Posts by Rachel Barenblat
Nicole Kuepper‘s bio is not in the printed program — she’s a special addition to Energy, Form and Motion program today. She comes from Australia where she’s working on “low tech ways of producing low-cost solar devices,” Andrew Zolli explains.
“I’m passionate about bringing affordable solar electricity to the developing world,” Kuepper says. “If like me you’re lucky enough to be born to two very nerdy German mathematician parents, and you get given a solar-powered car for your 8th birthday, it is pretty inevitable that you will end up, like me, a major nerd, hanging out in a lab, going giddy about solar technologies whenever you get the chance to talk about them!”
She’s excited about solar energy because it has potential to solve two major problems, climate change and global poverty.
“For me, the potential for photovoltaics to play a major role in reducing the use of dirty kerosene lamps and the money people spend on batteries is enormous.” She was shocked, she says, by the potential for electricity: to help people gain access to vaccine refrigeration, water pumping, etc, and yet the off-grid applications for photovoltaics are not growing nearly as quickly as grid connections in countries like the US, Germany, and Spain.
Three years ago she began thinking a lot about the problem and how she could play a role in turning that statistic around to help the people who do’nt currently have access to electricity.
“You might not think manufacturing’s sexy,” she says — but she does. So she began to look into photocell manufacturing. It uses expensive equipment, clean room environments, highly-trained people — things a developing country may not have in abundance. How could you change the way we manufacture solar cells? “We started to look into low-cost alternatives,” she says, like using inkjet printing on solar cells.
“We’re creating a positive and negative pattern using inkjet printing and metalizing the pattern using one simple low-temperature process” which makes use of a cheap metal. This way you can manufacture photovoltaics in developing nations, which creates employment and also helps make the cells available in those countries.
The voltage of solar cells is a good indication of the potential of that solar cell. Last week they managed to make their first cell which has a voltage of 550 millivolts, “which is very exciting!” (It’s too low to power anything, but it’s a great leap forward.)
When we put a man on the moon, that showed what is possible when we have excitement about innovation and technology. Can we tap that same excitement to work on global climate change and poverty?
Deb Levine is a Pop!Tech social innovation fellow. (Here’s a list of the 2009 cohort.) “Deb is doing extraordinary things using mobile devices…to help drive access to information in an area that impacts everyone in the room,” Andrew Zolli explains.
Levine founded ISIS – Internet Sexuality Information Services – in 2001 to build better tools to promote sexual health and prevent disease. (Levine’s bio on the social innovation fellows page explains that “[u]sing the web, mobile phones and mash-ups, ISIS gives people private, convenient and accurate access to information on today’s major health issues, from HIV prevention to unplanned pregnancies to access to healthcare.”)
Raise your hands, she asks us, if you’ve ever been a teenager. “Now raise your hands if you know a teenager! Raise your hands if you know a teenager with an STD?” (Most of us raise our hands for questions one and two; very few for question three.)
By the age of 25, one in two young people will get an STD. Young black women are twice as likely to be affected as young white women. One in five people in the US with HIV do not know they have the disease.
Levine was hired as a sex educator at Columbia University, “to teach young people how to put condoms on bananas. They didn’t care.” So she closed the door and said, “I know you have burning questions about sexual health. I’m not accountable to your dean or to your parents; let’s go at it.” The first question was, “I’m on Prozac, I take ecstasy — how will that affect my erection?”
“I didn’t know the answer, but I knew I could do some research and get back to that young person with information that could affect his lifestyle.” But she didn’t have a confidential way to get back to him, and he’d just disclosed both a mental illness and recreational drug use. The college was putting T1 lines everywhere. “I thought, hm… there’s something about the screen and the distance it creates that allows intimate conversation about sensitive issues in safe ways.”
That spawned “Go Ask Alice,” the first anonymous health Q-and-A service online. In 2001 she founded ISIS, a nonprofit designed to increase sexual communication around sexual issues and decrase STDs.
