PopTech Blog

The Moment of Happy

Editor’s note: Dan Austin is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of 88 Bikes, a foundation that he explains below. For more, watch his recent appearance on CBS’s “Weekend Journal.”

During several years endowing orphanages around the world with bicycles, we often wonder why someone else hasn’t done it first.

88 bikes at rural Vietnam orphanage
88 Bikes at a rural Vietnam orphanage; image courtesy of Dan Austin.

“We never thought of that,” said my friend Sulakshana, who directs a partner NGO in Nepal. “But look at the kids! They’re so happy!”

What before was overlooked, becomes a no-brainer. Humanitarian efforts have historically focused on sustaining people: rescuing them from hunger, abetting their survival. But something was missing.

Greg Mortenson, celebrated mountaineer and school builder of Central Asia expressed it well in his recent memoir: "Playgrounds [for their schools] had not exactly been at the top of the priority list…”

Happiness is an amazing thing. It’s the ultimate renewable resource. The amount of happiness in the universe, unlike energy, has no limit. Some have called the bicycle the most efficient, self-powered creation in the history of humanity, but it may well be the most efficient engine of happiness, as well.

Dan Austin showing 88 bikes card
Dan Austin showing recipient his 88 Bikes sponsor card; image courtesy of Dan Austin.

My foundation, 88bikes, gives bicycles to children in difficult circumstances. We endow orphanages, ashrams, centers and schools around the world. One person sponsors one bike for one child. We give the child a picture of her sponsor in addition to her bike. There’s a world map on back showing where the child lives, and where her sponsors lives. Kids love it. They ask questions and turn their heads and squint and pull the card right up to their noses calculating the vast distance between two points on a map. They carry the cards around with them like talismans.

The whole event is called The Moment of Happy.

The first time it happened, in Cambodia 3 years ago, my brother Jared and I were caught off-guard by what I can only describe as a “tsunami of happiness.” It was so incredible, people 2700 miles away in Tokyo stopped mid-stride and wondered why they suddenly felt so good; people across the ocean in Los Angeles skidded to a stop in unison on the Venice Beach bike path and gazed out over the Pacific for an impromptu “Damn, that’s beautiful” moment.

Back in Cambodia, a happy ruckus had ensued. There was one scraped knee. One kid wanted a blue bike and got a red one. 100% efficiency, in physics—or happiness—is probably not going to happen. Just ask any parent on Christmas morning. But overall, it was such a scene of exuberance that we knew we’d have to do it again.

88 bikes in Peru
88 Bikes in Peru; image courtesy of Dan Austin.

And so we did. Hauling 200 bikes 10 hours up awful roads to a remote refugee camp in Uganda during a gas crisis on New Year’s Day was a gut-wrenching, but rewarding second act. A year later in Peru we gave bikes to kids in the Mantaro Valley, many of them HIV-positive, and shunned by family and society. And just a few weeks ago: 300 bikes to heroic kids around the world rescued from slavery.

The kids we worked with in Vietnam, Ghana, Nepal and India had endured conditions and treatment no human being, let alone a child, should ever confront. For many of these kids, childhood is a distant memory. But one thing remains the same: give her a bike and she becomes a child again.

We all do, really. I asked people around the world, young and old, rich and poor, to tell me about their first bike. I won’t forget a bikeshop keeper in Allahabad, India: a gruff old fellow with a gigantic face and fat fingers filled with rings. He gestured out over his small but impressively packed bike warehouse like a pontiff, “30,000 bikes a year! That is what we sell!”

We sat down at a rickety table to work out the deal. The chai wallah came bearing tea. He was a tough negotiator (the shopkeeper, not the chai wallah) and didn’t seem too impressed with the idea of giving bikes to kids. Business was business.

After we’d finished, I said coolly: “I have a question for you,” and turned on my camcorder.

He steeled himself, his pursed lips disappearing beneath a large mustache, his eyes narrowing. "Yes,” he said dismissively.

I mustered my best, equally-dismissive look and leaned in, nostrils flaring for effect: “Tell me about your first bike.”

50 hard years and who knows how many disappointments, heartbreaks, failed friendships, rebellious children—it all just fell away…“My first bike?” He said in amazement, stunned, his voice suddenly high and light, "My first bike?”

I nodded. The camera rolled. The shopkeeper leaned back in his chair. “It was blue,” he said wistfully. “I rode it everywhere, I was six years old.”

“Did you have some great adventures?” I asked.

“Many, many…” he said, almost smiling as he watched some slideshow I couldn’t see play a few feet above my left shoulder.

“Do you still have this bike?” I asked.

