The recent Foreign Policy post “Can Silicon Valley Save the World?” is gaining traction across the aid community. The article explores the growing trend of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs shifting their cash and attention to the issues of global poverty, bringing their problem-solving, can-do attitude to issues that have perplexed business, foreign aid, and philanthropy organizations for decades. The authors question this movement and highlight examples of failed Silicon Valley initiatives—instances where a cool technology sparkled in the eyes of the entrepreneur but failed to deliver on the ground.
Despite many development professionals' agreement with the article, I found myself generally disappointed in its core argument. Throughout the piece, the authors argue that Silicon Valley-types’ enthusiasm for solving problems with technology can run counter to decades of development experience suggesting that quick-fix solutions rarely transform.
As the authors ridicule inappropriate technologies such as the Soccket, I can picture many of my development colleagues smiling and nodding in agreement. Like many other technologies, the Soccket—a soccer ball that captures the energy during gameplay to charge batteries—has sparkle and flash, but ultimately yields little impact. The article calls out the naiveté of inventors and investors connected to Soccket-like toys, and suggest that this narrative is typical of the new breed of do-gooders who do not understand development like “development experts” do.
Funny thing, though: Silicon Valley-types are hardly alone in pushing out ineffective technologies meant to “solve” complex development challenges. The same agencies that scoff at the Soccket are often responsible for dumping their own useless technologies into poor communities. Africa, Asia, and Latin America are littered with expensive, glitzy failures—multi-chambered water filters, superchlorinators, deep-borehole hand pumps, bizarre latrines, and funky hand-washing contraptions (and that's just in the water and sanitation sector).
The authors take a big swing at PlayPumps—everyone’s low-hanging fruit for an example of an inappropriate technology pushed by do-gooders who just don’t “get it.” But despite the authors’ claims, PlayPumps actually offer insight into why Silicon Valley-types may actually—gasp—inspire development experts to rethink programming and impact.
The story of the PlayPump goes like this: A South African company called Roundabout created a water technology that pumps water when kids play on a type of merry-go-round. The Case Foundation and other funders supported the technology and developed a program that started installing PlayPumps throughout southern Africa. Development professionals were horrified and started to hurl criticisms at the foundation for burdening children (and women) with what turned out to be a time-consuming, inefficient method for collecting water.
Five years later, the PlayPump is still the poster child of development failure bred by overzealous do-gooders. The article’s authors—as most people seem to do—leave the story there.
But there’s more to it—in fact, the program took a major turn soon after it began. The foundation addressed its failures, and worked toward new and more-effective solutions. This change of events and the failures along the way revealed three important insights that the aid community rarely discusses:
- Jean Case acknowledged the flaws of PlayPumps with honesty and transparency. She recognized the technology’s failures and took responsibility in addressing the major concerns.
- Not content with simply acknowledging the mistake, the Case Foundation pivoted its programming, effectively dumping the flashy technology and instead focusing on a specific outcome: running water for children in schools. This led to the installation of more effective, government-approved technologies in schools, thus allowing children to focus on learning rather than pumping water all day.
- The foundation monitored its work, regularly returning to the field to rectify shortcomings and implement new programming.
Contrast this with common practice in the development sector, and it stands out as an example of creative and responsible programming. The ability to assess impact transparently and then pivot for greater success is a skill set that development agencies, foundations, and bilateral/multilateral institutions generally lack, fear, and resist. Ironically, Silicon Valley-types navigate this terrain rather comfortably and can teach us development people a lot.
The authors of this article rightly hail USAID’s Development Innovation Venture (DIV) as an alternative to the conventional, rigid programming that still dominates development sector practice. DIV’s funding model is simple: It suggests a big development challenge and gives agencies the opportunity to think creatively about how to solve challenges. The model is to “hold a competition for bold development ideas, pilot them in small increments, and test their effects.” DIV continues investing only if the idea proves effective over time and holds promise for scaling. Driven by the spirit of innovation, the model supports bold ideas that can actually help solve major global challenges in new ways. Something DIV might have, in fact, learned from Silicon Valley.
Will Silicon Valley save the world, as the authors provocatively ask and then respond with a sneer? Of course not. It’s a silly question. The real question is whether ideas on development, generated from non-traditional places such as Silicon Valley, can help push the needle. The answer to that, of course, is yes.