Social Transformation: Can America Design a “Magic Bullet” that Saves the World?

How does one create good in the world? How does one help those less fortunate?

These are questions many of us have probably asked ourselves before, whether in wonderment of how to participant or in skepticism of the ability to affect actual improvement. Within the realm of design, at least, the idea of saving the world, ending poverty, or bring education to the less fortunate through design has almost acted as candy sprinkled on every sort of idea, particularly in the student projects here at the Rhode Island School of Design.



Ever since John Maeda initiated his idea of STEAM while president of RISD, many student projects have included methods and systems thinking that insert the arts into education.

Bruce Nussbaum wrote an op-ed piece for FastCo back in 2010 about this very problematic subject. Referencing several recent projects that garnered much press coverage, Nussbaum focuses his attention the state of humanitarian design as it currently stands and whether American and European designers take on an effective role when initiating such projects. Although he doesn’t give any affirmative answers, the questions he frames are brutal, to say the least.

“Might Indian, Brazilian and African designers have important design lessons to teach Western designers? And finally, one last question: why are we only doing humanitarian design in Asia and Africa and not Native American reservations or rural areas, where standards of education, water and health match the very worst overseas?”


Emily Pilloton’s book showcases what Michael Edwards refers to as the “magic bullets” of philanthrocapitalism.

One of the projects he references is the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative, better know by its moniker “the $100 Laptop.”

The "$100" Laptop which was thought to immensely transform education across the globe.

The “$100” Laptop that was meant to transform education across the globe.

Nicholas Negroponte is the founder of the MIT Media Lab, and his intention to build a cheap personal computer for the developing world was a bold one. There were many challenges to realizing such an idea. Ultimately OLPC was not successful, or at least, not as successful as the hype it had created.

The Harvard Business School uses OLPC as an example of a broken business model. At the most intrinsic level of the business, the value proposition of OLPC was broken. Their offer of a $100 laptop for educational achievement was unproven. U.S. schools were in the midsts of dropping their current laptop programs because “there was literally no evidence it had any impact of student achievement” (11). It begged the question whether the laptops were the right path towards bettering education, as OLPC was continually accused of discounting the role of teachers. The $100 Laptop misnomer was also crippling to their offer, because in reality the laptop cost $150 plus an extra $30 per year to own and run. OLPC failed to give a good offer in making this laptop actually affordable, considering Motorola stated in the case study how even launching a $40 cellphone was “brutal” in its undertaking. The channels through which OLPC wanted to bring these laptops to children were not well thought out. The company tried to appeal to nations and their ministries of education and asked them to carry the costs of the product. The benefits to these nations didn’t seem too attractive, especially when many of these children receiving the laptops were struggling with poverty, malnutrition, or poor sanitation.

In summary, OLPC went about the route of becoming a social enterprise rather poorly and failed to meet the hype that it had created.

I question whether Negroponte’s strategy was a wise one from the outset. Was social enterprise the most effective means to achieving what he had set out to do or was Negroponte just another example of the growing trend of philanthrocapitalism burgeoning in the late 1990s/early 2000s? Philanthrocapitalism, the belief that business methods can solve society’s social problems, has become an increasingly popular, or at least a highly publicized, trend due to the the large sums of money accrued by individuals within the IT and financial sectors. Philanthropy from the rich is not a new idea in America. The industrialists of the early 20th century felt this same obligation to society, industrialists like John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, and Peter Cooper, although one must not leave out the desire to leave a legacy as a key component of the philanthropy.

Industrialists like Andrew Carnegie devoted immense amounts of their fortunes towards philanthropic ventures.

Industrialists like Andrew Carnegie devoted immense amounts of their fortunes towards philanthropic ventures.

This pattern of becoming wealthy and giving back has continued well into our 21st century. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was founded in 2000, the Clinton Foundation in 2001, Bloomberg Philanthropies in 2004, and Bono’s (Red) campaign in 2006. In difference to the philanthropy of the industrialists, these foundations all are very much global campaigns. Their missions extend past the borders of the United States in order to help people all over the world.

Michael Edwards writes about this development in philanthropy is his book Just Another Emporer? He contrasts the work of the philanthrocapitalist and the philanthropy of what he calls civil society. While he likens philanthrocapitalism to a method of passive patronage, the work of civil society (nonprofits and NGOs) advocates active volunteering within local constituencies. It’s a classic argument between a top-down or a bottom-up approach to solving societal problems. Edwards clearly gives his support to civil society to bettering society’s problems.