“Oh no,” he said with an easy chuckle.

“So, what bike do you have now?" I nodded out over the hundreds of bike frames hanging behind him like gigantic, plastic-wrapped bats from the ceiling.

“Now?” He looked a bit perplexed. “I don’t have a bike now,” he said softly, as if just realizing this, his eyes falling to his clasped hands on the table.

It may not always be as simple as this—but then again, it may. Give a child a bike and her world is transformed. Give her a bike and she can get to school and in many cases, avoid rape and danger.

88 Bikes in Cambodia
88 Bikes in Cambodia; image courtesy of Dan Austin.

But most important of all, and purely and completely indefinable and unquantifiable: give a child a bike… and she will be happy.

Perhaps this is why it took Greg Mortensen ten years to realize the benefits of building playgrounds at their schools (“You really need to put them in,” chided his daughter. “All children need to play, especially ones suffering and hurting like the kids in Pakistan.”) Maybe this is the reason why well-meaning, effective NGOs fixate on sustaining the body and mind, while overlooking the needs of the heart. Maybe this is why we hear it from almost every one of our bike sponsors: “The reason I got involved is because I wanted a child to be happy.”

Happiness. You can’t measure it, you can’t put it on a graph, but you can see it. Oh, can you see it. And you can feel it, too. Many of the kids who received bikes in Uganda had been former child soldiers; some had watched both parents die of HIV. Many of the girls who received bikes in India and Nepal were survivors of unimaginable abuse as sex slaves. But even in these cases, where the kids were more subdued, their understated happiness was just as evident as that of the rambunctious kids in Phnom Penh who got up at 5 a.m. the day after the Moment of Happy to ride their bikes around the center, rousing the orphanage staff with a symphony of little bike bells…

During all these travels (including 17 countries, 2 1/2 months on the road and 12 endowment sites on our just-finished Project FOUR), a thought keeps echoing in my mind: is our ignorance in addressing the desire and need for happiness for all people at the root of poverty’s pervasive grip? Despite clear research from Jeffrey Sachs and other economists that, comparatively speaking, it wouldn’t require that much to lift the caul of poverty for most; despite millions of NGOs, billions of dollars and countless courageous individuals, poverty remains, unabated.

But it makes sense: it’s difficult to get excited—and generous—about simply sustaining someone. We want to see our fellow human beings do better than languish; we want to see them progress and find fulfillment in their lives.

Perhaps if happiness were embraced as a need on par with food, shelter, water, love—the tide would turn. Not because happiness in and of itself can drill a well or sow corn or turn back climate change—but because making people happy is a mission a whole lot more transcendent and enjoyable than just keeping them alive.

Perhaps all this time the bar hasn’t been raised too high—but too low.

88bikes is a very small organization working to affect the lives of a very small population. We hope that those bikes will last for years to come, and we have a small army of volunteers working to make that happen. But at the end of the day, we’re under no illusion that the bikes will last forever; we’re under no illusion that a bike will single-handedly turn an orphan into the future president of Nepal. Bikes get stolen; bikes break down. We hope they help the kids get to school; in most cases they do. We hope that the bikes (and the workshops and apprenticeships we organize) are catalysts for careers. We’ll see.

But we do know one thing: Every time we give a bike, the happiness in the universe increases just a bit.

Perhaps you can remember your first bike. I can remember mine. Like the shopkeer in Allahabad, it’s long gone, too, but it’s a happy memory.

Every kid deserves to have a childhood, to be happy.

And I think every kid also deserves to have a bike.

88 Bikes in Camdodia
88 Bikes on a Cambodia bike ride; image courtesy of Dan Austin.

Celebrating Ada Lovelace Day

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, an “international day of blogging to celebrate the achievements of women in technology and science,” named for Ada, as she is widely known—the first computer programmer.

There are many women in the PopTech network creating amazing work in science and technology, leading the way; we are highlighting three today:

Neri Oxman is an architect with a design approach inspired by nature and using computational generation and material engineering to explore form. She thinks laser cutters are feminine and spoke at PopTech 2009, asking her crucial question: what does a material want to be?

Laura Kurgan is the Co-Director of the Spatial Information Design Lab (a “think-and-action-tank”) at Columbia University, where she visualizes complex political and social data to advocate for social reform. She told PopTech 2009 why there is no such thing as a neutral map and ways data can be repurposed:

Carolyn Porco, leader of the Imaging Science Team on the Cassini mission to Saturn, talked at PopTech 2005 about the storms on Saturn that die by merging, wondering what energizes the winds, and how particles in the rings of Saturn are sometimes the size of houses:

Who are your favorite women working in science and technology?

