Archive for the 'Activism' Category

Blue Sky, Pixar & More Artists Paint for a Cause

What happens when you make a documentary film and just happen to work at one of the top animation studios in the world? If you’re smart, you make friends with the artists and they multiply your creativity. If you’re smarter, you ask them to bring their friends from around the world with them. And that’s just what happened for Brownstones to Red Dirt, the thought provoking film about kids in Brooklyn housing projects paired with Sierra Leonean pen pals orphaned by civil war.

Artists from Blue Sky Studios and beyond (Pixar, ILM, Valve, 2K Games, CTW, more) have provided hand-drawn artwork on postcards as a lovely counterpoint to the very real letters exchanged by the kids in the film. So many ways to evoke pen-pals, whimsy, struggle, thoughtfulness, and much more. Soon there will be 150 unique pieces. And starting March 6 you’ll be able to buy them.

Proceeds go to construct schools and improve education in Sierra Leone. Buy a postcard and help make it happen! Update: the auction is live

Some favorites (click for details):

Find more on the Brownstones to Red Dirt Art Auction blog and see a another fabulous art endeavor at Blue Sky Studios Challenge.

Web 3.0: Social Software in the 3rd World

What is Web 3.0? After the social software revolution ushered in by web 2.0’s architectures of participation, we’re all eager to think ahead to the next mind bending advance. But while many of the new web manifestos talk about the next step for web technology, the target market for those technologies is equally important. I believe the third generation web will be about finding ways to make social software relevant to those who have benefitted little from it to date: web 3.0 is social software in the 3rd world.

But here’s the thing: the next social software revolution has already begun — spurred by the massive uptake of mobile phones in developing nations. 68% of mobile phone subscribers anywhere are in the developing world. In Africa, mobile subscribers have jumped from 10 million to 200 million in the last four years. The growth is stunning. And it’s accelerating.

Why the explosive growth? One reason is sheer need. Africa has 12% of the world’s population but only 2% of the global landline network. Building wired infrastructure is far more expensive than wireless alternatives. But that’s just the beginning. The recent IBM Global Innovation Outlook put it this way:

African use of mobile phones has been far more innovative than in Europe, largely because meeting the specific needs of Africa requires innovation.

And the cellphone is empowering because it provides what Jan Chipchase calls a “fixed identity point,” that is, for people displaced by war, floods, drought, or faltering economies, having a way to always be in touch is essential for both maintaining community and for doing business.

Economists say this will be huge. As a recent New York Times article put it, mobile communications enables the “just in time” business. In the 1930’s, Toyota radically revamped how its supply chain worked. No longer did it stock parts, instead encouraging assembly plants to order from the factory only when parts were needed. The company became decentralized, incremental. Waste was reduced, efficiency increased, defects were corrected more quickly — and profits rose. Economists believe that the cellphone can enable this same kind of radical shift in developing nations, largely because they don’t have the technological baggage we do.

Some examples:

  • When Indian fishermen got cellphones, they started calling around to prospective buyers before reaching shore. The ability to negotiate at a distance increased profits by 8% and reduced consumer costs by 4%.
  • SMS is used in Kenya to allow anonymous questions about culturally taboo subjects like AIDS, breast cancer, STDs and more. Answers come back quickly from health professionals at no charge.
  • A live-in housekeeper in China who was essentially an indentured servant got a cellphone and suddenly a whole new set of customers were able to reach her and book her services, allowing her to grow her business.

Of course difficult questions remain. How do you design for people who are illiterate, making $4 a day, and with no access to electricity? Design for the Other 90% provides important answers, repeatedly demonstrating that these challenges can be overcome when folks get creative — and at a profit, too. Paul Polak puts it this way:

Thinking of poor people as customers, instead of recipients of charity, radically changes the design process.

But here’s the central point: little attention has been paid to the role social software can play. And that seems strange since these little connected devices are in so many pockets. It’s a huge opportunity, especially since many of the approaches used in the west can’t be applied, at least not directly. For instance:

In Cameroon, bankers complain of loan delinquency rates as high as 50 percent. But tontine payments are taken so seriously that borrowers faced with delinquency have been known to commit suicide. (nyt)

How, then, do you design to support informal economies in places where the formal economy isn’t as important? What features can help communities that are widely dispersed by war maintain their bonds? What role can social software play in helping steward social change and stability? These are the big questions. And that’s why there’s no better place to test the true promise of social software than in the developing world. Confronting these challenges requires a radical rethink of what social software means. Web 3.0: social software in the 3rd world.

