Entrepreneurs for Good

First broadcast February 27, 2005.

Call me a starry-eyed idealist if you like - I can't hear you, anyhow.

I've come up with a scheme for a TV reality series that may just do good in the world. Teams of three highly-trained people under thirty from the developed world have to solve a real third-world problem. The team would speak English, but should be carrying the passports of different nations, and be drawn from at least three continents (for the purposes of this rule, the Indian subcontinent and China would be deemed to be continents). This helps avoid the appearance of the whole thing being about "white people flying in to solve problems".

All the team members would need to be from a comparatively well-off environment: their First World status is defined by their level of education and their access to contacts and resources. If anybody wants to be regarded as First World, the term's about a state of mind, not a place of birth. We'll come back to these teams in a moment.

We start by having Third World teams of two, young people with good communication skills bidding for attention for their pet project, seeking to show that it's important. This is stage one, and it creates the list of problems to be tackled. The pair are paid a First World salary for four weeks while they develop their outline of the problem and present it to camera. Of course, "Third World" is also rubbery: if the proponents come from a poor area where a problem remains unsolved for lack of resources and the solution is likely to be generalisable, then they are in with a chance. Third World is also a state of mind.

The Third World team's initial job is only to set down the extent of the problem - there'd be quite a lot of impact here as they dig into this by observation and enquiry, watched by the cameras as they interview local experts. They talk to the cameras about what they're learning, and show what they've found. Think voice-over while cholera-laden copepods wriggle under the microscope, think views of people with kala-azar, or malarial fevers, scenes of environmental devastation, or just the local status quo . . . kick-in-the-guts, smack-in-the-gob TV, all of it, created by a savvy local camera operator. They'd also need to create a Web site with the details, data, footage and stills.

Think challenges like mosquito control, nutrition and sources of what's needed, providing Internet connections in remote places, delivering clean power, clean water. As an example, I've got a great scheme for a solar-powered water purifier, but I'm unsure how best to use solar power to get ozone or UV to kill microbes. Then again, think ways of establishing new industries to generate local income, and ways of delivering IT or science education in the Third World, just as starters.

Think fisheries, aquaculture, crop improvement, or new transport systems. Think setting up a small-scale factory to make tools, nets, ropes, or something else for which there's a desperate need. It might involve setting up a small local bank that can fund new projects like a village water supply.

Think about preserving dying languages, conserving cultural artefacts or doing something practical about an endangered species or habitat - there's no shortage of problems, most of them remarkably universal, so whatever solution is developed, it can be directed to the same or similar problems in other countries.

Stage one would provide some useful education for the first-world audience, because it would show a factual analysis of the problem and what causes it, though most of us are now so air-headed that cut-aways to local colour and cute animals would probably be obligatory. Still, think of somebody in Bangladesh taking us to tubewells, showing us how they're sunk, then showing us their uncle, who's been drinking the arsenic-laden water of a nearby tubewell, and the graves of three cousins, then interviewing a local scientist about how many of the tubewells are dangerous, and why. Later, they may be able to add in some data from Vietnam, or one of the other places around the world, where it's also a problem.

The Third World team would need to be young, bright and articulate, with qualifications in one or another of the disciplines needed to solve a problem. They might both have medical training, be chemists, experts in IT, geophysics, electronics or even economics or journalism. They might make their pitch to appeal to young professionals of the same sort, or they might go after a multidisciplinary team. They already understand the problem, but if their project is selected, they get finance and access to some bright minds who hopefully have access to contacts and resources in their home countries.

The team makes its pitch to a jury which is central to the program, assessing progress, and being seen discussing progress, as well as acting as a brains trust that can be consulted. They'd all be experienced field workers who'd coped with similar problems, perhaps a medical doctor who has been out with MSF, an environmental chemist, an electronics whiz, a journalist and an engineer. The details might be different, but that gives you the flavour.

The jury would rate the projects on factors like the number of lives likely to be saved or improved by a solution, if that solution works and is later applied world-wide. The jury would also consider the per capita income of the area and potential for finding a solution. That rating, however, would simply be used to identify the projects as feasible enough to be listed for consideration by the competing teams of problem-solvers, and we turn now to them.

The First World trio of young techies and scientists would have one day, under the all-seeing cameras, to win selection by producing a portfolio of ideas to tackle a problem from the collection. They'd do this together with the pair who specified the problem in the first place, and who are now their potential partners. If the plan looks good enough, they're sent to the Third World location to tackle the problem by applying appropriate technology, with the two local team members joining in to provide ideas, local input and contacts, and identifying needs. The jury would assess the whole team on cooperation, cleverness, effectiveness and cost - and the transferability of their solution.

