UCLA Anderson Finance professor Bhagwan Chowdhry has a big idea: give all babies $100 at birth, which they could claim when they turned 16 years old. This concept, called Financial Access at Birth (FAB), has two projected outcomes. First, it would give all people, regardless of where they're born, the chance to become "financial citizens". Second, it would allow for the assignment of a global identification number, giving voice and potentially providing social services and other assistance to some of the world's poorest people, who often slip through the cracks.
PopTech had a chance to sit down with Chowdhry just after he presented at PopTech to find out a little more about the FAB project.
PopTech: How would your project reach folks who are not literate, are not connected to the world in the ways that we’re used to getting our information?
Bhagwan Chowdhry: We think incentives work. I think the word will get around when people hear that every child will get a hundred dollar deposit. That’s a lot of money in some parts of the world. The fear that some people have of not wanting to connect is overcome by this incentive. That’s what we are hoping will happen.
Do you have a location in mind already for where the pilot will take place?
We do have a location but we haven’t made the announcement yet so I am not at liberty to say.
We have a lot of distrust around banking institutions in general right now, and promoting them as a way to solve for some of these issues seems to conflict with what we are hearing about banks.
I don’t think it is really an issue of who is going to serve it. There are other financial intermediaries who could step in. Some other socially-conscious banks might step in. We haven’t made a decision about who is going to do it. There has to be cooperation with other agencies such as government. For example, these deposits have to be safe. You cannot have fly-by-night banks. These intermediaries have to be called to invent some sort of regulatory agencies like the government and they will have to be part of the solution.
Last year, Sarah Fortune came to PopTech looking for a solution. The 2010 PopTech Science Fellow and researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health had hit a wall in her research on Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacterium that causes tuberculosis. She needed a way to analyze streams of images of the bacteria -- as quickly and cheaply as possible -- or one line of her research would stall.
“I thought maybe we could crowdsource it,” she recalled yesterday in front of a packed house at PopTech 2011. “So I asked onstage, ‘Is there an app for that?’ Unbelievably, someone in the audience called out and then made it happen.”
That someone was Josh Nesbit, a 2009 Social Innovation Fellow, who connected Fortune to Lukas Biewald, co-founder of CrowdFlower, an Internet-based crowdsourcing company. The rest, as they say, is history.
Shahidul Alam walked on stage on Thursday wearing a marigold-colored salwar kameez, a camera over his left shoulder, and a beltpack slung around his hips. There was no mistaking his calling. The Bangladeshi photographer, activist and social entrepreneur has almost single-handedly rebalanced the world of photojournalism, long dominated by Western photographers and their worldview. He has shifted its lens eastward and southward by training legions of photographers in his homeland, creating an award-winning photo agency to sell their work and founding a prestigious international photography festival to showcase their talent. And this fall, he published a book, My Journey as a Witness, telling the story of Bangladeshi photography as an instrument of social justice. He serves as an ambassador of this movement, in the words of PopTech’s executive director, Andrew Zolli, “travelling the world leaving new cultures of art makers in his wake.” We sat down with Alam backstage in Camden, Maine.
PopTech: You founded Drik, a photo agency, and the Chobi Mela International Festival of Photography. Why did you feel it was important for Bangladeshi photographers, as well as their peers, to have these outlets for their work?
Shahidul Alam: Firstly, it was a question of addressing this very distorted perception people have of what I call the “majority world” countries. Our poverty is a reality, but that is not the only identity that we have. Secondly, I wanted to challenge a very unidirectional form of storytelling that has -- to a large extent -- been propagated by the West. The richness and diversity of human life gets lost in a very agenda-led information distribution system. So that was the beginning.
We also wanted to celebrate our own culture. It’s not that I am against white, Western photographers producing work in Bangladesh -- I think our ideas need to be challenged just as much. It’s the monopoly of dissemination that I was against. So we wanted to create a space for diversity -- for both Western work and our own work. That’s where the Chobi Mela festival came in -- to facilitate that cultural infusion.
We caught Blitz the Ambassador and his crew practicing backstage before they performed at PopTech yesterday evening.
Science Fellow Adrien Treuille, a professor of computer science and robotics at Carnegie Mellon, is using gaming to advance scientific research. Through online video games, he’s harnessing the power of human logic and creativity to solve some of the most complex computational problems in biomedicine: protein folding and RNA synthesis.
Tens of thousands of people play his games, FoldIt and EteRNA - proof that heady scientific problems can be crowdsourced and that video games don’t have to be mindless fun. “We’ve crowdsourced the whole scientific method from hypothesis to experiment to results,” Treuille (pronounced “Troy”) told the audience yesterday at PopTech.
