. An excerpt from from what we’ll be discussing.

There have been a bunch of stories recently about how large corporations are finding ways to make money selling to poor people, and (supposedly) helping them in the process. Is this a new way to address poverty on a large scale? Is it just a big scam? Is there a better way to address poverty that is economically viable? Come give your 2 cents!

Cookies & tea will be provided. Friends welcome. There will be a pop quiz at the door to make sure you read the articles.


1) The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid
by C.K. Prahalad and Stuart L. Hart
read it

2) Using Big Business to Fight Poverty
by George Lodge
read it

3) Interview with David Wheeler, author of Creating Sustainable Local Enterprise Networks (November 2005)
read it

Send me an email if you’re interested in participating, or share your ideas remotely by posting here.

(migrated from my original Livejournal post)

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