Eduardo Porter is the author of The Price of Everything: Solving the Mystery of Why We Pay What We Do, in which he investigates the critical role prices play in shaping our lives, from having a baby to buying a car. To illustrate, his recent blog posts have included “The price of cheap food,” “The price of a sleeping bag,” “The price of a longer life” and “The price of a beer.” PopTech spoke with Porter about determining a price tag for social change.
PopTech: What’s your take on the sea-change in thinking about social innovation that’s taken place over the past decade – a shift from traditional nonprofit approaches (Donor A pays for Service B for Constituent C, who is assumed to be incapable of paying for it themselves) to more market-friendly approaches, like microfinance and social entrepreneurship?
Eduardo Porter: There have been two extremely beneficial innovations in the way non-profits go about trying to effect social change. One is the use of market mechanisms and incentives to deliver valuable services to marginalized communities. Another is the use of field-testing to evaluate projects and determine how best to accomplish program goals.
Take education in rural India. A local NGO, Seva Mandir runs several schools in the region of Udaipur, reaching students that are not served by regular government schools. The NGO’s schools suffered enormous absenteeism [by teachers]. On any given day, 44% of teachers wouldn’t show up. Absenteeism has traditionally been combated by administrators keeping score of attendance and punishing slackers. But Seva Mandir addressed the problem in an innovative way: offering teachers an incentive to show up and introducing an impersonal instrument to monitor their presence: a camera with a time stamp.
What it did was replace the standard teacher wage of Rs. 1,000 rupees per month (about $22) for 21 days of teaching, with a base salary of Rs. 500 plus an extra Rs. 50 for each day they actually taught. That meant teachers’ wages would range from Rs. 500 to Rs. 1300, depending on their attendance. To monitor their presence, a student was asked to photograph teachers with their students at the beginning and end of each school day.
…Tuesday would have been the 183rd birthday of Jules Verne. Had he lived to see 2011, the French science fiction writer also would have seen many of his fanciful inventions made real—more or less.
Check out National Geographic’s slide show of 8 Jules Verne Inventions That Came True. The science fiction author predicted the submarine, lunar modules, skywriting, and the taser amongst many other seemingly off-the-wall ideas that have eventually been realized.
Image: Jonathan Hayward via National Geographic
The longest running citizen scientist project, entitled the Christmas Bird Count (CBC), was started 111 years ago by ornithologist Frank Chapman. As a less destructive version of the massive annual bird slaughter known as the Christmas “Side Hunt,” it began with 27 men scouting 90 types of birds in 25 locations. In 2010, the CBC had grown to include 60,000 participants throughout the U.S. who noted 2,300 species comprised of 50,000,000+ birds. While a feel good activity for the whole family, the data collection is really quite valuable. Audubon Society and other organizations use data in this wildlife census to assess the health of bird populations – and to help guide conservation action. In fact, the EPA now uses the data as one of the 24 indicators of climate impact.
As indicated by the popularity of the CBC, bird watching happens to be one of the fastest growing hobbies in America. In fact, 1/3 of Americans would consider themselves birders. As a result, it’s become a perfect entry point to get people excited about nature and science – and to make science social, explained naturalist and educator Gabriel Willow yesterday at Social Media Week’s Research Gone Social: Leveraging the Web to Advance Scientific Discovery session. “The connection between scientists and technology can create a bridge for making science more accessible.”
Leveraging the growing popularity of bird watching and people’s increasing comfort with social media tools, Willow created WildLab, which uses iPhones as mobile data collection devices to gather information about birds and other wildlife. The app, as well as a five-part curriculum that’s been conducted with 500 students in NYC schools, promotes STEM learning and generally gets people of all ages excited by the natural world. Sightings, GPS data and weather information collected by students – and participating citizen scientists who download the iPhone app – are entered into a database that can be used to better understand and track wildlife. Birders also send their sightings to eBird and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for use in scientific research.
Artist Chris Jordan’s newest work, Proposed New Corporate Logo For Monsanto Company, 2011 is based on a painting by Josiah Lopez. Jordan elaborates:
In light of this week’s sickening news about Monsanto’s latest act of agri-piracy here in the U.S., I have decided to release one of my new pieces that I was otherwise planning on keeping in reserve for an exhibition.
The piece depicts 200,000 heirloom agricultural plant seeds, equal to the number of farmers in India who have committed suicide since 1997, when Monsanto introduced its genetically modified cotton seeds containing terminator technology into that region.
