Subject: Viridian Note 00372: TED Saves the World
The "Embrace the Decay" Contest
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(((I'm speaking at this event.)))
Source: The New York Times, Katie Hafner
"Dot-Com Saviors, Tilting at the World's Ills
"MONTEREY, Calif. WITH their sights set across the globe, they are heading out from Silicon Valley with unflinching optimism, buoyant self-confidence and, now that much of their industry has evaporated, a great deal of time on their hands.
"In increasing numbers, high-tech entrepreneurs who grew wealthy during the dot-com boom of the late 1990's — as well as many who didn't — are turning the intense business acumen they once devoted to making money to working for what they see as the global good.
"With the best of intentions, and maybe a hint of hubris, these New Age saviors are trying to build water purifiers, manual irrigation pumps, low-cost solar collectors, hearing aids, even highly durable mosquito nets. (...) (((Well! Don't that beat all!)))
"This new mood was especially evident at last month's TED conference (for Technology Entertainment and Design), an annual gathering in Monterey that attracts many of the computer industry's elite. But instead of celebrating technology's intrinsic beauty and financial potential, participants showed off gizmos meant to improve living conditions in the third world.
"Instead of jargon like personal bandwidth, killer app, and clicks and mortar, the notions floating around this year were sustainability, the ecology of terror and H.I.V. One of the most popular presentations came from Dean Kamen, the inventor best known for the Segway Human Transporter, the high-tech scooter that has yet to prove itself in the marketplace. At TED, Mr. Kamen, 51, showed a water purifier that also generates electricity. The device, which resembles a Good Humor ice cream cart, takes filthy water (all that is available to much of Africa, he said) and distills it to crystalline purity.
"'Here you take the box and put it directly where someone needs it,' Mr. Kamen said. (((Where's mine?))) His device is still not ready for mass production, yet his plans are grandiose. He said he would leave in the next few weeks for Africa to explore distribution for his invention.
"TED was not the only place where world betterment eclipsed return on investment as a discussion point. Three weeks earlier, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the annual meeting of world economic and political leaders, a dinner for high-tech executives focused almost exclusively on problems of poverty and disease around the world. Bill Gates, the Microsoft chairman, sat on a panel whose theme was 'Science for the Global Good,' and discussed his foundation's work in bringing immunization programs to developing countries.
"While plenty of people in Silicon Valley are still focused on keeping their businesses going, this change in direction among some of the technology elite comes in the aftermath of the dot-com collapse and the Sept. 11 attacks. Fear of terrorism and war, and general nervousness about the health of the planet, seem to have inspired a shift in priorities. Many of the speakers at the conference were self-appointed Cassandras, describing the dangers of American self-absorption with a fervor once reserved for initial public offerings. (((Thank you so, Katie Hafner, you noble soul, you... really, this stuff is almost too good.)))
"'Five years ago, people were too busy getting rich and being dazzled by technology to think more broadly,' said Chris Anderson, whose Sapling Foundation, which finances medical, technological and educational projects in the developing world, bought the rights to stage the TED conference from its originator, Richard Saul Wurman, a gregarious designer and architect. (((Even the conference itself has been bought-out by profit-free do-gooders.)))
"This year marked the 13th TED. Attendees pay $4,000 for three and a half days of intellectual soul searching, mixed with some pure entertainment, like a juggling act, and a generous dose of technological bravado.
"The $1 million in profits made at this year's conference will be given to causes devoted to clean water, ocean conservation and public health in the developing world, Mr. Anderson said. (...)
"Some of the dot-com activists consider what they are doing enlightened self-interest, perhaps even enlightened opportunism. During the boom years, Bill Gross's Idealab, an incubator for Internet-based startups, was churning out online enterprises that offered toys, Web searches and wedding planning. Then the bubble burst, and many of Idealab's companies disappeared. Mr. Gross's personal wealth, $1 billion or more before the collapse, is now roughly $200 million.
"'Maybe since Sept. 11 and maybe because I'm almost 45 and maybe because I have four wonderful happy kids, I want to do things that are important for the world,' Mr. Gross said.
"He used his time onstage at TED to introduce one new Idealab venture, called Energy Innovations, which is making inexpensive solar collectors to sell in places needing cost-effective power. But he hasn't lost his capitalist zeal, either. Eventually, Mr. Gross said, he hopes to turn Energy Innovations into a money-making business. (((It sure beats colonizing Iraq, plus you don't have to explain things to bankers!)))
