When it comes to articulating the principles of ‘everyday ambassadorship’, Foreign Policy really hit it out of the park this week with their cover article, “Can Silicon Valley Save the World?”
(Spoiler alert! The answer is:”it depends!”)
Here on EA, our contributors regularly discuss the qualities it takes to truly change the world (humility, patience, focus, empathy), and the obstacles that block our way to practicing them (feeling rushed, distracted, self-centered, short-sighted).
And oftentimes, it’s our ubiquitous access to technology that stimulates both the good and bad qualities. Positively, technology makes the impossible possible. We can get in touch with people half a world away before setting foot there, and stay in touch long after we depart, in order to learn and know more deeply the communities we aim to serve. We can introduce tools of convenience and efficiency in ways that truly save lives.
Yet when we become used to checking our devices, or feel more comfortable glued to a small screen or keypad, then we sometimes ignore the people right around us. Or, we can get caught up in the hype around new technological possibilities without having the patience to test these ideas over time and find evidence of change. We can forget that what works in our own personal environment – or in our imagination of a better world – may be entirely inappropriate for certain settings.
Foreign Policy’s article communicates this dilemma with some incredible examples of both sides of innovation.
In particular, they profile three innovations with great intentions but questionable outcomes - One Laptop per Child, the PlayPump (a water pump designed as a playground structure, so clean water comes from kids’ ‘play’), and the Soccket (a soccer ball with a battery inside to bring power to communities off the grid, also charged by ‘play’).
“Ideas get funding from Kickstarter and philanthropies on the basis of their appeal to donors and philanthropists in the West rather than consumers in Africa,” the article explains. ”The problem is that few in the tech world have the rigor to know when they’re backing a good idea and when they’re backing a dud. Every start-up thinks it has the next billion-dollar idea until the market reveals otherwise.” I.e. if the PlayPump requires 27 hours of ‘play’ to reach target water output, is it play, or still labor? Or at $99 a pop, will the Soccket ball ever be taken up by people who live on, at best, a few dollars a day?
The article also goes on to praise other innovations in development that are so far standing the test of the marketplace, and are flourishing across the developing world – organizations like Solar Sister, who trains sales agents to cell low-cost solar cells in unlit communities, and CommCare, a mobile phone app capable of many empowering interventions by allowing patient records and diagnostic information to be available on mobile phones of community health workers. (Full disclosure, I work with and adore CommCare – so proud we are shouted out in this article!)
Citing Harvard economist Michael Kremer, the article suggests two key factors will determine if Silicon Valley can save the world: “market discipline and rigorous testing.”
What does that mean in EA-speak?
Market discipline – are there enough people who will buy what you’re offering? – is akin to the idea of knowing who you’re serving before you show up with a grand idea to save them. What projects have been tried before, what has worked and what hasn’t, and why? Is your idea more than just a good intention, or can it be taken on and owned by the community you’re aiming to serve?
Rigorous testing – whether randomized controlled trials or other intensive techniques for correlating interventions with outcomes – echoes the values of patience and focus that our EAs emulate. It’s not enough to see a few initial positive results of an intervention and claim success. You’ve got to stick around for the long haul, and have a longer-term plan in mind. Dropping in for a few weeks is a great way for you to learn about a place or issue, but playing a role in a development solution means committing to a longer time period and a deeper investment in understanding what works and why.
As many of us have experienced, upon first glance at a ‘suffering’ part of the world we feel a spirit to help, but have little experience in suffering. That means we often misdiagnose the root problems, which are rarely a lack of innovation or ideas or money, but rather due to deep-rooted human behaviors, long-standing government red tape, or troublesome policy environments.
“Sorry,” FP laments, “but no iPhone, even one loaded with the coolest apps, is going to change all that.”
The good news is, the answer of whether or not tech tools can save the world - “it depends” – means “it depends on YOU!”
How will you approach your current or future project? How will you learn from the examples in this article to conduct more holistically effective work? How will you put into practice the human values of patient listening and focused attention, even in a world of fast-moving distractions?
I am so proud of everyone who has posted on EA so far – and those lined up for the coming weeks and months – because you truly emulate these principles in your service work. So take a look at this article – kudos to FP!! – and keep shining. The more we promote this way of service, the more it will become the norm!