All of their projects involve 1) the right people, 2) the right message and 3) the right channels. “The right people” means using epidemiological data. “Right messages” means going out and talking to people, whether virtually or in person. And “Right channels” means looking at what’s popular: e-vites? text messaging? They use any means necessary to reach those communities and engage them in critical health services.
One of their projects is InSpot. Men said that when they got syphilis, they wanted to tell their partners but couldn’t. Now they can send anonymous e-cards saying that they may have been exposed to an STD and offering links to ways to get tested.
Another project: the underwear contest, InBrief. 15 years of abstinence education in this country means teachers are afraid to say ‘sex’ in the classroom. Kids want information from experts but also gossip from friends. So they asked young people to design a message of safer sex for a pair of underwear, since that’s the last thing you see before you get naked. They had overwhelming response.
ISIS is a team of 8 talented people. “I started with provocative questions,” Levine explains. “To show you that we’re uncomfortable talking around sexual health and STDs. But now I want to ask you to go to the young people in your lives, to spread the word about ISIS projects, and to impose upon them the importance of honest discussion around sex and sexuality issues.”
They also need help, she said, around creating unconventional partnerships. They want to spread their message and increase sexual communication around the world.
Derek Lomas is a PopTech social innovation fellow. (Here’s a list of all of the 2009 fellows.) Lomas is part of The Playpower Foundation, created “to foster development of affordable, effective and fun learning games for under-privileged children around the world.”
“Derek Lomas is doing something absolutely extraordinary,” says Andrew Zolli. “You’ve heard about the $100 laptop experiment; Derek’s here to tell us about the $12 computer.”
CC image from Kris Krug.
Lomas asks, “What would you do if you were walking through a crowded electronics marketplace in India and someone tried to sell you a computer for only $12? I didn’t buy it! I had to live in India for almost a year before I discovered that it is a real computer, and also that if you bargain, you can buy it for ten bucks.” These computers are sold around the world, in Nicaragua and Pakistan and other such countries. How can a computer only cost $12? It uses an existing television as a screen, first of all. But beyond that, it’s based on the 8-bit 6502 microchip, originally popularized with the Apple II computer and Nintendo entertainment system. The computer is effectively in the public domain because the patents on the tech have expired. Hence, it can be afforded by the emerging middle class — those who make between $2 and $10/day.
“I first encountered this computer while working in India…doing ethnographic design research on uses of mobile phones in urban and rural contexts.” He decided to stay in India and teach a course remotely via Skype to students at UCSD. He bought the computer because he thought it would make an interesting class discussion. When he first turned it on, he wasn’t sure whether to be disappointed or amazed — because it works! You can compose 8-bit music, or learn to program in Basic. But most of the software was pretty low-quality, a hodgepodge of typing games and 8-bit karaoke. But his own education with 8-bit educational games was very rich: Carmen Sandiego, etc. "It occurred to me that if this platform had just a few decent games, and one good typing game, it could be economically transformative, because touch-typing can make a difference between earning a dollar a day or a dollar an hour.
The companies that makes these computers are concerned with keeping costs down — “not educating kids.” They can’t design and research effective learning games. “That’s why we created PlayPower.org — a global open source community” made up of 8-bit hackers and developers. The intention is to develop 8-bit games for distribution around the world. “We are looking to move into some uncharted territory by trying to license some of that 8-bit abandonware software. It no longer has commercial value but would be incredibly valuable for our product.”
Their planned distribution network is simply giving this educational software away so it can be bundled with these low-cost computers instead of the 8-bit karaoke. The companies have asked whether there’s any programming in Arabic. “We can leverage the existing low-cost manufacturing base and also the informal distribution network bringing these computers around the world to places where consumers are buying them.”
We’re still in the Teaching Change session this morning. “How do we teach, and how do we build curriculum?” asks Zolli.
For an answer, we hear from Dennis Littky (PopTech bio, webpage), founder of Big Picture Learning, an organization which works to radically reform what education is. But before he gets going, one of his students gets up on stage and takes over, leading the room in a chant. Half of the room is chanting “Pop!Tech, Pop!Tech,” and the other half chants “We can change!”