Image: Chris Jordan
When Kevin Starr talks about philanthropy and his work with the Mulago Foundation, he keeps it simple and straight-forward. As the foundation’s director, Starr is looking to fund the best scalable solutions to the biggest problems in the poorest places. No fancy mission statements or long grant proposals are necessary. As he described during his PopTech talk, he’s seen too much money wasted on too many big problems to get swayed by the newest, flashiest, overhyped projects (One Laptop per Child, LifeStraw, and PlayPumps, for starters). In investigating potential grantees he wants to know whether they 1) know their mission, 2) measure the right thing and 3) measure it well.
Prior to his work at Mulago, Starr had been practicing medicine. When his friend and mentor, Rainer Arnhold, passed away suddenly while they were both working in Bolivia, the course of Starr’s life shifted. In 1994, Arnhold’s family asked Starr to maintain Rainer’s life’s work focusing on health, poverty, and conservation in the world’s poorest places.
Futurology, the study of probable, desirable, imaginable and unimaginable futures is based on past and present day events and circumstances. As a practice, futurology (or Futures Studies) aggregates research to arrive at complex and purposeful views of the coming world. Sources as diverse as philosophy, economics, technology, criminology, and popular culture provide insight to futurologists. In the Bloomberg office, information is in a constant state of flux, flowing from what is tomorrow in London to what might be yesterday in Los Angeles. Given the fluid nature with which time and information is treated in this space, it easily can be interpreted as a futurological mothership for this exhibition.
Curated by Regine Basha and organized by the SculptureCenter, Speculative Futures features work by Julieta Aranda, Beth Campbell, Cao Fei and Ana Prvacki. It can be seen by appointment only onsite at the Bloomberg New York office through April 29, 2011. For more information on the exhibition, visit the SculptureCenter website.
Image: Cao Fei
Local Motors, in conjunction with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is hosting the Experimental Crowd-derived Combat-support Vehicle (XC2V) Design Challenge to rethink the development of military vehicles.
It is important to note that even though this is a militarily relevant vehicle, this is not an offensive fighting vehicle. The goal of this vehicle will be to transport items and/or people around quickly and efficiently in a potentially hostile but mobile environment.
The winning design will be developed into a working prototype. The winner will receive a cash prize and the opportunity to see his/her design turned into a functioning concept vehicle. The submission deadline for the contest is March 3, 2011 at 11:59 pm EST. More details are available at Local Motors.
Image: Local Motors
There’s always something brewing in the PopTech community. From the world-changing people, projects and ideas in our network, a handful of this week’s highlights follows.
- 2010 Social Innovation Fellow Brian Elliot founded Friendfactor to unlock the power of friendship to accelerate legal freedoms for LGBT people. This week Friendfactor launched Pop the Question, a phone campaign asking Maryland legislators to support gay marriage.
- RecycleMatch, the eBay of trash, known for matching those who have waste with those who need it, took its online marketplace out of beta, unveiling several new features and services, including a reputation management system where buyers and sellers rate and respond to one another.
- Janine Benyus’ Biomimicry Institute, which takes inspiration from nature to create sustainable technologies, joined up with Discovery to publish a fascinating list of materials that emulate nature. The list includes Eben Beyer’s fungi packaging as well as inspiration from human viruses, sea cucumbers and shark skin.
- PSFK presents Future Of Real-Time featuring the work of a number of our past Fellows including Ushahidi, Project Noah, and Movirtu.
Image: William A. Bolton
The chair we sit on, the bowl we eat from, the shoes we wear – everything we touch is made from materials that, more often than not, have a negative impact on our planet. But innovation abounds when it comes to creating new forms of sustainable materials.
The winner of this year’s Material of the Year awards, given out by Material ConneXion, was presented to a form of concrete that emits 90% less carbon dioxide during production, a massive innovation, potentially, considering that scientists believe concrete production accounts for 5% of our carbon footprint.
Check out the list of noteworthy runners up on Fast Company’s Co.Design blog including biodegradable packaging paper, a non-toxic particle board substitute, and high-performing, recyclable plastics.
Image: Fast Company’s Co.Design
On January 17, a few guys in Germany launched into space a weather balloon outfitted with a tracking device, a camera – and 200 paper planes. When the balloon reached a high enough altitude, it exploded (best part of the video!), releasing the planes, each of which had been affixed with a memory card with pre-loaded messages from the project’s website. The crew is gauging where the planes traveled by tracking people who log onto their site, Project Space Planes, with one of the found plane’s memory cards in hand. Reminiscent of Colin’s Rich’s camera balloon and Riley Crane’s Red Balloon Challenge, we’re curious to see what they find.