Announcing PopTech 2010

Today, we are delighted to announce the theme of PopTech 2010: Brilliant Accidents, Necessary Failures, and Improbable Breakthroughs from October 20-3 in Camden, Maine.

(Request a registration here.)

PopTech 2010

From the announcement:

“In a complex and messy world, solutions to big challenges frequently follow unobvious paths to success. At PopTech 2010, join a network of visionary thinkers, leaders and doers in science, technology, business, design, social innovation, entrepreneurship, culture, education and the arts for a three-day, boundary-defying conversation about the nature of creative, technological and social change.”


- The Power of Failure: In areas as widespread as education, business and government, what has to die so that the right things might live?

- The Exponent Effect: Why do some ideas only work at a grand scale, and others only locally?

- Complex Interventions: How do we decide where to intervene in a complex system? How do we intervene in multiple places simultaneously?

- The Simplicity Instinct: How do we get to what’s essential?

- Strange Loops: How do we deal with feedback loops and unintended consequences created by our efforts?

- Architectures of Choice: How can small changes to our ‘default’ options lead to breakthroughs?

- The Heretic’s Path: Every visionary starts as a heretic. How do ideas – and their champions – move from the edge to the center?

- The Geography of Ideas: How does ‘cultural software’ – from our our media to the built environment – shape our thinking?

- The Art of the Mashup: What do radically different disciplines – and ways of thinking – have to teach each other?

We hope you will join us in October in Camden!

You can begin by requesting a registration and learn more about our participation grants.

Please let us know your questions in the comments below.

Celebrate Obscura Day on March 20th

Tomorrow is Obscura Day, coordinated by the team behind Atlas Obscura, “a compendium of the world’s wonders, curiosities, and esoterica,” with interesting events planned in places around the world.

Obscura Day

In Brooklyn, New York, for example, you can join expeditions to explore Dead Horse Bay and the “slew of wacky trash from eras past” or go underground and explore the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel. Or, drive from Brooklyn to Pennsylvania to sound ringing rocks.

You can find explorations taking place tomorrow around the globe on the full Obscura Day list. (And if you know of a curious place, you can add it to the Atlas.)

So whether you venture like John Priscu beneath Antarctic ice (his PopTech 2008 talk), or closer to your neighborhood, we hope your weekend adventures are full of moments “where the world briefly reveals itself to you,” like the narrator’s encounter with butterflies in this story from Anthony Doerr at PopTech 2009:

Zach Lieberman on Writing With Your Eyes

At PopTech 2009, artist-programmer Zach Lieberman explained why he thinks “artistic practice is a form of R&D for humanity,” connecting technology, human interactions, and breathing.

Zach stopped by the PopTech Brooklyn office last week to tell us about his recent inspirations (video), and spoke at last weekend’s SxSW Interactive Festival (blog post on his presentation) about the

Do you think, like Zach, that an open mouth (from wonder) is the pathway to someone’s heart?

Subtle Nudges for Greater Good

Editor’s note: this guest post is from Alana Conner, senior editor of the Stanford Social Innovation Review and co-host of the podcast channel Social Innovation Conversations. The Stanford Graduate School of Business is holding another event April 29th, “Collaboration for the Greater Good: Social and Environmental Responsibility in the Global Supply Chain.” (Registration details.)

Many psychologists, writers and other students of human nature have reached the same conclusion: people are usually too distracted, tired, scared, or just plain lazy to act on their best intentions. But few of these observers suggest how us humans might overcome our less noble tendencies.

Scientists at a recent Stanford Center for Social Innovation conference, however, presented a bevy of tactics for transforming even the most bumbling schlemiel into a model citizen. Called “Small Steps, Big Leaps: The Science of Getting People to do the Right Thing,” the event showcased how to use gentle nudges, subtle tweaks, and quiet prompts to summon better behavior.

One of the most overlooked strategies for getting people to be generous, for instance, is actually to ask them, related Frank Flynn of Stanford Graduate School of Business. Flynn discussed his experiments,

showing that one barrier to “the ask” is that people grossly underestimate how often their requests for help will be honored. And if at first you do not succeed, then ask, ask again, he recommended, presenting findings that people who say “no” to an initial ask are more likely to say “yes” to a subsequent one.

You need not even tell people how much to give, noted Leif Nelson of the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. His findings show that people sometimes donate more when they get to set the amount.

And you need not feel guilty about asking people to help, because you may actually be doing them a favor, suggested Mike Norton of Harvard Business School. His studies reveal that giving people the chance to help others can improve everything from their mood to their dodge-ball game.