CC image from Kris Krug.
“We all know that everyone gets their 15 minutes of fame,” Littky says, quipping that being here is clearly his 15 minutes. He asks how many people in the room have been fired, and a lot of hands go up. “We’ve all done great work in our life, and then we get fired and we get known; that’s what happened to me. When I got fired, they wrote a book about Dennis Littky and his fight for a better school.” The book was Doc: The Story Of Dennis Littky And His Fight For A Better School. NBC also made a movie, called A Town Torn Apart, which tells this same story. (Here’s a review.)
The question, he says, is how to change the system and how to change what’s going on inside the school. He’d been a principal most of his life, and thought he was done with that; he came to Brown University; and then he was asked whether he would start a school. “Only if we could do it exactly how we want,” Littky said, not thinking anyone would say yes — “and they said yes.”
They asked 300,000 students to name one word that describes school, and they said “boring.” So his plan was, let’s create a school that’s not boring. “That’s why kids drop out,” he said. “They’re bored, they’re not engaged. We really closed our eyes and said, we’re not going to tweak around the edges. This is too big; we have to redesign. What would school be, if you didn’t know there was such a thing as school?” If you were homeschooling your kid, would you make him sit and read a book for 45 minutes, then ring a bell so he could go to the bathroom, then make him do science for 45 minutes…? A lot of reformers, he says, are trying to make teachers a little better, or materials a little better, but really change needs to be about engaging students in developing their own personal learning plan.
“How do you find their interests and passions? Let them be with adults and develop those passions — then go back to school, and you don’t need those regular classes; let them put all those pieces together!” How do we get to the real stuff kids need to learn?
“Every kid in our school has a different curriculum,” he explains. In his first year, a student comes in who says “I want to study death.” That was a little weird, he admits, but he was supposed to be the cool principal and this was the new plan, so — what to do? They said yes. Every 9 weeks, the kids exhibit their work in front of a committee of parents, teachers, and other students, and talk about their work. The girl in question stood up — she’d been a hellraiser in middle school — and it turned out she’d done 17 drafts of her paper before presenting it, she was clearly taking the work seriously. Her entire family had been killed coming over from Cambodia. She had to deal with that. So she talked about that, wrote about it, studied about it, thought about it, for 9 weeks.
“‘90% of my life this has been at the top of my brain,’” she said, and now she felt that she’d been able to explore it and exorcise it and could move on. “I was so proud to be part of a school where she could do that. That’s the kind of interest, be it good or bad, that you want to capture.”
Another kid wanted to study the Vietnam War. He picked a mentor who was building a monument for the soldiers. “You build your own schedule,” Littky reminds us, so the kid really immersed in it. He took a class for how to teach teachers about the Vietnam War. His senior year, Litky asked the kid why this had been his obsession, and the kid explained, “Ever since I was 5 years old, I’ve asked my dad about the war, and every year, he turned and walked away and never said a word.” For his senior project, the kid took his dad back to Vietnam. The kid was 18, the same age his father had been when he went to war. “Did I care whether he knew about the Boer War? No! He learned something in depth! And he went on to become a history major and is now a teacher.”
Right now, they have 73 schools around the country; and recently they started a college, College Unbound, “because [colleges] do a worse job [than high schools]!”
Littky brought a student, Michael Reeves (the one who began the session with the chant) who is now a college student and will give us some perspective.
“My story,” Michael Reeves begins — “hi Mom and Dad! — I’ve never been one of those students to sit in a classroom, raise my hand, be at the top of the class.” Though he hated being at the bottom of the class. All he cared about in middle school was being in the “in” crowd. While he was in school, the sitcom Nip/Tuck came out, and he decided, they make a lot of money; “I want to be a plastic surgeon!” Make a lot of money and also be helping people!
