[Op-Ed]: The (Il)Logic of Laptops and Education

At several points during his presentation at MIT yesterday, Nicholas Negroponte mentioned prominent figures in passing – Kofi Annan, Steve Jobs, the Prime Ministers and Presidents of dozens of countries – but at no point did I think he was being self-aggrandizing. His style of speaking was interspersed with personal accounts and anecdotes that shed light on the approach employed by One Laptop Per Child – compassionate, principled, and highly insightful, specifically in terms of technology and distribution. But was there something lacking once the laptop actually reached the classroom?

Before I venture to answer this question, I quickly want to mention 2 points from the presentation that I found particularly fascinating:

1) Why Non-Profit?

This question might not have interested me a few months ago, but after taking a class on entrepreneurship and innovation, I have found that this question is absolutely central to the future of a social venture. In the case of OLPC, Negroponte mentioned three specific reasons for taking the non-profit route (as opposed to for-profit):

a) Clarity of purpose – The label of “non-profit” mitigates fears, and ensures governments that the primary objective of the organization is education, not profits.

b) Outstanding talent at no cost – This was especially interesting. Negroponte mentioned how he was able to attract extremely talented people without having to pay them a single penny. According to him, by choosing to be a non-profit, they were able to get talent that they would otherwise have been unable to afford.

c) Cross-sector partnerships – Negroponte mentioned specifically the extent to which he was able to access heads of state, resulting in the rapid potential for scalability of the venture.

2) Why is scale important?

This seems like a really traditional question, but the answer Negroponte gave was completely untraditional. He relayed a story of meeting with the head of a corporation, where he requested the manufacture of more compact, less complex laptop components for OLPC. The corporation head declined, and said their niche was in the hi-colour, hi-quality, large screen laptop market. At this point, Negroponte said, “Well too bad, especially since I’ll need about a million of these laptops over the course of a few years…” At this point, the corporate head did a double-take. Takeaway point – you can change “corporate strategy” through scale, not through small projects.

More after the break.

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Helping to improve the Jaipur Foot: MIT’s M-Lab

We had mentioned earlier in this space about the Jaipur Foot Organization, which has helped millions of patients in India and around as the world’s largest provider of low-cost prosthetic devices. We had also mentioned the initiative by a group of MIT students helping to improve the Jaipur Foot design and also to reduce production costs, making the technology even more accessible.

The Hindu today ran a feature on M-Lab, short for Mobility Lab, housed within MIT, whose students were behind the above mentioned innovation. The article also highlights other interesting initiatives undertaken within the M-Lab and profiles its founder Amy Smith, who is also a MacArthur Genius Grantee. Below is an excerpt:

The M-lab mantra is simple: cleverly designed, locally made mobility devices can help the physically challenged get around and do more – not become charity cases. This semester, students made prototypes of wheelchair attachments: a tow-cart to haul medium-size loads, a small fold-out table to display products at the market or, in the case of schoolchildren, the ability to do homework sitting upright.

[Photo courtesy: The Hindu]

Update: I found this interesting TED talk by Amy Smith. Check it out!

TC-I Tidbits

  • Technology and Education: IIT and YouTube have tied up to post video lectures for undergraduate engineering courses online.
  • Health:
    • According to a WHO survey, the Indian workforce is on the whole pretty unhealthy. 47% of workers were overweight while 27% suffered from hypertension.
    • Abhijit Banerjee, an economist from MIT, said that the country’s maternal and child health is worse than that of Sub-Saharan Africa. As a result, nearly half of the country’s children aged below five will suffer from stunted growth.
  • Economic Development: A World Bank study revealed that Orissa has made a positive fiscal turnaround in the last six years and lifted 3 million people out of poverty.
  • Education: With a view to harness skill potential across the country 1,500 more Industrial Training Institutes (ITIs) and 50,000 Skills Development Centres will be set up under the proposed ‘Skills Development Mission’ of the Government of India. [Source: iGovernment]

MIT meets cutting-edge grassroots technology

D R Mehta is a remarkable Indian social entrepreneur. He is the founder of the Jaipur Foot Organization (JFO) or the(BMVSS), an organization which has developed the most functional limb technology in the world, and made a constantly made an effort to make it available at a low-cost. According to a study done by researchers at University of Michigan, a prosthetic leg in the US costs about US$ 8,000, while the jaipur foot costs about US$ 30. We had earlier written in this space about BMVSS winning the Tech Museum awards.

We learn from NGO Post that a group of MIT students want to make the technology more accessible:

A group of students at MIT have come up with a better design for this prosthetic that is hand powered and does not require electricity. This is crucial in further cutting production costs and taking the Jaipur Foot to remote areas where the lack of power supply is a major hinderance.