Even better than asking people to take the high road is making the high road the easiest one to take, argued Eric Johnson of the Columbia School of Business. When policies and practices turn good behavior into the default option, people tend to act more ethically—or, as Johnson put it, “There’s something very special about doing nothing.”

For example, in countries where people have to take the trouble to opt out of organ donation—a post-death benevolence that many societies value—vastly more people donate their organs than do in countries like the United States, where people have to go out of their way to opt in to organ donation. Likewise, people save more money when their employers automatically enroll them in retirement savings programs and use less energy when florescent bulbs are the only light in town. (For more about defaults, see “Helping the Poor Save More” (.pdf) in the winter 2010 Stanford Social Innovation Review.)

If you must trouble yourself with framing a message, several researchers revealed how simple shifts in wording can spell the difference between vice and virtue. Just mentioning money can throw people off their altruism game, showed Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. Her experiments demonstrate that even minor references to cash make people stingier and less sensitive to suffering—even their own. For fundraisers whose job is to ask people for money, Vohs’ findings could inspire dismay. But she has an antidote: First ask people to donate their time, and then ask them to donate their money.

Noah Goldstein of UCLA’s Anderson School of Management similarly showed the power of getting words right.

Public service announcements and other social good campaigns often communicate that everybody pollutes, steals, carouses, or otherwise behaves badly—but you shouldn’t. (“Only YOU can prevent forest fires!” exhorts Smokey Bear.) Yet humans are herd animals; and so despite our claims to uniqueness and independence, we tend to follow the crowd. As a result, campaigns that imply that the crowd is up to no good often backfire: A sign in Arizona’s Petrified Forest reporting that visitors purloin some 14 tons of wood per year, for example, doesn’t deter such theft—it encourages theft.

A better way, said Goldstein, is to convey that most people are doing the right thing—and you should, too. Accordingly, a sign saying that most guests conserved water by reusing their towels (rather than having them laundered) inspires far more towel reuse than does a sign lamenting how many guests waste water.

Pictures and stories that put a human face on an issue can also steer people towards right action, related Adam Grant of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Radiologists read X-rays more accurately when they see a picture of the bones’ owners, Grant showed, and lifeguards work harder after hearing stories about heroic water rescues.

Putting people in the driver’s seat of their own narratives also works wonders, reported Steve Cole of HopeLab, a Redwood City, Calif.-based company that makes health-promoting products for children with chronic diseases. In HopeLab’s first-person shooter video game, Re-Mission, for example, kids recovering from cancer travel through the human body and, with the help of medicines, blast would-be cancer cells out of their paths (audio lecture). The game is clinically proven to help kids take their post-chemotherapy maintenance drugs—a crucial, yet difficult step in their recovery.

Nonprofits too must control their own narratives, warned Jennifer Aaker of the Stanford Graduate School of Business. She presented data showing that nonprofits suffer from the stereotype of being warm and caring, but not very competent.

To boost donations and public confidence, nonprofits need to advertise their business acumen.

But perhaps they should do so softly, for the resounding message throughout the conference was this: You need not scream and push when a whisper and a nudge will do. That’s advice that even the most distracted, tired, scared, and even lazy social innovator can get behind.

Zero Waste: The Future of Green panel at SxSW

On Sunday afternoon at the SxSW Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas, moderator Steven Mandzik led a discussion about zero waste, a lifestyle he describes as living without producing trash, focusing on reduction and reuse even before recycling.

The panel included PopTech Fellow Jason Aramburu of re:char, who talked about the challenges of scaling with biomass and why he moved his company from Brooklyn to Austin, and Beth Ferguson, the designer behind “solar pumps” and an advocate for urban solar grid applications:

Also at SxSW Interactive:

- PopTech board member and MTV VP of Public Affairs Jason Rzepka unveiled “Over the Line?”, a place for teens to upload and rate examples of digital use/abuse.

- PopTech 2009 speaker Zach Lieberman presented on his recent work (see our video with him last week on his recent work and inspirations).

- PopTech Social Innovation Faculty member Beth Kanter spoke on the “Crowdsourcing Innovative Social Change” panel (nice summary of the panel’s examples and lessons by frequent PopTech blog contributor Marcia Stepanek).

What was your favorite part of SxSW Interactive?

Educational Games for a $10 Computer: News from Indian Student Teams

What would be the social impact of an educational computer that only cost $10?

Last October, I introduced the PopTech community to an organization that is trying to answer that question. Playpower.org is an open-source community that is helping to make educational games available for “radically affordable” computers—including a $10 computer that is already widely available in many developing countries. The 5 minute PopTech talk helps describe the educational potential of open-source learning games—and explains the improbable story of how a computer can be sold for only $10!