So when he heard about the big picture, having an internship, getting your own laptop, he took the dive; he figured he’d work with a plastic surgeon. Instead he wound up working with a cardiologist. He was fourteen years old at the time. He was allowed to watch a six-hour open-heart surgery. “I walked out of there and realized, plastic surgery is not for me, because I can’t stand there for six hours like that!” That’s how he knows the Big Picture high school was right for him — he was able to find out empirically in high school that plastic surgery was not actually right for him.
So instead, he created a brochure answering the question of what happens to you while you’re in surgery. He was able to follow his interest and passion and find a way to help other people with it. From there he thought he might want to be a psychologist, might want to be a chef — and now he’s found his true passion, working with youth, and he wants to be a social worker. In his senior year he started a ten-week program for youth, designed to help them work on self-esteem and their own personal power, to help them choose on their own which influences they want to follow.
For college, he decided he wanted to do something more traditional, but when he found out about College Unbound, he knew it was right for him. There are 8 other college students in the program. They started the college by doing a cross-country trip to LA, doing oral histories in each student’s hometown, including meeting senators and governors. “It was a way of doing real-world learning.” The college experience is a scary thing, he says, “because we’re doing college in a new way… we as people have to change our mindset about what education is.”
Littky returns to remind us that colleges are worse than high schools. Every 12 seconds a high school student drops out, and 89% of kids who are the first generation in their family to go to college don’t make it. Only 11% of first-generation college students actually make it.
“What got me angry is, I think colleges need to say, ‘we need to be more student-ready,’” rather than arguing that the students aren’t ready to come to school. “There’s something wrong with the institution,” he says. Hence, College Unbound, a continuation of the high school program. “We work life-to-text, not text-to-life.” So there are college kids working in architecture, advertising — they’re doing the work, and then back on campus the teachers make sure the kids have the reading and writing and analysis to get the job done.
When John Fetterman was talking yesterday about his town, Littky went up to him afterwards and asked about his schools. “In most small towns, the kids are sent outside — and that’s another thing that ruins the town’s identity,” Litky notes. “I told him I’d be interested in developing a K-12 system in his district, whatever he pays an outside district to take that kid away, I’d take that money.” So change is already happening.
Since this session began at 9am, 800 students have dropped out of high school — approximately the same number of people currently sitting in the Opera House. Littky ends his presentation with that sobering fact.
Our second session on Friday morning is themed around Teaching Change. First up after the break is James O’Brien of Brooklyn Community Arts & Media High School. He’s a Pop!Tech social innovation fellow, along with the rest of the 2009 cohort.
CC image from Kris Krug.
The school started four years ago; now there are 4 grades and 430 students. “We believe that our students…simultaneously have access to every form of media, but also are the most susceptible to being consumed by that media.” They use a 3-pronged approach of academics, creative arts, and professional development to support their students.
“Hopefully someone in the BCAM community is watching this live streamed” — Fridays at BCAM students get to dress how they want (no uniform shirts) and today is pyjama day at BCAM, and it sounds like O’Brien got some flak for not being there. “Pyjama day will be never-before-seen like we do it at BCAM,” he says. “Yesterday when we were hyping pyjama day and I said I wasn’t going to be there, I’d be at a conference, the kids said: you’re scared to wear pyjamas!” So he hopes they’re watching the live stream and can see that he really did have someplace to be today. He had pyjamas on earlier today, he acknowledges, but now he’s wearing a suit.
BCAM is a small school in Bedford-Stuyvesant in New York City. “Our students are like any set of students in any inner city across the country or world. We’re an un-screeened open-enrollment school… we have access to students who aren’t selected for specialized schools, didn’t audition or take a screened exam.” Some come in with college literacy levels; some come in with third and fourth grade literacy and academic skills, “and every place in between.”
The student body is dominantly working-class, “though as Brooklyn is and has been and continues to be, we also have middle class students,” he adds. It’s a diverse student population. “We try to support our students and we have to approach some real critical aspects in educating our students. Our students have a wide variety of skills,” and the educational approach has to meet their needs.
New York requires the kids to pass 5 Regents Exams, so there’s a Regents’ Exam prep model folded in with their other approach. Many students who come to BCAM come already alienated, they’ve never had good experiences in school before, their families aren’t motivated because they’ve never seen their kids succeed in school. “We try to change that in partnership with them.”