Note the implication that all five win through to the action stage if and only if the First World team, aided by the Third World team, can come up with a good enough plan. As with the problem specifiers, they can be all from the same specialty, or they may prefer to come from a variety of backgrounds.

Note also that if a team tries to come up with a good enough answer but fails to make the next round, there's still been a certain amount of effort put into the problem that might allow the local team to make some improvements. In an extreme case, legend has it that the answer to a cholera outbreak in London in 1854 was "take the handle off the Broad Street pump", and while finding that answer doesn't really make a worthwhile project, it would still solve the problem of people dying of cholera.

Ideally, though, the potential two halves of the team will develop an action plan that can go forward - staying with the Broad Street pump case, they may decide that the real problem is one stage back, with the reason why the water in that pump is contaminated. They should get extra points for identifying the handle as the immediate fix, and be given the chance of pursuing the more general solution (in that particular case, the pump drew water from a well that was too close to a cess pit). At the very least, a principle has been set out.

During the one-day session under cameras, the five have access to the jury who can answer questions, but who may not volunteer information. At the end, they say: "we've picked this problem, and here are our draft ideas for tackling it". There'd have to be a video hookup between the First Worlders and the Third World originators who'd defined the dimensions of the problem, and who'd be able to provide advice, and ideas of their own. Unlike the jury, the Third World pair would be allowed to volunteer information. Edited highlights of their exchanges would be seen later.

There's nothing to stop any of them approaching people they know for further advice, and they're free to use any influence they have to score cheap or free components for their projects. Of course, if a First World group didn't make the cut, but arranged their own finance, that could be an interesting side-story, even if they weren't part of the official competition.

Back with the main game, though, if they get the nod, the First Worlders are then sent to the country of the Third World pair, and they form a joint team. They have a budget of, say, $20,000 per project to get a pilot model in operation, and amount that would be petty cash for most TV programs. The team would also be allowed to hire up to four more locals who need to be given the necessary skills. These are the people who would make the products that are assessed.

As a practical example, if I form part of a team making a water purifier, I can do the glass-blowing and soldering to make a prototype, but then I need to share those same skills with the local staff, so they can make the water purifiers that we can show the judges - this ensures that training methods are identified and developed, that technology is transferred. It also ensures that local knowledge and expertise is taken into account.

Cameras would be everywhere, filming the whole process from go to whoa, just like all the rubbish backstab "reality" programs. The jury can only answer questions, and may not volunteer information, though they'll comment to camera, in the absence of the team, or at a later date, so the viewers can judge the various solutions and progress. Think somebody saying to camera "that's a good strategy for catching male mosquitoes, but it'll never catch any females, and they're the ones they really need to catch . . . what a pity they didn't ask about that!"

One big difference from ordinary "reality" TV: NO whingeing complaints. They can talk to camera about the problem and about progress made, they can be filmed doing whatever machining, soldering or other assembly is needed, or falling into a swamp and feeling miserable about that, they may be seen explaining what they think went wrong and why, but they don't reflect on what others are doing. Failures may be analysed in the group, blame may not be allocated -- penalty points apply. Refreshing, huh?

The top group of five would get a working salary for two years to let them to build from the pilot to establish a working product, with a budget sufficient to do the work and distribute the products free of charge, and at the end, this operation would be handed over to the local pair. The group would also be required to produce detailed specs and training manuals so others could make the products afterwards -- it would be a given that all technologies developed would be in the public domain. I suspect that the real rewards for the First World winners will come from their being allowed to prove their wit, prowess and adaptability.

I realise that certain corporations whose names are mud might be tempted to come on board as sponsors and supporters - there'd be no harm if people saw that great and powerful friends can sometimes offer great and powerful help. I realise that a few people might be encouraged to carry on the good work, to come in and assist in throwing money at a problem that now has a clear solution, spreading the methods. I can live with that.

Can you imagine the effect of people being seen to win by cooperating, rather than by backstabbing? There would be some teams that failed abysmally, and their projects might have to be left out of the program, but then again, maybe not, because even failures have a lesson.

Our society is sick. I'm fed up with TV that panders to malice and viciousness, programs that reward duplicity and bastardry. There's more than enough in this outline to provide the tension and excitement that good TV demands, because the teams will all be working against time to use cheap and efficient technology and off-the-shelf components, and to wheel and deal with their contacts to do good. You don't need gladiatorial nastiness, and it's quite possible that even some of the losers will succeed.

Mind you, I don't think there would be any losers, not really. Think about it.


This is one of a set of talks which were originally heard on ABC Radio National in Australia. All of the talks are copyright © Peter Macinnis, blank, but permission will be readily granted on request for educational and most non-profit purposes—I'm not particularly territorial, and on this one in particular, I'm generally delighted to share.

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