Jan Chipchase holds design studios in poor communities, asking participants to design their perfect phone — with all sorts of revealing results: a landmine detector, GPS to help orient prayers towards Mecca, the ability to monitor cheating boyfriends and husbands. But perhaps the most telling was just two words: “peace button.”

While the idea of a button that instantly invokes peace might seem ridiculous, the power of mobile phones to affect social change is quite evident: be it energizing protests or spreading divisiveness.

If the third world is already doing amazing things with basic mobile functionality (texting, voice), imagine what they will do when the real dreamers of social software apply themselves in this new venue. I don’t know what that future would look like but, with so much of Earth’s population still unaccounted for in current designs, it’s an opportunity that will be increasingly difficult to ignore.

images via ibm and nyt

Who Cares About Climate Change?

Don’t worry, be happy. In October, famed environmental scientist James Lovelock (author of the Gaia theory) commented bluntly on the planet’s future, saying we’re so far beyond the tipping point that all the brakes in the world won’t matter:

“Our future,” Lovelock writes, “is like that of the passengers on a small pleasure boat sailing quietly above the Niagara Falls, not knowing that the engines are about to fail.” And switching to energy-efficient light bulbs won’t save us. To Lovelock, cutting greenhouse-gas pollution won’t make much difference at this point, and much of what passes for sustainable development is little more than a scam to profit off disaster. “Green,” he tells me, only half-joking, “is the color of mold and corruption.” (rolling stone)

Grim, no? And we have to hope he’s wrong. But, if there’s a key to all this, it’s not scaring the living shit out of people but rather giving them specific things they can do that matter. Even if they’re big things. A recent study found as much.

And people everywhere are making important steps towards reducing their carbon footprint. A few days back, The Times reported on a suburbanite’s struggle to decrease his carbon footprint and, more generally, how even small changes in population density can have a big impact.

Still, some of Lovelock’s argument does resonate. We all have to know in the backs of our heads that just changing lightbulbs and carpooling to work isn’t going to save the planet. Those are good short term steps to be sure, but the real solution is something far more profound and challenging to the status quo — everything from fundamentally altering how our communities are structured to breaking with the culture of consumption. That’s where we start to get major pushback from special interests and truly challenging ourselves.

Perhaps Mark Lynas put it best:

With scientists telling us we need to stabilize global emissions by 2015 in order to keep rising temperatures within relatively tolerable boundaries, there is a pressing need to shift the energy direction of the entire global economy, not tinker at the margins. Massive public pressure now needs to be put on world governments to negotiate a successor treaty to Kyoto which dramatically reduces emissions within a 20-30 year timescale. And that is something that big business still has a hard time contemplating. (adbusters)

There are many heartbreaking stories in developing countries, but one of the lessons I always come home with is one of re-use, repair, and re-invention rather than rampant consumerism. When you don’t have the means to buy buy buy, you discover clever ways to make what you have work. (See Design for the Other 90% for examples.) That’s something we desperately need to learn from. And fast.

What’s going to save the planet? Nothing short of a radical rethinking of the way we live. The challenge is convincing ourselves to see it as an opportunity, not a threat.

images via tim & sue and mladen penev

Twisted Metal and Leaving Car Culture

I was in a spectacular car crash. Roads were deceptively slick from an overnight storm. A white Civic speeds alongside and darts suddenly in front of me, leaving inches. Then his brake lights come on. I cut right to avoid hitting him. My wheels go bald, my car skidding left into his with a sound like a crumpling tin can. His car careens left, slamming into the median. Mine slides right, out into the river — almost. A few pieces of well-placed wire keep me from going in face-first. (I guess we have Robert Moses to thank for something after all.) I walk away, but the car is totaled.

After the adrenaline of the accident wears off, panic sets in. I’m without a car for the first time since high school. Sure, I’ve taken public transit for long stretches before, but there was always the car out back just in case. Sayonara safety net.

