Archive for the 'globalization' Category

Science, Adventure, and Service

The Guardian UK has a delightful article that describes the confluence of history, science, and adventure that turns on the story of Darwin, the redesign of the HMS Beagle, and NASA scientists today – and ways they inspire modern K-12 education. At the heart of the article is a wonderful quote, that “Inspiration, then, fuelled by adventure, was the trigger for Darwin’s lifelong commitment to science. Over the past few years the Beagle Project team has worked to bring the adventure of science back into focus.”

I think this affinity for adventure and discovery among students is a big part of what makes public service so attractive at MIT – its the opportunity for students to apply their problem-solving skills in very different and unfamiliar contexts that stretch their learning. This is exciting, and it’s also problematic, and goes to the heart of a robust debate that Bruce Nussbaum kicked off a few months back on design and the new “imperialism.” When the HMS Beagle – a very adept ten gun sloop of war of the British Navy – set out on its historic voyage nearly 180 years ago, Britain was at the apex of its colonial expansion, and the voyage marked a projection of power far more than it did a scientific endeavor.

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Bruce Nussbaum: The New Imperialism

During the period of rapid American mechanization and industrialization – from roughly the late 18th century through the 19th century – the United States benefitted significantly from the contributions of foreign inventors and entrepreneurs. One might go so far as to say, the founding of American industrial strength out of this period was formed out of strong continental ties and a lively exchange of ideas and designs.

Explicit knowledge transfer programs like worker training and study tours thrived as societies sought to keep abreast of the latest technological advances – as did less formal modes of learning, including philosophical societies and outright espionage.

Against this backdrop of the lively exchange of knowledge and commerce, it comes as a bit of a shock to read the latest musing of Bruce Nussbaum, a professor of Innovation and Design at the Parsons School of Design, who mused in a recent Fast Company Design article whether “Humanitarian design is the new imperialism?” Granted, this is a line of enquiry he’s used in the past, for example in a 2009 Businessweek article when he asked whether “Green” was the new imperialism.

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The fortress and the free agent

Non-profit tech experts Beth Kanter and Alison Fine have a great article in the June 13 edition of the online Chronicle of Philanthropy. In it, they profile a 29-year old Canadian who has spent the last couple of year traveling the world, doing good deeds, documenting his experiences, and sharing them online – inspiring millions to follow along and contribute to his work. Pretty cool stuff. Reminds me a little of the work of Gabriel Stauring, inspiring founder of

In the article, they make a provocative claim: “Free agents do it when and how they please, making them distinct from and more powerful than traditional volunteers.”  ”He is inspiring other people to talk about the issue of global poverty and take action “’in a way that is different from the big nonprofit organizations,’” he says.

But he’s having a hard time earning credibility with the big guys – the more conventional aid organizations. Alison and Beth explain:

““The problem isn’t social media, the problem is that you are the fortress. Social media is not my problem: I have over a quarter million followers on Twitter, 10,800 subscribers on YouTube, and 2.1 million views. Yet despite that, I have a hard time having you guys take me seriously. I get dismissed as ‘just a guy on YouTube.’”

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US Aid Professionals to American Volunteers: Stay Home

William Easterly is a well-respected economist, author, and aid critic at New York University. One of his books that influenced me quite a bit is “The Elusive Quest for Growth: An Economists Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics.” In it, he lays out a passionate, cogent case that U.S. foreign aid has not delivered the economic and social benefits donors should expect. You can keep up with his writing at his blog, Aid Watch. Much of it is a consistent stream of criticism around ways aid is portrayed in the media, with timely quarrels with the numbers and policy recommendations.

An interesting side effect of this work has been a rising call for American voluntary aid workers to stay home. In fact, you might even say that the work of journalists like Nicholas Kristoff to popularize awareness of conditions in struggling regions has been met with frustration at Americans’ corresponding desire to do something.

This do something spirit, perhaps amplified in our age of Internet-enabled media and visibility, has even been given a new name, voluntourism.

The frustration with Americans pitching in generally, and voluntourism specifically, is exemplified by the blog Tales from the Hood - at the center of a group of bloggers with titles like Blood and Milk, Good Intentions Are Not Enough, and Wronging Rights – that regularly launches salvos across the bows of DIY do gooders and “amateur” aid workers. Its not clear how they themselves cut their teeth in aid, for whom they practice, and the lasting results that they have produced.

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Small Business, Finance and Innovation in Emerging Markets

Microlending and social giving together, over the last decade, have significantly brightened the light on entrepreneurial activity across emerging markets. Much of the attention around this activity has been directed at individual agents – social entrepreneurs and individual donors – through small scale lending activity inspired by the success of the Grameen model.

A second tier of financial institutions direct investments and loans at small and medium sized businesses. These investments can often be seen as an infusion of capital greater than what a microloan will provide, but are too risky to secure substantial finance from traditional lending institutions like banks. Importantly, these new “social venture funds” pay close attention to both social and financial returns on investment.

I’m wondering whether there isn’t a gap in this landscape around finance for innovation.

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Over on his “Dare Mighty Things” blog, tech and social entrepreneur Ryan Allis writes, “As I sit on the 28th floor of a hotel in San Francisco I am angry, yet hopeful. I wonder why in a world with as much wealth as we see, as much luxury that we experience, should 40% of the human species live on under $2 per day?”

Ryan’s uncharacteristically outraged.

Always passionate, there’s a ring of clarity and urgency. This from a guy who, not even 20, founded a successful technology company and today spends alot of time inspiring others. Ryan’s young, smart, successful – he’s supposed to be optimistic about the human species and our capacity to shape the world for the better, right? So what gives?

