Saturday, May 8, 2010

Ghana Think Tank -- Turning Aid and Innovation on their Heads

Perhaps you’ve heard of “trickle-up innovation.” My friend and former colleague, Reena Jana, has written extensively on the topic. According to Reena, it's the process where companies create "entry-level goods for emerging markets and then quickly and cheaply repackage them for sale in rich nations, where customers are increasingly hungry for bargains."

Okay, well you’ve also obviously heard of international aid, where well-intentioned people from the U.S. and other well-to-do countries undertake projects designed to help poor people in developing countries.

In a completely novel way, Christopher Robbins, John Ewing, and Matey Odonkor (Carmen Montoya also joined the project in 2009), all graduates of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), have somehow simultaneously combined these two concepts and turned them on their heads.  Their project is called the Ghana Think Tank, and it’s been nominated for the Cartier Award for creating a kind of reversal out of the international aid process, where they say the people being "helped" are rarely involved in the process. 

Here's how it works.  The Ghana Think Tank takes problems sourced from communities like Providence, Rhode Island in the U.S. and Liverpool in England, and seeks solutions from the think tank participants in Ghana (of course), El Salvador, Cuba, Serbia, Mexico, Ethiopia, and Iran.

At this link, you'll find a good video that provides an overview of the process.

                                         (Members of the Ghana Think Tank -- El Salvador)

The truly novel part?  They actually force the folks who submitted their problems to enact the solutions.  Says Robbins of the concept, “Originally, it came out of a nasty place.  It was a way of making stereotypes and cultural misunderstandings into physical experiences."

Now, Robbins sees the project as less nasty and more of an earnest way to help enable cross-cultural understanding and develop completely unexpected solutions to problems.  Perhaps that’s because some of the solutions the think tanks have uncovered have worked remarkably well. For instance, a dog in the U.S. had been barking incessantly, but when the Ghanian think tank recommended changing the dog’s name to “Love” to quell its barking, guess what happened?  That's just one example.  Check out more here.

"Even though some of the outcomes may seem silly, it is because we take it seriously that we force ourselves to implement solutions regardless of how we feel about them," says Robbins.

(A member of the Ghana Think Tank -- Ghana)

The project continues to morph, as Robbins is now seeking to transform the organization into a formal non-profit organization, and is also considering how he might apply its way of sourcing solutions to business and other problems.

Robbins has a penchant for using creative means to make a point. Over the next four months or so, he is working to restart the Works Projects Administration (FDR’s New Deal public works program designed to pull the U.S.A. out of the Depression), or WPA, in communities in Jamaica, Queens and in the rural hamlet of Wassaic, New York. Though the WPA doesn’t formally exist, he’s encouraging community members to dress like the WPA and work like them, too.  Robbins couldn’t figure out why they hadn’t enacted a similar initiative during the current recession, so he’s trying to do it himself. If you care to learn more – or lend your support – check out this video or go to Kickstarter.

WPA is also a finalist for a $50,000 Public Art Award from the Cambridge Arts Council to open an office in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Many thanks to Kursty Groves, who I interviewed not too long ago about her book, “I Wish I Worked There,” for connecting me with Christopher.

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