And suddenly the amount of pro-car propaganda arriving by mail turns from a trickle to a flood. Since my car became a twisted heap, I’ve found myself awash in shiny brochures from everyone from Mercedes to Hummer to Hyundai. Heck, even my insurance company sent me a brochure with details of their “best rate” auto loans. Why were they all so sure I wanted a new car? That’s car culture. Even if you don’t need one, you want one.

Instead of running out to fill that auto void, though, I decided to go cold turkey. It wasn’t easy. My commute ballooned from 30 minutes to an hour thirty in each direction, and the up-front cost went from $15 a week to $30 a day. Going carless takes planning and cold hard cash. (Transit subsidy, anyone?) Plus, it just feels strange.

And it’s that lifelong programming that still has me subconsciously shopping for parking spaces a month later. What does that say about the creep of the almighty auto into our collective psyche? But things have gotten better, too. No more dealing with obnoxious drivers for an hour a day, no more traffic jams, no more worrying about the next car repair or getting a ticket. But my biggest worry driving a car has always been the ever looming possibility that you might seriously hurt or kill someone — someone who just happens to wander out into the street at the wrong moment: a kid chasing a ball, an adult who misreads a crosswalk sign. That anxiety is behind me, too.

As if to punctuate my first month of auto abstinence, World Car Free Day was this weekend. It’s nice to be on the right side of that equation for once, even if it started off against my will. And GM’s workers added their own inadvertent nod by walking off the job yesterday. Friday also saw the return of parking spaces to nature via Park(ing) Day. Signs from above, no? Well, at least I’ll take it that way.

image by jae lee

Rejecting the Free Pass

There’s an elephant in the room. We know global warming is snowballing towards us, but once we’ve changed our lightbulbs and adjusted our thermostats and bought our high milage cars, we’ve done our part, right? Not quite. In Adbusters 72, Kalle Lasn puts it this way:

[Thomas Friedman says we need] a president “who is tough enough to level with the American people about the profound economic, geopolitical and climate threats posed by our addiction to oil — and to offer a real plan to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.” He then went on to say: “I am not proposing that we radically alter our lifestyles. We are who we are — including car culture.”

That pretty well sums up the way most of us in the affluent West feel about global warming: we’re ready to make small sacrifices, change our light bulbs, our cars and even our leaders, but our culture — the American way of life — is not negotiable. That’s too bad, because our consumer culture is the primary cause of our ecological crisis.

But it’s not just environmental issues — it’s social issues, too. Take Product Red. Buy a Red-branded iPod and some of the purchase price goes to fight AIDS in Africa. When you buy it, though, you’re saying: I’m only willing to give a $10 donation if I can invest $190 in a gadget for myself. 5% for them, 95% for me. Why not give the whole $200 to a cause and listen to the radio? Our consumer mindset won’t let us.

The fear, of course, is that once we’ve bought the Red iPod, the Red Razr, the hybrid car, that we feel we’ve done enough, won our free pass, and leave the rest of the work to someone else. But is that what really happens? Could these products be a first step rather than the only step — the activism gateway drug? Focus group findings reported in this Sunday’s Times suggests they just might:

We didn’t find that people felt that their consumption gave them a pass, so to speak. They knew what they were doing wasn’t going to deal with the problems, and these little consumer things won’t add up. But they do it as a practice of mindfulness. They didn’t see it as antithetical to political action. Folks who were engaged in these green practices were actually becoming more committed to more transformative political action on global warming.

But the question I’ve heard over and over is: What else can I do? Consumption is so central to our culture, it seems the only way to engage these big problems is at the cash register. How do we move beyond that mindset? How can we ask people to make much bigger sacrifices for the good of the environment, for the good of people we’ve never met. How do we embrace fundamental change on a large scale?

As usual, the answer is that activists each have to figure out how we can best contribute and work hard. For my part, I think technology can play a role. The gap between causes and effects is often too wide for human brains to comprehend. Can technology help us close that mental gap? Can technology help people make the hard choices? Can the “architecture of participation” hive mind so heralded by the web 2.0 crowd be harnessed to this end in a deep and wide way? I think so. And, with everyone touting the new web and the ways it brings people and resources together in new and empowering ways, I can’t think of a better time to put it to this test. It’s the most important test of our generation.