“It’s Bed-Stuy, New York, and some of our students do come with somewhat of a culture of crime and violence,” he acknowledges. Some students have gang affiliations. “We don’t deny that, we don’t berate our students for having that inside of them; we try to help them understand it and to give them other options and to meet them as real people.”
He shows us a slide of David Hollis, one of the first students to enroll in BCAM. “That’s an all-American looking young man,” he notes — the photo shows him in his gym uniform. “He typifies a BCAM student: charismatic, a leader, nice with the ladies, really smart and savvy in how he does things. I’ve seen him lead million-dollar foundations to tour our building and talk with them as if he were an adult with them.” Last spring he and 11 other students went to Chicago for a culture and college prep tour; “he’s legendary in Chicago, at this point!” He mixed with professors, with museum, docents, and again — “was nice with the ladies.”
David, though, also has another side to him. “All these compliments are real, but David also has a side that isn’t nice with the community. He already has a felony charge of robbery, has been superintended-suspended numerous times, doesn’t do well in formal academic classes, has at best a C average and doesn’t pass all of his classes.” But he’s gotten caught up in the end. “I’ve sat up with his mother at one in the morning bailing him out of jail.” I believe in him, O’Brien says, and I believe he’s working this out. David is a typical student at BCAM, not an anomaly.
They’re trying to develop a “professional preparatory model,” integrating academics steeped in an inquiry model where students push to connect what they’re studying with real life and real world issues. “We want them to make sense of it,” O’Brien says. “We also have to integrate that with the Regents’ exams, so it can’t just be personalized performance-based education” — that’s a real struggle, since the Regents’ is mostly about content and skills, not personal relevance.
Art is considered an academic discipline at BCAM, so students take a 3-year art curriculum, “which is unheard-of in small public schools, especially given funding cuts.” Art is marginalized, “ironically enough in New York City, the mecca of art.” The kids do fine arts, media arts, to have a critical analysis and analyze the context and impact of art. “We also have an incredible elective program…we contract community-based artists and educators” from the neighborhood to come into the school a few days a week. and if teachers want to put on another hat — if a science or English teacher wants to teach an elective that they’re passionate about, they can. This quarter there are 18 electives that kids can opt into, and they do four a year in nine-week modules. Once a quarter they do “Night to Shine,” where students demonstrate what they’re learning to family and friends and community.
And they push students to engage in professional experiences, through internships and partnership experiences with the school’s partners. “We push students to do what we call publishing and exhibiting — to revise, to take things to full completion, whether it’s a music studio beat or a piece of writing or a science experience.” They’ve published two books of student writing and artwork; they’ve made six short films that are on their website or on YouTube; there are two full cds of 16 songs apiece, brought out with their mobile music studio. And they’ve exhibited work all over the place: MoMA, international center for photography at Brooklyn Art Museum, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
A professional filmmaker is making a documentary about the school. She’s partnered with a group of ten students, all of whom have cameras; she shoots from her angle, but gives them free range to shoot from their angle.
BCAM teamed up with a hip-hop festival in New York, partnering with hiphop artists and a film and production team; students edited, wrote, and produced the whole film. O’Brien shows us part of the first verse; it looks as polished as anything you’d seen on television, and there’s something powerful about knowing that the lyrics and the voice we’re hearing belong to kids for whom these realities of violence are real. (You can see that very video here at YouTube.)
“What we want to do next,” O’Brien says, is to have students specialize in an academic or artistic discipline, as one does in college. They do sporadic art projects based on partnerships; their hope is in the next year to push each student to do a project where they’re working in the community on an issue, expressing a response which can go into the graduation portfolio. And, he says, “we want students to get paid” — to develop small businesses, to be able to hustle the products they make in school and have revenue come back into a bank account or investment portfolio that they can access upon graduation to help them be prepared for the future.
