The Power & Perils of Doing Good
“The Great Rain” A story where doing good and doing business got all mixed up.
The following is a transcript from a radio segment recorded and aired 3/15/2018. AC4D FM. All rights reserved.
Theater Critic, Georgia Davis.
Georgia Davis: Sex doesn’t sell. Emotions do. Truly, emotions rule the world.
Welcome to Arts & Technology, a review at the intersection of the humanities and engineering of today’s world. Last night I saw the most intriguing play.
Written by Noah Ratzan, the play, “The Great Rain” is a rather short but potent illustration of the power and perils entangled with doing good in today’s consumerist society. I’m happy tonight to have the playwright with us here to talk about the work.
Georgia: Mr. Ratzan. Thank you so much for coming on the show today.
Noah: Thank you for having me.
Georgia: I saw the stage reading of the play just last night and loved it. The acting is obviously on a trajectory for the stars. Tell us a bit about the story.
Noah: Well, the story on the surface is about a kingdom with a king and a queen, far away, once upon a time. One of those kinds of stories. I made it that way so it could both appeal to children and adults. The premise of the story is much more than fairytales.
Essentially, the story is about the challenges of doing good in today’s society. You see, the king and queen are good at heart, but they are faced with a major crisis when a non-stop rain begins and destroys much of the village. Throughout the story, the rain never stops. So they need to think of something quick to get their kingdom back on its feet despite the rain.
Natural disaster is one thing, but this is where it all begins to truly go awry.
Georgia: How so?
Noah: So the rain starts, and this monarchy duo – in fact I represent them as an egalitarian duo rather than have the king in charge – they immediately look to their advisors to solve the problems. One by one, the advisors recommend a different solution that doesn’t quite pan out right, until they finally develop a better solution in the end, of course. It’s a Hollywood type play.
Georgia: Ha! Well, give us an example.
Noah: The first advisor, for example, recommends that they run a contest to see who can come up with the best solution. There are three solutions recommended, and the king lunges for the third. It’s the sexiest of the three solutions, recommending that the kingdom provide seed funding to an entrepreneurial startup called Iron House that will rebuild all the kingdom’s houses with technologically superior houses. Instead of mud, they’ll be built with iron nails, a new invention at the time of this kingdom.
Well, the houses are great, but then everyone realizes that only the rich have afforded them. The poor don’t have anything still.
Georgia: And are you suggesting this happens today? Where?
Noah: Definitely! Design competitions are all the rage. At business and design schools in particular, they often focus on a social cause like poverty, homelessness, or some political or economic problem. There’s a great article by Michael Gordon of Stanford and Daniela Papi-Thornton of Oxford University about this phenomenon.
Georgia: What’s the problem?
Noah: The challenge is generally in how constrained these competitions tend to be. There’s too much of a focus on what’s sexy, like entrepreneurship and big bold solutions. In the end, solutions that may be oriented toward supporting existing non-profit or government efforts are seen as less than worthy. This isn’t a good message to send to tomorrow’s leaders. In addition, students rarely have an opportunity to do in-depth research to gain a deeper understanding of the problem space.
All these problems are reflected in the play. The first of the advisors rushes to recommend a competition. In the end, great ideas that involve government are forgotten in the sublime and blinding light of the more technologically cutting-edge, entrepreneurial solution.
Georgia: How about the second advisor? His plan seemed to be pretty inane. She recommended selling blueprints to the poor. Who would think that could work?
Noah: Well, the fact is, some people really do think that selling to the poor is the best way to propel the economy and also support them.
Georgia: Like who?!
Noah: C.K. Prahalad is one of them. He was a big proponent of the Bottom Of the Pyramid economic model. He proposed that the poor, those at the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid, have a lot of buying power that’s overlooked by corporations. Instead of writing them off, he suggests that corporations market inexpensive products to them. In this way, corporations can profit more while the poor can also benefit by having a wider array of products within their reach.
Georgia: Interesting. I never thought about it that way.
Noah: Right, the second advisor’s suggestion is along these lines. Why not market something potentially valuable to the poor. It’s inexpensive, and it’s something that’s certainly valuable. There are many challenges with this bottom of the pyramid theory, however. Aneel Karnani is a vocal critic of C.K. Prahalad, and he makes good points about the holes in this theory. There aren’t actually as many poor as Prahalad proposes. Also, it’s very difficult to market to the poor due to cultural heterogeneity, and it’s difficult to distribute to the poor because of geographic dispersion of many of the world’s poor. In the story, I take a different angle. The fact is that the advisor just didn’t think the business model through. Blueprints are only valuable insofar as the consumer can bring them to life.
