The beginning of spring

A blog about my work, where international development meets tech, and my life, where food, books, design, dogs, and friends (and the occasional pig) make appearances.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Innovation: top-down and bottom-up smackdowns

I know I can sometimes come off as ideologically wedded to the bottom-up approach. It's true, I like the idea of bottom-up--it sits well with my own attitude that authority needs to earn respect. There's also some sociological evidence that outsiders are more inclined to come up with breakthrough innovations because they are not caught up in "the way things are done." But for the record, I really like to see these approaches go head to head and the proposition get tested empirically. And in truth, I suspect that one approach may be better for some types of problems, and that while there might be a tilt to one approach or the other from time to time, there will be plenty of counterexamples to "disprove" most rules of thumb. But I had cause to come across 3

One, students from Laval University created a 2487 MPG eco-car. That far exceeds the performance of any eco-car created by professional car manufacturers.

Two, I love to cook, and am a complete devotee of Cook's Illustrated. I also love to read the commentary and inputs and ideas featured on Food 52. When these two beloved institutions decided to run a cook-off, I was in heaven. For non-foodies out there, Cook's Illustrated, run by Christopher Kimball is the gold standard for expert testing. They publish authoritative bibles like The Best Recipe. No hedging, and it's pretty much all invented in Vermont. MIT Poverty Action Lab meets GiveWell. Food 52, founded by Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is lightly curated site populated by regularly held contests for the best recipes. So much more like GlobalGiving, or DonorsChoose. I can't wait to find out what happens.

Three, our own GlobalGiving-Innocentive GlobalGiveback challenge sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation. We're still in the middle of it, but I just heard from the Innocentive folks today that in 3 out of the 5 challenges (they happen to have had earlier deadlines for solutions), solver interest in providing a solution has been 2x what Innocentive sees usually in comparable solutions being sought by for-profit entities. That there's so much pent-up interest in the Innocentive community to contribute to solving social problems confirms my bias that international development has an untapped resource in the broader public. We just haven't made it all that easy for people to contribute.

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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Design Thinking, Part II

So my few loyal readers will know that given a choice, I'll always opt for working with my hands--I'll make it or fix it or refurbish it rather than buy it. Mostly because I just like doing things with my hands, and I tend to be pretty good at it.

But I've been reading Matthew Crawford's book Shop as Soulcraft lately, and I'm tempted to find even more virtues in the hands-on approach than I was. One important point he makes is that mastery over things is, for better or worse, a key component of our psychological makeup, such that it feeds our spirit (as Eli noted in her comment) and makes us happier, more empowered, and in the end truly creative. (Crawford has some scathing comments to make about the faux creativity of Build-a-Bears and customized Scions).

But the point I want to highlight here, is an implied point. He points out the difference between theoretical and conceptual knowledge (as exemplified by his physicist father) and empirical, real knowledge (as exemplified by his knowledge of his exasperatingly old and dodgy VW bug) and how these two types of knowledge part company. I can draw an analogy to the conceptual knowledge that I used to rely on for my work at the World Bank, and the hard-won empirical knowledge that social entrepreneurs on GlobalGiving use day in and day out.

Crawford's point is that life today provides much less of the latter than it used to, and that it is a dangerous thing--for the spirit, for sustainability, for our ultimate fates. While I don't see a concomitant shift in the development field--having come into existence really in the 20th century it is a product of its time and the lion's share of resources in development are put in service of solutions based on conceptual knowledge--I think the discounting of knowledge on the ground is equally dangerous in development. But like the motorcycle repair guy, most social entrepreneurs just go on about their business without much flash or renown. But they sure make the lives of their community better. They have to--they are right there and either they deliver results, or the community will move on.

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Monday, October 19, 2009

A matter of faith

GlobalGiving was founded on the realizations that:

  • there were entirely too many potential social entrepreneurs all over the world that needed to be given a chance to test their idea of fighting poverty

  • for one rock star social entrepreneur, there were probably at least a hundred people who had tried something like, and failed

  • international development badly needed more than one Nobel Peace Prize winner in the sixty plus years since colonialism

  • and try as we might, there was no way for even the best and the brightest to know who would succeed, and who would fail, much less why

So what the world needed was a platform that made it safe and easy for all these bottom-up efforts to be visible and accountable to the outside world, and whose mission it would be to continuously lower the barriers to entry so that we didn't inadvertently leave another Mohammed Yunus stalled for lack of support. Of course, you can argue for development Darwinism, that the social entrepreneurs who aren't crazy or committed enough to keep going against all odds weren't going to succeed anyway--but clearly there are economies in the world that provide a hospitable environment for small-scale businesses and others that do not, and most of the economies that don't pay the price in lower prosperity overall.

So it's my vision for GlobalGiving that we play a small role in making social entrepreneurship just a little less crazy, a little less quixotic, and that we thereby make it possible for more innovation and change to happen in development. We won't know ahead of time what those innovations will be. We won't even know who will lead those innovations. We might know if someone one day can trace a rock star social entrepreneur back to their beginnings on GlobalGiving, but there's no guarantee we will be directly responsible, nor even that they might have succeeded without us. So it comes down to a matter of faith--an ironic position for me, as basically a non-believer with a Buddhist heritage.

This is, of course, a restating of Dennis's latest post (which in turn is really a hat tip to Bill Easterly), but here I am restating what we're about because we had two retreats last week, and in reiterating what inspired us to start GlobalGiving, I was struck by the fact that most of my colleagues encouraged me to state it, and state it again. So here it is.

(It's also a way for me to get back to blogging. I realized how bad it was when I saw that I had unmoderated comments from June--eek. Eli, Dibyendu, my apologies!)