They have one floor and four classrooms; they share space with a middle school. They want someday to have dedicated studios and labs, and a nonprofit foundation to develop funds to keep the model alive and keep the school alive. “We can give [these kids] a fighting chance to succeed.”
Hayat Sindi is a Saudi medical researcher who has invented a machine “combining the effects of light and ultra-sound for use in biotechnology.” (So saith Wikipedia.) A few years ago she was part of a group of Arab women who peddled for peace — participating in a bicycle ride from Beirut to Ramallah intended to “send a message to world leaders to get on with it and stop the suffering that continuous conflict brings.”
CC image by Kris Krug.
She’s the first Arab woman to win a Pop!Tech fellowship, and she’s part of this morning’s Mindshifts session, speaking as a Pop!Tech social innovation fellow. (Here’s a list of the 2009 fellows — not surprisingly, it’s a pretty august crowd.)
“Hayat is an extraordinary scientist… an incredibly passionate advocate for the role of women and girls in the sciences, in particular in an important region of the world,” says Andrew Zolli, welcoming her to the stage.
“This is my first time addressing such a diverse American community; I’m honored to be here,” she says. She’s the co-inventor and co-founder of Diagnostics For All, but wants to share a bit of her journey & passion before telling us about it.
“My journey has involved breaking boundaries between the East and the West, to help society and save everyone: child, man, or woman of different religions and cultures.” She was born in Mecca and comes from a family of 8 children with a traditional upbringing and enormous love for knowledge. Since childhood she has admired people who do something for humanity. “I dreamt one day to be like them, to make a difference in this world.”
Seventeen years ago she left home in her teens, on her own — not speaking a word of English — to Britain, to follow the dream of becoming a scientist. She graduated with honors from Kings College and received a scholarship to get a PhD in biotechnology from Cambridge. Almost three years ago, she came to Harvard, to work in a special scientific lab. “This lab is making great discoveries to help society and community at large.”
That lab is where Diagnostics For All arose, a project which involves creating point-of-care diagnostic devices microfabricated in paper. (This pretty much blows my mind.)
“Our mission is to provide a very low cost health care solutions to improve health worldwide.” They’re a nonprofit enterprise. “Millions of people are dying around the world because they can’t afford access to diagnostic tools.” Sindi shows a picture of a lab in the developing world — bulky equipment and unsanitary conditions. DFA has a solution, putting the power of the whole diagnostic lab at the patient’s fingertip.
“Our technology is made of paper, so it’s very low-cost,” she explains. It’s portable — can be carried, folded, put in a pocket. It doesn’t require external power or reagents, and it’s safely disposable — can be incinerated with a match. It’s also very tiny, which requires only a minimum amount of tears, saliva, or urine to give results in seconds. “We can do all of this on a piece of paper while maintaining the high level of quality.”
How does it work? Take a drop of bodily fluid and place it on the device. The fluid wicks up the channel and reacts with chemical reagents in wells which are built into the paper. The color change might tell you, e.g., about the presence of glucose or protein. There are many variations; it can test for many different things. “Our first application is liver function tests — there are a huge number of patients with HIV who suffer from liver damage because they take many pills which can cause liver failure. How we deal with this problem in the US? Monitoring blood taken from the patient so the doctor can keep an eye on the liver function. What’s happening in the developing world? It doesn’t happen.” Even if the patient has a sample sent to the lab, it takes weeks to get results, and the patient may have returned to a remote area — and by then it may be too late.
In the US, 5% of patients medicated for HIV develop liver failure. In the developing world, the figure is 15%. This is only HIV/AIDS and its medication; if we add TB, the number will jump to 2.3 million patients in the developing world who will die — not because of the disease but because of side effects from the drugs meant to save them. “Diagnostics for All can solve this problem head-on, simply by monitoring.” Take a drop of blood, squeeze it gently on the device, and you’ll have results in seconds. A doctor can screen a whole village.
They’re developing a suite of diagnostic tools for other problems as well. Because the tech is so sophisticated, it’s going to expand the market area. They’ve also introduced tele-medicine, as a complement to the device. A remote doctor can take a photo of the device and send it via SMS to a lab in Africa or the US who can give him results.