FoldIt, which can be downloaded from the Internet, launched in 2008. The challenge? Proteins are the key to life at the cellular level. But understanding how a string of amino acids, the fundamental units of a protein, fold into its final, three-dimensional structure, is an incredibly difficult problem that, until now, has taken significant time, money and computational power. FoldIt players compete to figure out which of the numerous possible protein structures possible in nature is actually the best one.
Social Innovation Fellow Michael Murphy is looking at ways design can help address social issues. His company MASS Design takes a holistic approach to building environments that are innovative, involve local investments and are well-designed.
As an example, Murphy discussed a recent hospital project in northern Rwanda. Knowing that many hospitals unwittingly spread infection to the very patients they're trying to heal, the team wondered how they could design a space that would help reduce rather than increase infection rates. One solution was to design the hospital with no hallways, where people (and germs) tend to congregate. They also took advantage of Rwanda's great airflow to create a design using natural ventilation.
The team took on another challenge: how to isolate and highlight the beauty of the local stone used to build the hospital as a way to showcase the resources of the community? They envisioned no visible mortar or cement, just the stone. By the time the local craftsman had built the wall, they had created a beautiful structure of which they were extremely proud. This told the team that they can affect the community in many significant ways.
Murphy asked the crowd: What happens if we don't think about issues of safety and design? "It's not the earthquake that killed people in Haiti," he cautioned,"it's the buildings that fell on people." What if we gave jobs to only the community around us? What economies could we create? Buildings that are currently making us sicker could actually make us better. Of his company's work, Murphy said, "These are the kinds of building that can make us heal."
Image: Kris Krug (photo) and Perrin Ireland, Alphachimp Studio (illustration)
Today's presenters examined the themes of rebalancing, reframing, restoring and researching. We heard from a family historian, a Nobel Prize winner, a space suit developer and a President. A PopTech iPad app launched, a funky band played, we met a slew of impressive young scientists and innovators, and we announced that we're planning a trip to Iceland!
It's hard to pick favorite moments from all this great content, but here is some of the stuff that lit up Twitter, caused heads to nod in agreement in the Opera House and had us tearing up or cheering backstage. Is your favorite moment missing? Add it to the mix!
Bhagwan Chowdry: With three billion people living in poverty, can financial citizenship begin at birth with a $100 savings deposit and a unique universal ID? With the ability to easily access this deposit through mobile branchless banking, the poor can begin to save. Through his organization, Financial Assistance at Birth (FAB), Chowdry makes the case for providing aid to registered children, as well as the incentive for banks to host these deposits. His organization is enlisting the support of international media and everyday people to make this dramatic vision into a reality.
I chose the democratic will of the people over the force of the market.
--Ólafur R. Grímsson, the first head of state to present at PopTech and the first standing ovation of the day!
Rajendra Pachauri: With greenhouse gas emissions increasing and endangering human health and the future of the planet, there is only a short window of opportunity in which to bring about rapid change. The enormous challenge that climate change represents requires an integrated risk management approach that takes into account the scientific information we have today. Innovative thinking and working together can help us face down this challenge.
Pictures have power. When you show a picture, it is believed.
-- Shahidul Alam on why he became a photojournalist.
It's not every day that a president comes to Maine. Ólafur Grímsson, Iceland's fifth and current president, gave a much-anticipated talk on Iceland's challenges since its economic collapse in October of 2008. Shortly thereafter, two consecutive volcano eruptions stalled international air traffic, spewed tons of ash into the air and generally wrought additional mayhem to an already belabored country. "Despite all our technological innovation," says Grímsson, "we learned we are not masters of our universe."
What Icelandic leaders also learned in the three years since the "financial tsunami" hit is a fascinating story of how implementing comprehensive political and social reform turned their economy around much faster than anyone anticipated. Grímsson was under enormous international political pressure to make the Icelandic people take financial responsibility for the actions of private banking institutions, which he strongly disagreed with. He was faced with serving the will of the people versus bending to the pressures of the market. To Grímsson, the choice was crystal clear. "I chose the democratic will of the people over the force of the market."
His talk at PopTech today explores the crucial linkage between democracy and the free market, explains the increasingly important role of social media in empowering people to challenge institutions, gives a shout-out to clean energy, and ultimately brings the PopTech crowd to its feet.
Note: PopTech's Emily Spivack had a chance to sit down with Grímsson for a one-on-one chat. We'll be posting this interview soon, so check back.