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Nebulae, Cities and Innovation

The Orion Nebula captured through NASAs Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Hubble Space Telescope.

The Orion Nebula captured through NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Hubble Space Telescope.

Just yesterday I was reading an article at describing the remarkable discovery of an explosion within the Orion Nebula considered to be the youngest “star nursery” ever discovered. A star nursery – that phrase really stuck with me in a way it hadn’t before, and I think it must all be in the context of work.

That same day I came across a 2006 TED Talk by the inimitable Stewart Brand, who founded the Whole Earth Review back when the Internet was a glint in Bob Metcalf’s eye. It wasn’t even ARPANET (I don’t think). Anyway, Stewart Brand in his TED Talk was describing the explosive rate of growth of our cities, and how they represent one of our greatest hopes for a future without poverty. He said – and still does – a lot of provocative things in his TED talk back in 2006, and one of them is that cities, especially slums, are nodes of problem solving and innovation.

London at night, as seen from space and captured by American astronaut Donald Pettit

London at night, as seen from space and captured by American astronaut Donald Pettit

And then he did something remarkable – at least I thought it was remarkable – he played a video clip of the earth in dark. The camera slowly pulls away from the East Coast of the U.S. and its dense, nebula-like cluster of light. We see the dark expanse of the Atlantic Ocean and then London comes into view, then Paris and Cairo and Berlin and Istanbul and soon the entire surface of the earth is shining with these clusters of light and he says something breathtaking: “For the first time, the earth is shining back at the stars.”

Star nurseries. The Internet. Cities. Innovation. Changing perspective.

This is what I’ve been dreaming about for more than a year – the creation of a place where innovative ideas are born and carried forward, an global incubator for “invention as public service.” A place where the worldwide talent of MIT students, alumni and their collaborators can be directed toward some of the great opportunities of our time – from energy production and storage to innovations in international health and sanitation. Agricultural production and processing to new approaches to education and communication delivery.

These are some of the challenges we face, and it is my deepest hope that the MIT IDEAS Global Challenge can be an incubator of some of MIT’s new humanitarian stars.

Nokia Enters Development Space with “Life Tools”

Kiwanja has a great post on Nokia’s latest move into the ICT for development (ICTD) space with the release of its mobile financial and payment service, Nokia Money.

Kiwanja writes,

“Last November, on the day Barack Obama won the US Presidential elections, Nokia quietly lay their cards on the table and entered the ‘international development’ arena. The launch of Nokia Life Tools - initially a suite of education and agriculture-based tools aimed at the Indian market – was a significant step forward for the handset maker, which had for some time been positioning itself not just as a manufacturer, but also as something of a services provider.

So, something else which shouldn’t have come as a big surprise was today’s news of Nokia’s big move into mobile financial services. There’s clearly a big market opportunity here, and Nokia have partnered withObopay to take it on (a company they had already invested around $70 million in earlier this year).”

Intersections with work happening here at MIT include – among others – Next Billion Network, NextLab, International Initiatives in Health (IIH), and D-Lab ICT course – among many others. I expect this to be an area of explosive growth here at MIT over the next few years that cuts across many disciplines.

Book Notes: In the River they Swim

In the River they Swim, available at

Among the benefits of attending I2I were the two books I snagged by presenters which have deepened my reading stack, though one made it to the top of the pile by virtue of cracking it open on the long subway ride from the Village to JFK.

And if I may: if there’s one must-read Summer book on entrepreneurship and development, “In the River they Swim” (“The River” from now on) is my cool and refreshing pick. First off, its a collection of essays, which makes it easy to dip in and out of. Second, its well written and edited, which means you’ll find the intellectual waters at a constant and cozy temperature. [Caveat: I'm precisely half way through the book; these observations may not hold. But I think they will].

A few thoughts.

  • Every student who wants to work in international development – whether commerce, government, academia, relief, etc – should read this book. The contributors come from a range of backgrounds and perspectives. What they share is a sense that the growth of domestic and international business activity is a cornerstone of development.
  • Its not just for students. The depth of the contributors’ experience in international development is impressive – essays from heads of state (Paul Kagame, Rwanda), leaders of multinational institutions (Luis Alberto Moreno, Inter-American Development Bank),  international business executives (Malik Fall, Microsoft), and global financiers (Michael Fairbanks, S.E.VEN Fund) – will appeal to the most pragmatic of professionals.
  • Think globally, act globally. “The River” challenges conventional wisdom about how to approach work as a development actor. It recognizes that today’s global economy turns on interdependence, and thus requires high levels of thinking and broad theaters of action. Its not a guidebook for the underachiever.
  • For business to survive, culture must thrive. One of the things I like about the book is that its contributors span the globe. While most have spent some time at elite intellectual centers, they speak from the homes where they’re grounded – Senegal, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Colombia… And many of the authors point to the benefits – and difficulties – of surrounding themselves, and others, with the broadest intellectual and talent base possible.
  • Reflection, praxis and anticipation. The book is divided into three sections: the first are essays that nurse out into important dynamics in international development, as seen from a range of actors – from cultural pluralism in the workplace to hard lessons learned about managing expectations – and more. The second section is less about lessons-sharing and more about advice-giving: the authors introduce intellectual models – tools and analytical frameworks – for better performance. The third section is a little ambiguous – not just because I haven’t read it, but with a quick scan it seems less focused – a pastiche of globe trotting anecdotes aimed at contextualizing(!) the global economy in ways that bring wealth creation vs poverty trap into some kind of resolution, integrate lessons from around the world into a coherent framework for, if not coordinated action, shared assault.

Learn more about “In the River they Swim.”