The team behind the project is a mixtures of MDs, PHDs, and MBAs. “Diagnostics for all is guaranteed to benefit all of us; and it’s going to take all of us to make it work. We need your support,” she tells us.
She closes by telling us what she’s learned from her journey so far. “My first message is to the women, especially women in the Middle East. I want to say to them that you are strong, you are smart, you are intelligent, and you can also make break-throughs. Society and science can be hand in hand. I had a dream as a child to make a difference, and it has all happened.”
Leadership in innovation should be taken by people who love diversity, people who can bring other people different skills, people who care, and people who are brave to break boundaries and create values for the next century. “The power is us doing it together.”
“The theme of the session this morning is thinking differently, about shifting our mindsets, about big shifts in how we relate to technology, how we think about science, how we think about the natural world,” says our host Andrew Zolli, welcoming psychologist Daniel Goleman to the stage.
Goleman (here’s his Pop!Tech bio, and here’s his blog) wrote the 1995 bestseller Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. His latest work tends more toward the political than the psychological per se; he’s author of Ecological Intelligence: How Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What We Buy Can Change Everything, which challenges readers to confront the real consequences of our purchasing decisions. He speaks this morning as part of the Mindshifts session.
“I want to do some mindshifting,” he says, which will change our relationship to some of the environmental tragedies we heard about yesterday. He notes though a cautionary tale about believing everything you read on the web: his bio here says that he co-founded the Yale Child Studies center, but “I was about ten when that got going,” though had he walked over there at the time perhaps he would have been the first kid they studied!
“How many folks here recycle? Everybody recycles. How many print on both sides of the paper? Those who can, compost? Print-on-demand business cards — if you want my contact information, I write it out for you…?”
Imagine you have a morning yogurt, and recycle the lid in a plastics bin. What’s the impact on global warming — how much do you remediate via recycling that lid? People call out 0%, 23%, and 5%. The answer is five percent. Most of the global impacts from your morning yogurt come from the cows, the farming, the transportation — “there’s an enormous amount of invisible impact from everything we buy and consume, everything we don’t see but are about to.” The new discipline of industrial ecology allows physicists, chemists, and engineers to study the hiden impacts of everything. A glass jar, like you might buy your pasta in, goes through more than 1000 steps from manufacture to disposal, and each one of those steps can be examined for social and environmental impacts. Emissions into air, soil, and water. “We have a new lens on everything we buy.”
This lens will tell you, he says, about a local tomato grown in Montreal: the seeds were developed in France, grown in China, shipped back in France to be treated, flown to Ontario to be sprouted, and trucked to Montreal where they became “local!” “It’s a new way of seeing behind the fact that what we see now as ‘green’ is largely a marketing mirage.” If there are 999 steps and you change one or two things, what about the rest? “It raises the bar for what we need to do.” We’re going to be able to do this with greater efficiency because of Good Guide, a free iPhone app. He tells us about a nine-year-old named Joey who downloaded Good Guide onto his iPhone and saw that one of his favorite Webkinz gets a 3.9 rating there, which is very bad. Alas for the Webkins fans in our audience — the Pink Pony, for instance, is full of toxins.
Good Guide also instantly compares any product to its competitors, ranking them according to their virtues and vices. (Fortunately, the other Webkinz — aside from the Pink Pony — score 8s, 9s and 10s. Much better.) The app also scores foods. Playing around with this was an eye-opener for young Joey, and that’s a microcosm of what can happen for all of us. We might discover that the sunscreen we put on our five-year-old daughter has a carcinogen in it, for instance. “At that moment, you’ve elicited what psychologists call the contrast effect…which occurs in the brain when you’re comparing two things, you see one that all of a sudden is unappealing, and then you look at the other and the other looks many times better because of the contrast.” This is the moment in which brands are made and ruined, he says. “This is part of the game change I want to describe to you.”