We last wrote about using technology to encourage activism in Karma 2.0.

image grabbed from medicins sans frontier’s fantastic human ball

Manhattan Middle Finger: Density & Future Cities

More like dual middle fingers, actually. You see, a little over a year ago something new appeared through my window. A slowly extending slender metal finger of a building that shot out from the buildings around it like the bird. And another right across the street. They were too tall (more than double the height of surrounding buildings), the design was awful, and they drove a historic movie theater out of business. Double barrel f*ck yous to the Upper West Side called Ariel.

Lightning hit the west tower one damp morning while it was still under construction. Neighbors gathered and gawked — some even clapped. And the applause grew louder when the building started to smoke. The construction workers seemed genuinely shocked by both the lightning and our response. But, come on, lightning? That sure sounds like judgment from above. And don’t forget the building they built on top of fell into the street. You sure there isn’t an ancient Indian burial ground around there somewhere?

Cursed or not, the towers seem here to stay. What’s interesting is what this stir has to say about the future of cities, and the limits of human density. Density finds us more social, healthy, and (perhaps less obviously) ecologically sound. But, if the future points to ever increasing density, where does it stop? Sustainability expert Richard Fuller said as much in a recent BBC editorial:

So, it’s time to rationally debate these issues, and this is an issue that affects at least the nine out of 10 of us that live in cities. It is vitally important that we go into this new, high density era with our eyes open to the potential consequences.

Yes it has clear benefits as we build assertive cities for the 21st century, but by also making them compact cities, we must recognise the risk of isolating ourselves and our children still further from an experience of nature, as well as causing biodiversity around the places where we live to decline precipitously.

It’s a matter of finding a balance, then — sidestepping Ballard’s High Rise nightmare. And it seems that Upper West Siders found that balance (perhaps without realizing it) when they forced the city to rezone and end that skyscraper noise.

But, while the neighbors win a clear victory for their mental environment by keeping future buildings more in character with the neighborhood, it seems Ariel’s builders have won a victory for their cause, too. That’s because they can now guarantee perpetually unobstructed views in all four directions for their multi-million dollar apartments. Can you say price bump? And you have to wonder if they didn’t plan it this way from the beginning. Ugly, ain’t it?

For more on the whole Ariel mess, see the High Anxiety in the Times. It got so many heated responses, they posted a follow-up. And check the panorama to see just how much those towers stand out.

images via the Ariel discussion at Wired New York

Art for Global Change

As always, we’re fascinated with the intersection of art and activism. Here are five bits in particular that grabbed our eyes this week…

Global Warming World – Gorgeous kid look MTV spot makes a microcosm of the world and drives home the severity of climate change.

Guerrilla Gardening – Vandalizing public spaces with flowers, protesting the privatization of public space with plants. Taking off all over the planet.

What the World Eats – Photos of families worldwide alongside what they eat in a week. Echoes Menzel’s earlier work looking at families and all their belongings (book).

Candlelit Israel – Lovely paper and candle street art gives us hope and lights the way home in Tel-Aviv. And while we’re in Israel, have a look at the emotive stencil portraits popping up in Nir’s photostream.

Inspiration Out of Africa – We don’t focus on the positive in Africa nearly enough so I’m happy to see countries taking inspiring steps highlighted — Rwanda abolishing the death penalty, for example. You’d think we could be as forward thinking. Art of a political sort, but beautiful nonetheless. And of course don’t miss Vanity Fair’s massive Africa Issue.

Design for the Other 90%

90% of people on Earth don’t benefit from design. That’s because they lack the means to purchase the most basic goods and many lack access to food, clean water, and shelter. What does it mean to design for this massive but radically different audience? Design for the Other 90%, an exhibit now at the Cooper-Hewitt, asks just that question and gets plenty of fascinating answers.

The exhibit highlights 30 products, many of them striking: from a straw that takes dirty water and renders it drinkable to a fashionably woven solar panel sidebag that provides light at night to a pot that uses sunlight to cool. The real stars of the show, though, are the stories behind the designs. Take the Kickstart Moneymaker Pump, which was originally designed to put the operator’s hips at eye level. Using an up and down motion, the pumper is able to irrigate crops at an impressive rate. But, since irrigation is largely done by women, all that eye level hip motion was seen by community members as a bit, shall we say, inappropriate. So the designers had to rework their design to lower the device significantly (a not insignificant engineering challenge) in order to make a product that would sell.