"Like others at the conference, Mr. Gross criticized the United States for consuming the bulk of the planet's natural resources without regard for the hostility such a lifestyle can engender. 'The root causes of any hatred against the U.S. have to be dealt with, as opposed to just closing our eyes to it,' he said. (((Yeah, who could possibly hate solar collectors? Hey wait a minute, I bet Exxon-Mobil hates 'em.)))
"Not surprisingly, perhaps, few of the newly socially aware entrepreneurs speak of teaming up with public agencies like the World Bank and Unicef, or even nongovernmental aid organizations like Oxfam. Instead, they focus on groups like the Acumen Fund, a social venture fund that encourages an entrepreneurial approach to fixing world problems. The Acumen Fund is receiving $427,000 of the TED profits.
"Jacqueline Novogratz, 41, a graduate of Stanford Business School who started the Acumen Fund in 2001, said she emphasizes models that take an investment-oriented approach to global betterment, treating social ventures like any other entrepreneurial enterprise. So far the fund has raised $15 million.
"As an example, Ms. Novogratz cited the Affordable Hearing Aid Project, which has received $400,000 from the Acumen Fund and others to manufacture and sell a $42 hearing aid in India. A comparable device would sell for $1,500, Ms. Novogratz said. (((Hey, I got a breakthrough idea! Why not get rid of those Big Pharma patents, and treat public health in India as if it WASN'T an entrepreneurial enterprise?)))
"Though given as a grant, she said, the money is structured like an investment in a startup, with milestones and benchmarks to track progress. Acumen Fund investors do not expect a financial return. 'But millions of people are getting access to a technology they wouldn't otherwise have,' Ms. Novogratz said, 'and for many, that social return is as compelling as a financial return.'
"The view from traditional philanthropists is surprisingly positive. Dr. Richard Rockefeller, a physician and longtime philanthropist (he is the son of David Rockefeller), said he admired the pluck of people like Mr. Gross, even envied their experience.
"'I've often thought, 'Wouldn't it be nice just to go be an entrepreneur,' or to do that first and get a grip,' he said. Dr. Rockefeller, the chairman of the United States advisory board of the international aid group Doctors Without Borders, said he had encouraged his own two children 'to go get a skill and do it before they go out and change the world.' ((("Skills'? Aw c'mon! What's wrong with just standing here yelling, handwring, crying and blowing smoke?)))
(...) "The latest version of the MoneyMaker, a decidedly low-tech leg-powered irrigation pump, was created by a company called ApproTEC, a nonprofit organization that develops and markets new technologies in Africa. It was designed in part by volunteers at Ideo, an industrial design firm in Palo Alto known for the sleek Palm V organizer and the Crest Neat Squeeze toothpaste tube.
"Since the first MoneyMaker pump was introduced in Kenya in 1996, it has increased the average annual income among farmers there who use it from $120 a year to $1,400, according to Martin Fisher, a co-founder of ApproTEC.
"Ideo helped design the newest pump, a deep-well version that went on the market in Kenya last month, at no charge to ApproTEC. Some 40 Ideo employees volunteered in the evenings and on weekends for nearly a year.
"'The pump is real, and helping real people,' said Ben Tarbell, the 28-year-old Ideo project manager who oversaw the pump's design. (((Boy, that's great news — as long as the Kenyan water table holds out, that is.)))
"Not everyone is embracing high-tech solutions like Mr. Kamen's water purifier, or even more rudimentary technology like the ApproTEC pump. John Wood, 39, quit his high-paying management job at Microsoft around the time the Nasdaq market peaked in March 2000, and started Room to Read, a nonprofit group that brings books, libraries and schools to poor Asian countries.
"Since its start, the group has built 33 schools and 400 school libraries, delivered more than 200,000 books and financed 122 scholarships.
"'For the price an American pays for an S.U.V. or a new Lexus, we could build six schools in Nepal,' Mr. Wood said, sounding a bit like a commercial for Save the Children. 'For the amount that a wealthy banker spends on a pair of shoes, we could take a girl out of the orphanage, put her in a school uniform, give her a book bag and some pens, and send her off to school.' (((Where she can become a lawyer and buy a Lexus! Yay!)))
"But will the commitment last? What will happen if disillusionment sets in at the slow pace of social change? Or if the next technology boom arrives?
"One speaker at the TED conference elicited an appreciative laugh from the audience when he told of a bumper sticker he had spotted recently in Silicon Valley. It read, 'Please God - Just One More Bubble.'
"Mr. Wood, for one, said he had no plans to abandon his project no matter what happens in the high-tech business world. 'I plan to sit out the next bubble,' he said. 'I don't care if the Nasdaq goes to 20,000. I'll be in Nepal delivering books to villages on the back of a yak.'