If each of us, as we shop, does three things, we’ll have an enormous impact on how things are made and how Congress operates. If we 1) bother to know the impacts of what we buy (via GoodGuide); 2) favor improvement, and 3) tell everyone we know. Twitter about it, tell your friends, email the manufacturer. “Chatter about it, let it go viral; the more it spreads, the more market share will shift.” Hannaford Brothers supermarkets here in Maine went to some nutritionists at Yale and Dartmouth a few years back, asking them to rank every product on the shelves with simple star ratings, and market share shifted toward the more nutritional foods. “That is the mechanism that we want to have operate, because that will ripple through everything that’s made.”
The big accelerator turns out to be Walmart, surprisingly. A few months back, Walmart said they’re going to develop a sustainabiity index based on this methodology of industrial ecology; they’re going to rate products and put the ratings on the price tag just like Hannaford did. This “introduces information symmetry about the ecological costs of goods.” The goods we buy every day may be toxic; information symmetry means we can know what sellers know. It’s a game-changer because it can create a moveement towards a perpetual upgrade — an ecological diagnostic.
Earthster is a similar product for the supply chain, so they can see where their worst impacts are. Proctor and Gamble studied that, and saw that their worst impact on global warming was that we have to heat our water to use their detergents, so they went to R&D and designed some detergents that work well with cold water. Anyone who manages a product or brand can see where they stand on ecological impacts, where they need to improve in order to score better. “This creates a perpetual upgrade.” In order to stay competitive, you have to keep looking for new solutions, new ways to do old things — for instance, biodegradable plastic and styrofoam. That kind of thing is highly sought-after.
Walmart’s looking at resource use, climate change impacts, ecosystem impacts throughout the supply chain. “A potentially diminished fraction of an ecosystem” — that’s the metric they’re using. Imagine thinking in those terms! The last one is “a disability-adjusted life year.” This comes from public health, and means the years of your life you lose to some disability because of, e.g., a chemical exposure. Greg Norris, the developer of Earthster, did a study of the power grid in the Netherlands, and weighed the negative impacts from exposure to pollutants for people there vs. the impact on the 10% of the supply chain for their power grid which was from the poorest parts of the world. He found that positive benefits in the poorest parts of the world, such as improved health and education, were orders of magnitude greater than the negative impacts for the people in the Netherlands. “This gives us an entirely new way to think about the true impacts of what we do and what we buy and how to do it better.”
Pollution seems to be an external cost — “someone else will pay for it” — but over time this becomes a reputation cost. “Investors are starting to talk about minimizing sustainability risk from reputation cost.”
Goleman was talking with a guy at Greenpeace who was investigating the largest paper product company in America, trying to get them to stop sourcing from virgin forests. And the guy from the paper company said, “‘We did a lifecycle assessment, we have very little chlorine, we use alternative energies, we look pretty good! We don’t have to stop sourcing virgin wood.’ That is old think. You can say that as long as your competitors do the same. But to win in this new game, you have to find ways to do better ecologically.” This means there’s an enormous business opportunity… and we each have to look at our own business operations through that same lens.
“This resolves the conflict between corporate social responsibility, people who say ‘we need to do the environmentally right thing because it’s the moral thing to do,’ and those who argue that we have to do right by our shareholders… Now those two things are aligned. Or they will be, as this system goes to scale.”
“Joey is nine. Millennials on down have a unique collective experience which is going to determine their mindset for life.” How many people here learned to protect themselves from a nuclear blast by climbing under a school desk? That was the Cold War generation’s major trauma. But this generation grows up on a constant media diet of disappearing species, global warming, “one litany after another of coming disaster and meltdown.” The human brain, he says, has evolved a danger warning system that has a whole range of alarms — from the prehistoric “Tiger!” to “honey, we need to talk.” But what it doesn’t see is the connection between what we buy at the grocery store and a pelican dying in the Pacific. But today we can have that kind of information. And kids today are going to grow up wanting that information.
Even the idea that we’ve begun a geological epoch where human activity is going to create disasters — even if that comes to pass, life will adapt, he says. “The earth doesn’t need healing: we do.”