Just this past December, I traveled to Hyderabad, India to conduct a two week educational game design workshop for top university students in India.

Playpower workshop in Hyderabad
Image courtesy of Playpower.org.

Using IDEO’s Human Centered Design Toolkit and Playpower’s unique game design curriculum, the students learned to design new educational games to support the needs of low income families in India. In order to make the games engaging and relevant to the target audience, the students created games based on familiar Hindu stories, including the adventures of Hanuman—a deity with immense powers who takes the form of a monkey.

Playpower Hanuman game
Image courtesy of Playpower.org.

Kishan Patel, an engineering student at DAIICT (The Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Infomation and Communication Technology) followed up on the workshop by founding a working group at his own university. There, he leads a team of students who are working on completing the games. They are also helping to conduct formal field studies, in order to assess whether the games are fun and effective for the groups we are targeting.

Playpower Hanuman game
Image courtesy of Playpower.org.

To learn more, check out playpower.org.

Also, more specific descriptions of the games and source code are available here.

The games prototyped at the workshop:

Hanuman: Quiz Adventure – Quiz game shows are popular in India and this quiz game challenges the intellectual power of the whole family to help a young Hanuman fly all the way to the sun.

Hanuman: Typing Warrior – Typing is a skill that can help expand economic opportunities. In this game, players use their typing skills to help progress Hanuman through a series of challenges in order to help win a war against the evil Lord Ravena.

Mosquito SWAT Team – Malaria is one of the greatest public health threats in India. In this game, important information about preventing malaria is embedded in an addictive set of mini-games that invariably involve killing lots and lots of mosquitoes.

Reimagining Hospitals for the Future

While on the plane ride down yesterday to the SXSW Festival in Austin, I was flipping through the February issue of Fast Company and came across an article that put a huge smile on my face. It was a visual representation of what the future of design would be for hospitals—hospital 2.0 you could call it.

image of hospital

The hospital has been more or less a place where they get one thing done: get people better and get them home. But this article made me think about hospitals in a new light – part of a collaborative effort to improve communities as a whole.

In thinking about Public Health 2.0 and next level ways of thinking in the field, I feel it’s important to look at cross-disciplinary collaboration in order to meet the increasing needs of the public’s health and well-being. This includes bringing in the design/UXand green aspects of community building.

Of note: hospitals consume twice as much energy as typical office buildings – they are also making it happen all day, every day! Needless to say, hospitals are huge targets for examining efficiency, and the U.S. Green Building Council is developing LEED for Healthcare. With everything from aesthetics (roof garden, cafeteria) and electronic data (medical records) to user design (waiting room, the views) and energy efficiency (on site power, solar power harnessing), the future is looking brighter for staff and patients alike.

As these ideas go from prototype/concept to reality, I hope this new road of inter-disciplinary inclusion will serve as a catalyst in other areas of health.

Shouts to Golden Section Graphics for the illustration.

PopTech Reads: Questions for James Fowler about connections?

For the past few weeks, along with you, PopTech staff has been reading Connected, the book PopTech 2009 speaker James Fowler co-authored with Nicholas Christakis (find the book on Better World Books or through an independent bookseller on Indie Bound).

Tell us: what did you find curious, alarming, or fascinating in Connected?

Please leave your questions for James in the comments, and let us know some of the parts you found especially interesting.

Four things I found particularly relevant:

- Some of the research in the book is becoming known as the “your-friends’-friends-can-make-you-fat” effect; this indirect influence is called hyperdyadic spread.

- We have heard, thought, and considered exhaustively the success of Barack Obama’s political campaign; the twist in chapter six of Connected:

Obama’s campaign was a historical milestone in all kinds of ways, but the most revolutionary way may not have been its fund-raising. Many have commented on Obama’s remarkable ability to connect with voters, but even more impressive was his ability to connect voters to each other.


- In chapter nine we learn that social networks are self-annealing. “They can close up around their gaps, in the same way that the edges of a wound come together.”

- The final pages return to the underlying overall theme, that networks facilitate contagion as well as altruism, but that’s not to say networks accelerate charity or even, perhaps, microdonations without befriending the group or individual; “We would rather give a gift to a friend who will never repay us than to give a gift to a stranger who will.”

Here is James’s talk at PopTech 2009:

and an update from James in February 2010 about the danger of not thinking of ourselves within networks:

Please leave questions and thoughts in the comments below.

Know a great book we should read together in 2010? Drop us a recommendation: hello [at] poptech [dot] org