Designing products to sell (and cheaply) into this massive underserved market puts up some great challenges. Profit motive doesn’t die; it gets reinvented. Third world entrepreneur Paul Polak puts it this way:

  • If you haven’t had good conversations with your eyes open with at least twenty-five poor people before you start designing, don’t bother.
  • If what you design won’t at least pay for itself in the first year, don’t bother.
  • If you don’t think you can sell at least a million units at an unsubsidized price to poor customers after the design process is over, don’t bother.

It’s these kinds of stories and insights that inspire, so it’s a shame more of them aren’t told in the exhibit proper. (You can find them in the companion book.) Regardless, seeing design work so different from what we’re accustomed is exciting. And I hope that excitement is catching.

Design Life Now, another show at the Cooper-Hewitt, showcases the best design for the 10%. That show takes up all three floors of the main museum (and it’s busting at the seams). By contrast, Design for the Other 90% fills just half the courtyard. The difference in size drives home how fully slanted design is towards the richest of the rich. But the fact that the two exhibits stand side by side in the Smithsonian means that designers are taking the 90% more seriously than ever, and that’s heartening. Making beautiful objects that deeply matter — it’s hard work but the results reward the soul like little else.

Find more at the Design for the Other 90% website. Hear interviews with the curator and participating designers on

Last time we hit the Cooper-Hewitt, we grabbed a few undercover photos of Ratatouille.

Game Changing Technology

What happens when you lose your glasses in a country where you don’t speak the language? I got to find out first hand when I dropped my glasses in a lake during a recent trip to China, and the experience drove home a few points. First is: cabbies are the key to the city in Hangzhou. But the second and more important point is that glasses are a luxury.

It might sound stupid but, because I’ve had glasses since I was 4, I’ve never really considered what life might be like without them. Yet the WHO reports that there are roughly 1 billion people worldwide with poor eyesight that could be corrected if only they had access to basic corrective lenses. The few hours I spent without my glasses trying to communicate, hunting for help made it quite clear how debilitating untreated vision impairment can be.

That’s why I was stunned to discover the U-Specs project (thanks houtlust), which aims to radically reduce the cost of improved eyesight in the developing world. U-Specs are glasses designed to be adjusted by non-experts (the wearer) until improved vision is achieved. The design can correct eye disorders from -6 to 3 diopters, which corrects for 90% of refractive vision errors; not as good as real glasses, but far better than nothing. So, U-Specs increase access to improved vision by removing the need for a professional optician to fit the glasses. They also improve access through price, with an estimated cost of 4 euros.

As a computer scientist at a time when there’s so much focus on innovations in computing technology (from next-gen game consoles to endless web 2.0 gadgets to the mit laptop), it’s good to be brought back to earth and reminded that, to a great many, innovations in non-computing technology matter more.

For more on U-Specs, see And find more on vision programs worldwide at Vision 2020.

image grabbed from eyebuydirect

Karma 2.0

Being at the 5th Ave. Apple store during the Product Red launch was an experience. From the newly red Apple logo on the cube to the newly red employee shirts sporting the words “Pocket Karma” to the newly Red iPod Nano, everything was going according to plan. So much to plan, in fact, that they’d sold out all the Red iPods (folks were buying them 10 at a time).

Product Red, of course, is Bono and Bobby Shiver’s AIDS charity that focuses particularly on Africa. And their plan to get the tech-savvy to contribute a bit to their fund via Apple’s super sexy products couldn’t have come off better. But it also got me thinking.

My question is: If technology gets folks excited about a cause, how far can we take that? What other ways can we use these technology to make aiding the underprivileged cool? How can we use it to engage those who wouldn’t think of giving $10 to a charity but would buy a $200 iPod Red ($10 of which goes to charity)? What’s the magic switch to make taking a more active role in helping the underprivileged as likely as buying something branded Red?

One answer may be Web 2.0. After all, Web 2.0 has an allure that rivals the iPod these days. What would it mean to make Product Red Web 2.0 compliant? How do we encourage the development of super cool gotta-play-with-it web properties that just happen to be aiding the underprivileged?

Continue reading ‘Karma 2.0’

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