Georgia: If this person is an advisor to the king, why would they make such a mistake?
Noah: The advisors are all representative of designers in this story, each trying to solve the problem in their own way. One of the themes in the play that I wanted to make clear is that we all must spend more time in a problem space to develop stronger solution proposals. Though this advisor presumably has done “research”, it’s still very little. Designers who are worth their salt delve deep into a culture to gain better insights about those they’re designing for. Jan Chipchase is a well-known design researcher. I just read an article that outlined the dozens of interviews and in-depth research he and his associate, Lauren Serrota, did for a project in Saudi Arabia. This advisor suggesting they sell blueprints to these townfolk certainly hadn’t done his research.
Georgia: And the third advisor? I liked his proposal. Just so our listeners know what we’re talking about… the third advisor recommends that the housing construction business, Iron House, promote charity with a one-for-one campaign. For each house purchased, Iron House will build a house for someone in need. It reminds me so much of campaigns like Tom’s, the shoe company. What’s wrong with that?
Noah: Don’t get me wrong, there are certainly companies whose business model works in this context. A one-for-one campaign really can do good for the beneficiaries of the campaign. There are other implications, however, that aren’t always so clear.
Georgia: Like what?
Noah: First of all, sometimes these one-for-one campaigns totally miss the mark in the same way that the blueprints did – the beneficiaries simply don’t need these items. There are examples where shoes from Toms were given to people who simply don’t wear shoes. That’s a minor matter, though. One of the bigger problems is that these marketing campaigns complicate the way people relate to making a difference in the world.
How do we help others? One could help them directly, or perhaps even support organizations that help them, like donating to the Red Cross. One could even consume in a conscious way – refraining from purchasing items that were likely made using child labor, for example. Recently, however, businesses have begun to associate consumption of their product with supporting charitable causes. Buy a product that supports the (PRODUCT) Red campaign, for example, and they’ll donate to the Global Fund. The purchase or making of the product really has nothing intrinsically to do with HIV/AIDS, but the campaign takes on the role of the cause. Why? Who wouldn’t want to support HIV/AIDS?
Georgia: So you don’t think the (PRODUCT) Red campaign is helpful?
Noah: It is helpful. The Global Fund received five times its normal fundraising amount when the (PRODUCT) Red campaign started. The problem to me is that this business behavior changes our culture of compassion. Rather than support a cause, this marketing trend exploits people’s desire to help others in order to help them validate consumption of their products. Why don’t consumers just donate directly to the Global Fund? In her article on the topic, “Save Africa: The commodification of (PRODUCT) RED campaign”, Cindy Phu points to organizations like BuyLessCrap.com that even set up websites to subvert the (PRODUCT) Red efforts. Through the site, you can donate directly to these causes.
In the play, the third advisor’s scheme to increase housing sales fails. What’s more, it also generates increased hunger for the rich to purchase more land for the houses they’ve been incentivized to buy in order to support the poor. It reminds me of how Phu points to the fact that in supporting the children suffering from HIV/AIDs, wealthier westerners purchase Gap clothing that just may have been made using child labor. Terribly ironic.
Georgia: Yikes. Sounds dismal. Fortunately, your story has a somewhat happy ending.
Noah: Yes, in the end, they come to the fourth advisor. When confronted about the dire situation, she points out it’s not her plan at all. Her plan was to make a work education program for the poor. It was a plan that she offered in the initial business competition. The King and Queen overlooked it however because of the flashy ideas, sexy entrepreneurship, and cutting-edge technology offered up by the winning team.
The irony is that the fourth advisor’s ultimately successful idea could have been implemented from the outset. Joyojeet Pal, an academic at the University of Michigan, makes an interesting point in one of his articles about the seduction of technology. There’s an effect dubbed “Charismatic Authority”, where people are wooed by people’s charisma. The fact is that technology has that charisma too. This is the same problem that undermined the fourth advisor’s content pitch. Her idea was to lift up the kingdom’s poor with a workforce education program. What’s sexy about that?
In the end, the fourth advisor’s workforce education program is just what Karnani is a proponent of. Instead of making the poor into pure consumers, as C.K. Prahalad supported, we ought to help the poor develop the skills to contribute. Only after they’ve developed these skills does the housing situation in this fictional kingdom improve.
Georgia: It’s such a simple story. I had no clue there was so much behind it.
Noah: That’s the nature of the work. So much in design appears simple. The answers seem obvious in hindsight, but the foundation to good design can never be simplistic or superficial, or else it will likely be off the mark.
Georgia: Thank you Noah for joining us for this week’s edition of Arts & Technology, a radio segment all about the intersection of the humanities and engineering of today’s world.