Monthly Archive for April, 2009

Black Carbon and Poverty

Cooking in Kohlua, India. Soot from tens of thousands of villages in developing countries is responsible for 18 percent of the planet’s warming, studies say. Adam Ferguson for The New York Times  

Cooking in Kohlua, India. Soot from tens of thousands of villages in developing countries is responsible for 18 percent of the planet’s warming, studies say. Adam Ferguson for The New York Times

A recent New York Times article in the Environment pages points out some of the climate-risks associated with the burning of dirty fuels, and makes the case for introducing new, cleaner burning stoves to the poor. Skipping over the massive health benefits to women and children who most often tend to the family fires, the article places priority – in part justifiably – on the worlds disappearing glaciers, especially in the Himalayas – linking their demise to a looming water crisis in areas fed by Asia’s big rivers. 

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McKinsey Report on Prizes and Innovation

"And the Winner Is..." (McKinsey, March 2009)McKinsey and Company recently put out a significant report on prizes as incentives to innovate which is quite good, and very accessible. The report, And the Winner Is, offers a view of the current landscape of prizes and competitions for innovation and provides good insight in good practice. To follow are some notes.

Prizes to incentivize innovation are going through a renaissance – they’re calling these “philanthropic prizes.” Interestingly, find that, “prizes are a unique and powerful tool that should be in the basic toolkit of many of today’s philanthropists.” Some benefits of the “prize inducement” model are:

  • Identify new levels of excellence
  • Encourage specific innovations
  • Change wider perceptions
  • Improve performance of communities of problem solvers
  • Build the skills of individuals
  • Mobilize new talent and capital

Some promising practices identified in the report include:

  • Philanthropist matching a clear goal with a large group of potential problem solvers who are willing to absorb some risk.
  • Start with a clearly define aspiration for society benefit which can be translated into prize objectives that are specific, motivational, actionable, results-focused and time bound.
  • A good prize will invest significant resources into its design, specifying the competitor pool, rules and award attributes.
  • An effective prize process is at least as important as the prize design, which will attract candidates, manage the competition, celebrate winners, and publicize the effort.
  • A good sponsor will invest significant resources in post-prize activities that convert the awards result into long-term societal benefits.

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Three Myths About Entrepreneurs

In a recent survey of entrepreneurship (Global Heroes), the Economist proposes a narrow definition that I quite like (“someone who offers an innovative solution to a (frequently unrecognized) problem”) and identified five commonly held myths about entrepreneurs, at least three of which resonated with me. They are:

  • Entrepreneurs are “orphans” or “outcasts.” In fact, entrepreneurship is a social activity. While they may be more independent than the company player, entrepreneurs almost always need business partners and social networks to succeed. Related, entrepreneurship flourishes in geographic clusters, partly because entrepreneurship is a way of life in these areas and partly because infrastructure exists to support entrepreneurs.
  • Entrepreneurs are just out of short trousers. At least in the U.S., a recent study found that of 652 bosses of technology companies set up in 1995-2005, the average boss was 39 when they started. The numbers of founders over 50 was twice as large as that under 25. It will be interesting to dig up some figures both globally, and for the social sector.
  • Entrepreneurship is driven mainly by venture capital. Most venture capital goes into a narrow sliver of business: computer hardware, software, telecom, and biotech. The money for the vast majority comes from personal debt or “the three f’s:” family, friends and fools. Makes me wonder about the implications for microfinance and the social sector.

Obviously this is an incomplete picture – there are two more myths I found less helpful, and a much larger data set needed than a thumbnail sketch of entrepreneurial activity in the U.S. But its an interesting start. One of the bits that I’m interested in is the role that inducement prizes can – and likely does – play in encouraging entrepreneurial activity. TBC.

Technology for Emerging Markets at Microsoft

On 4/3/09 Microsoft Cambridge hosted a seminar on Technology for Emerging Markets at Microsoft Research India (MRI), 

Kentaro Tayama, the director of MRI, first gave an overview of the institution and the kind of research pursued. MRI is run like an academic institution in the sense that funding is given without any strings attached. Microsoft gets value out of it
 in at least three ways: MRI establishes useful contacts (in India this includes government contacts), it is good for company morale, and research aids corporate strategizing for long-term global growth. The keywords for MRI are immersion, design, evaluation, implementation.

Indra Medhi then presented her field research on the use of cell phones among low-level literate  people in rural India. She had measured the completion rate of the task of remitting money on cell phones with three different systems: text-based, voice-based, and rich multimedia based user interfaces. Not surprisingly, the text based UI left almost everyone floundering,  whereas about two thirds completed the task with the other two.

The ensuing discussion brought up a number of issues. The design of cell phones have to pay great  attention to sunlight/glare and to audibility in noisy environments. There are cognitive issues relating to the use of softkeys and the concept of layered menues. The are social issues, e.g. that untouchables often think of cell phones as not for them. Most interestingly, imho, were the questions raised about the role of the mediator,  e.g. the village telephone lady. They learn accountancy on the fly and quickly become highly competent.

 Their technical and clerical competence set them apart and give them the opportunity for abuse.  So far customers do not seem to mind but this issue may well come to a head. From a design perspective,  cell phone design might think about the relationship between mediator and customer, aiming to increase the transparency of the mediator’s activities to the customer, in the process both hindering abuse and  increasing the trust.

Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Development Night

Joost Bonsen shared a great set of images from International Development Night last Friday. Over 500 guests joined the International Development Network for the Fourth Annual International Development Night at the MIT Museum on April 3, 2009. Coordinated by MIT’s International Development Network (IDN) – – the evening is a celebration and showcase of over two dozen practical, action-oriented development innovations and activities at the Institute.

Inducement Prizes and Innovation

Thanks to Erika W. at X Prize, am reading a recent paper by Liam Brunt (University of Lausanne), Josh Lerner (Harvard) and Tom Nichols (Harvard) which examines a 19th century data set to discern insight into whether prize-awards are a useful mechanism to encourage innovation. The answer seems to be yes.

Some insights:

  • Metric. The number of contestants the prize competition attracts. 
  • Entry fees. Discourage spurrious entrants.
  • Money and medals. Used as substitutes, gold medal having largest entrant effect.
  • Diffusion. Shows drew popular interest, spread of technical knowledge.
  • Patents. Prize winners much more likely to patent after show than non. Interestingly, doubling of monetary award increases patent activity 6-7 percent in the technical area in the year of the show, while a gold medal has a 33 percent effect.
  • Lead time. Providing longer lead times to inventors raised the number of entrants.

The paper concludes that, among other things, that the monetary awards covered only about one third of the costs of implements and machinery exhibited. More potent was the exposure from the show and “society’s mark of approval.”