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Sunday, June 07, 2009

Design Thinking

Yesterday as I felt compelled to defend why I was repairing my 99 cent gardening gloves instead of buying a new pair, as Dennis suggested, the connection between Depression habits (or, in my case, inherited postwar habits),

, kaizen and design thinking became clear.

I repair stuff instead of throwing them away out of habit and practice, and because being chary with resources is a taught Japanese value. But I persist I'm repairing stuff even though it doesn't make strictly economic sense because I learn a lot when I take things apart or repair them. I either see the bad design or poor workmanship that led to the hole in the first place and know what not to do (gloves case in point) or I marvel at the cunning of the colonial clockmaker, who I think, had to create this Western clock at the behest of a expat colonial client.

And so every time you repair or otherwise take time to get into the guts of something you can see how it was put together and how you can do better--or shamelessly copy, as the case may be. That's the logic behind kaizen, and the logic behind design thinking, as Jocelyn Wyatt of IDEO reminded me last week at the Bankinter forum in Madrid.

(As you see, I'll do anything to defend my own little pastimes and foibles.)

-- Post From My iPhone

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Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Truck envy, or the way we justify things

This weekend we had brunch with an old colleague of ours we hadn't seen for over 10 years. What do you know but he's gone and bought a Honda Ridgeline that Dennis has been drooling over for the last year or so. This renewed his sense that a man's entitled to a Honda Ridgeline, but some last doubts remained ... hence the following exchange:

Dennis: I need a truck for my place in WV, I have decided. So I am getting a Ridgeline this week – unless you tell me that a diesel will be out in the fall?
Friend [who is passionate enough about the Ridgeline that he's blogged about it]: >Diesel. Great question. I've heard conflicting reports, that it was coming next year, but also that it has been canceled ... I wish my wife would let me get one... of course, I don't have any reason to own one ... I heard that Tufte owns one!

This is why I love these guys. Anyone who would think of justifying a truck purchase by citing Tufte get my vote.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Career advice: Oxford, Akhmatova, and Isaiah Berlin

When people ask me for career advice--and in particular, when they ask me, how can I get to be doing what you're doing--I have a hard time answering that question. Because honestly, I can't say I had any intention to be doing this--say, attending the Skoll World Forum on social entrepreneurship at Oxford--when I first started thinking about my future. Looking back, if this is where I was intending to be, I'd say I had a lot of false starts.

First, my parents, being Japanese, very decidedly mercantile middle class, and pretty old-fashioned, really didn't think I was going to college. (It's one of the reasons I was allowed to attend international schools. If I had been a boy, they would have made a bigger effort to keep me in Japanese schools, and in the Japanese system, studying for the be-all and end-all university entrance exams.)

Then, when I did go to college, I was a Russian history major--when I first fell in love with Isaiah Berlin--and I ended up continuing on to grad school to become a Sovietologist (fully intending to become an academic.) And in fact while I was an undergrad at Harvard I was unhappy enough that I took the Oxford entrance exams--to go study law at Magdalen College. (I got in, but never left Harvard--another false start there).

Then, in 1991, when I was in grad school, the Soviet Union fell apart, and my desire to pursue an academic career in Sovietology evaporated--partly because as Sovietologists we'd signally failed to see the end coming, and partly because the government funding for Sovietology dried up. And that's how I joined the World Bank--as a Russia expert for a new member country. The best part about the job was I got to do what I had intended to do as an academic--to understand, if not undo, the repressions that had stifled all the things I had come to love about Russia, its history, people, and culture.

And ten years later, I left, to start GlobalGiving with Dennis Whittle. And now, eight years after that, it's all come full circle with Kenneth Brecher's incredibly eloquent story about Anna Akhmatova, and how we can but aspire to resemble Isaiah Berlin's description of her devotion to poetry, to witness, and belief in the future. So maybe, next time they ask me, how do I get where you are, I'll take them around the long way--and start with Isaiah Berlin.

Come to think of it, I think it's the first book I lent to Dennis, when I first met him, 17 years ago.

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Monday, March 16, 2009

*How* to spend the stimulus bill

Most of the political debate has been about whether we need a stimulus package, whether all the pork has or has not been stripped out of the package, etc. But now that we have a package, the screech of the rubber hitting the road is in the paucity of ideas on *how* to spend the money (not on what, although that's another topic entirely).

But by and large, this isn't a sexy topic. The rules and incentives you set up on spending is the minutiae of bureaucratic work--but as Sir Humphrey Appleby knows well, you can win or lose a lot of battles there. And it's hard to report on. So I was pleased ... until I wasn't, when I heard a story on NPR the other day about how to exercise oversight over spending. The story pointed to the procedures developed at NEA after the Mapplethorpe etc. flap as one way to go. I'm sure I'm not doing the rules justice, but it came down to accepting no applicants who weren't already approved and vetted NEA grant recipients (in other words the usual suspects), and limiting grant requests to 2 sizes--$25,000 or $50,000--to make it easier to process. The commentary in the piece sort of says it all in terms of what bizarre sorts of behavior you could end up with:

But that's one grant protocol that poses a challenge for grant writers. They never want to ask for too little — arts groups are constantly cash-strapped. Ask for too much, though, and they might price themselves out of the competition and get nothing at all. It can be a tricky calculus.

As a good ex-bureaucrat myself I know that rules like this work to get money out of the door faster, and if the money doesn't get out of the door it doesn't have any stimulus effect. But are we reduced to reaching for a process that was developed essentially to prevent public funds from being spent for outre art in figuring out exactly how to spend the stimulus package? I know there aren't easy answers, but this is an unprecedented opportunity/challenge.

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