And he has firm reasons to believe in the abilities of civil societies. According to Edwards, 70 percent of US households give money to civil society every year, which equated to $295 million in 2006. If calculated correctly, this sort of investment will equate to $55 trillion from 1998 to 2056 in America. The power of civil society, fueled by ordinary people, to affect social change has much more potential than the power of individual philanthrocapitalists when you look at it from a quantitative standpoint.

From a qualitative standpoint, there has been zero evidence that business methods applied to philanthropy have any beneficial influence on societal problems, and yet philanthrocapitalism has been heralded as the answer to these issues.

Capitalism is philanthropic, says Matthew Bishop, because “sooner or later everyone benefits through new products, higher quality and lower prices”—not exactly an inspiring vision to get you out of bed, but entirely logical for business. “We should see every poor person on the planet as a potential customer.”

It’s interesting to her such a declaration. I understand some reason to it. Within the private sector lies some of the most well constructed channels of bringing products to market. The level to which Coca-Cola, for example, has percolated their network of distribution to the local level is astonishing. You can buy a Diet Coke pretty much everywhere in the world. Just imagine if a social enterprise utilized such an extensive network to bring a low-cost, beneficial product to market.

Coca-Cola's distribution channels are unbelievably extensive. Because of this, Coca-cola is one of the most well known brands in the world.

Coca-Cola’s distribution channels are unbelievably extensive. Because of this, Coca-Cola is one of the most well known brands in the world.

This idea sounds nice enough, but look deeper. First of all, would a new consumer item really help someone in a developing nation? Would a product designed in the U.S., financed by an American philanthropist, and offered by a company another part of the globe really resonate with someone, say, from Africa? Of course, the company making this product would have to make money in some way, and so the goal of the company reverts to adhering to the sustainability of their business model, to keep revenues greater than costs. This has nothing to do with whether the product works, just whether it looks appealing enough for someone to buy. Furthermore, PR campaigns by the company would circulate the U.S. in order to compel donations for financing. Again, the offer doesn’t need to actually be effective. It just needs to looks good, very similar to the tricks advertisers use to make food look delicious in commercials. 

Marketing and advertising put a tremendous amout of effort into envisioning the values of the company, even if they aren't grounded in the reality of a company's offer.

Marketing and advertising put a tremendous amount of effort into envisioning the values of the company, even if they aren’t grounded in the reality of a company’s offer.

Edwards argues that this sort of heralding of philanthrocapitalism is misguided. Rather, philanthrocapitalism has much to learn from the effectiveness of civil society. Societal transformation occurs from grassroots motivation to help their local constituencies. This is facilitated by sound infrastructure, health systems, and food distribution offered by the state, and in this way creates cooperation, collectivism and a greater willingness to work to solve these issues.

Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that this type of philanthropic effort isn’t all that sexy. Helping a homeless shelter down the street will never sound as impressive as a billionaire feeding the hungry in a far away nation. It’s the reason why designers are preferring to involve themselves with the latter. We are in the business of making things look sexy. It is so much easier to do this when the idea to start the project is sexy as well.

A large part of this conversation grounds itself in the still continuing idea of the white imperialist as savior complex that the western world seems to still grapple with, particularly in the United States. As Nussbaum referred to in his article, many other nations perceive this humanitarian effort as a new age form of colonialism, wherein Westerners believe they have the answers to transforming these nations and fixing the issues that, in many instances, were created by Western intervention in the first place.

A such a perception blinds us to the issues of our own country where, for example, there exists 120,000 orphans from which 27,000 age out of orphanages every year. Another 400,000 children live in the U.S. without permanent families. At the same time, we constantly see in the media celebrities acquiring their adorable brown accessories.

Angelina Jolie adopted Zahara from Ethiopia in 2005.

Angelina Jolie adopted Zahara from Ethiopia in 2005.

Please don’t perceive this as criticism of Angelina Jolie’s adoption choices. I think it’s wonderful when a child, regardless of where they come from, is adopted and brought into a family. At the same time, I do see this as a reflection of a cultural mindset inhibiting our abilities to effectively tackle social issues. Trever Noah of South Africa framed it perfectly in his skit on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

The system of humanitarianism in which this mindset lives is broken. It’s ineffective. This is exactly what Edwards brings forth in his argument, not that it isn’t working, but humanitarianism could be so much more transformative. How can there become a better conversation between philanthrocapitalism and civil society? How can we conflate the two ideas, to harvest the activism of civil society and add to it the rich resources of the philanthrocapitalists? A new discipline is required, one full of the small victories of civil society and the alluring appeal of philanthrocapitalism. This, Edwards states, is what will affect the social transformations we wish to see in the world in the future.

Of course, what this system looks like is unknown. The is for the future. Edwards lists what he believes this new system must contain, but in terms of its implementation, how will this look? How will this work?

The question I think about is this: How can design work to create such a vision of societal transformation?


Michael Edwards “Just Another Emperor: The Myths and Realities of Philanthrocapitalism”.

Bruce Nussbaum,. “Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism.” Fast Company, Co-Design, March 2011.

John A. Quelch, Carin-Isabel Knoop. “Marketing the $100 Laptop.” Harvard Business School. rev 9/18/08.

Further Resources:

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Clinton Foundation.

Bloomsberg Philanthropies.



2 thoughts on “Social Transformation: Can America Design a “Magic Bullet” that Saves the World?

  1. Hey Tate,

    “Nussbaum focuses his attention [on] the state of humanitarian design as it currently stands” (grammar)

    I think for the OLPC case study, it would be better to frame their intentions and goals and then compare those to their actual results. It is hard to understand their failures if we don’t understand what they were trying to accomplish in the first place.

    You also failed to mention why OLPC was a social enterprise. Like you did with Philanthrocapitalism, it would be better to define that as well.

    Might have to rethink: “It’s interesting to her such a declaration” (grammar)

    When you compare civil society and philanthrocapitalism, it would do well to investigate their longterm effects on society. Also, who controls civil society? Is it the government? If so, a lot of these NGO’s have risen up due to the distrust that the population has with its government. If civil society is the answer, why has it not been successful throughout the many years that it has been operating?

    What are the parameters of “sexy”? I personally have a bias towards this word because it is very much based on perception. Is it sexy to investors? or to the mass population?

    “white imperialists as savor complex” might be better coined as “White man’s burden” (grammar)

    You focused a lot on philanthrocapitalism being from the Western world outwards. How about the local NGO’s in different countries that have been formed from its own citizens that do work within? What about me, an international student that plans to work in social projects in my home country? How do these complexities affect the larger system of social enterprise? Do I have more of a say than my own local countrymen? How about compared to my international peers?

    Overall, your paper is sound and brings a lot of questions to the table. It is a very thought provoking piece. However, your essay seems to be more of a compilation of the critique of others than your own opinions of the entire system. I would focus on the former. It gets a little confusing when you go back and forth.


  2. This piece provides a very nice discussion of the strengths and limits of civil societarian and philanthro-capitalist approaches to humanitarian problems. Reading your account of the failure of one lap top per child or even the activities of various humanitarian design interventions, I wonder if what is missing is a serious attempt to grapple with development. Western Europe and the US did not drag themselves out of feudalism via small scale “acupunctural” design interventions. Rather they embarked on large scale state based developmental projects where industrialization was at their core. If we think of the sheer ambition of industrial design in the 1930s, it had world changing ambition (eg: Bel Geddes Futurama exhibition etc)…. Yet, the humanitarian design movements of the 1980s and beyond seem to have abandoned the possibilities of imagining design being involved in large scale social transformations. I wonder whether this is one of the bigger problems of this discussion. To take another example, if we think of the most striking effective attempts to lift millions out of poverty over the last three decades, it could be argued that China has achieved far more than any other developing country. It has gone from a country that still had famines up until 1960 to a country that will have the largest economy in the world by 2030. This wasn’t achieved by incremental design innovations but by fully fledged state and market interventionism. Now designers in China are involved in design interventions that build new cities and design bullet trains not water pumps. It is interesting to think about how in this context small scale humitarian design seems to have little purchase. Now my comments here rather side over the fact that this form of politics, development and design that China has embarked on is of course authoritarian, undemocratic and over the long run completely unsustainable. But does press the question for me at least whether green design or humanitarian design does need to return to the question of development (that underpins all these discussions) and consider how we might be able to have interventions that scale up, that are fast but can also mediate the worse aspects of this particular path and decarbonize very quickly.I wonder whether the answer to the impasse of
    philanthro-capitalism or green civil societarianism might be green


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s