Originally published Nov 5, 2012
What would it take to ensure that all the people in the world have adequate access to the basic necessities? A model that guarantees the basic requirements, as outlined in Maslow's hierarchy of needs.
Well, there are a whole range of possibilities and options at our disposal. But, considering the threat of resource depletion, there are going to be obvious costs associated with such a move.
If the question was redefined, then we’d still be looking for true Global Progress. The challenge is to do it in a way that a) does not add excessive amounts of carbon to the atmosphere and b) does not wreak the environment. Specially considering the fact that the system is taxed as it is and resource depletion is occurring at an ever increasing rate. (peak oil, lumber, fisheries, shortage of arable land,fresh water supplies).
In order to lift billions from the shackles of poverty, the first step is to focus on coming up with a system which would allow the provision of the very basic requirements of human needs. So we are talking about the physiological needs food, water, housing. Next, or in parallel to that comes education. And I am thinking, free and open education for all.
For the first time in human history, this aspiration could be getting amazingly close to reality. Here is the (work in progress) idea in a nutshell.
Housing: Just watch this clip link about massive 3d printers (they call it contour crafting) that could pump out entire neighborhoods! We can certainly power these machines with portable nuclear power generators. The inventor does claim that these machines are completely eco-friendly and I definitely don’t see any lumber being used. So the carbon footprint is virtually zero here. I cannot think of any reason why we wouldn’t want to do this, other than calculating the carbon footprint for creating the material that would be used.
Victory Gardens (Food supply): These were gardens that popped up all over the place during world war I and world war II. Fruits, vegetables and herb gardens were cultivated in private residences, in public parks and virtually anywhere where one could grow food (sidewalks, front yard e.t.c). The intent was to reduce the pressure on the public food supply brought on by the war effort [Copied this one line from wikipedia link]. During World War II 40% of all the vegetables being consumed in America were being produced by these Victory Gardens. That’s an astounding figure. Now couldn’t a similar structure be employed for these newly developed habitat? These cities would also be the farms. One step closer to sustainable living for billions.
Micro Loans or Microcredit: is the extension of very small loans (microloans) to impoverished borrowers who typically lack collateral, steady employment and a verifiable credit history. (source:wikipedia). Now not everyone in these communities is going to be employed in growing their own food. Besides you need a plethora of other services that any community would require. And this is where the concept of micro loans comes into play. This concept has been implemented with much success in Bangladesh. Mohammad Yunus from Grameen bank has been accredited with kick starting this concept and doing so has enabled hundred of millions to dig themselves out of poverty. The rate of default on such loans is extremely low (single digits) and overall the entire investment ends up generating a healthy 8% rate of return for the investors. Well it has in Bangladesh at the very least. link
Free Education: Technology enables us to do that which might have been unthinkable for eons. No one could realistically dream of universal education during times when knowledge was shared through scrolls or even during the initial invention of the Gutenberg press. Only during this day and age can we dream of free universal education and open access to the entire collective knowledge base. The shift is slowly happening with the emergence of wikipedia, khan academy and a range of other websites. Also picking up on this trends, some of the major schools in the world have started offering a variety of their courses online, for free! For anyone to come and learn at their own time and at zero expense. This trend is definitely going to continue with the emergency of startups like udemy, coursera, udacity e.t.c
From the perspective of a delivery mechanism (as in disseminating knowledge), increasing automation has allowed the manufacturers to significantly drop the price on the hardware. Just Yesterday I noticed that there is an e-book available for 13$ in US link And while we continue paying 40$ for a crappy 5 MB connection here in Canada, the cost to setup an entire ISP [Internet Service Provider] isn’t that much. Meaning it shouldn’t be that hard to come up with a system that allows the dissemination of free and open education at the very least. Now the focus here is on the newly proposed communities, but generally you can apply these ideas anywhere.
Just combining the dots here and yes this is a very crude framework. There are tons of other details that need to be worked through. One would need health care, security provisions, infrastructure to be developed. I mean there is a very long list of things one would need to run any community. So in that respect this is not an all encompassing vision of what’s really going to happen. But we can run some litmus tests and see what has worked and what hasn’t worked. Improve and go from there.
The logistical, civic, societal implications need to be carefully thought out. As in, would it be safe to have hundred of thousands (if not millions) living in such communities or would a cluster of tiny communities, spread out over a wide geographic region make more sense. That would be good from a lot of different perspective actually, the most important one being offsetting the risks based on any given kind of event. Energy needs can be met with green tech initiatives. And I know that’s a big aspiration. What about leisure, entertainment? Most importantly, what about the sum of all experiences in these abodes in retrospect to what happens in the affluent cities. Would you be comfortable living in a society where you have these class distinctions? I honestly wouldn’t and that’s why I couldn’t see myself living inplaces like Dubai. But why single out Dubai. This phenomenon is happening all over the world.
Going back to successes coming out of Grameen Bank. We are not looking at lifelong-hand holding for entire regions. But, just to a certain level of self sufficiency. To a point where entire masses have the capability of educating themselves and for them to figure out how to move onto the next phase. What ever that next phase may be.
Most problems can be overcome. Regions that are predominantly destitute should definitely architect a design that allows their populace to dig themselves out of these poverty traps and rich nations should help. Richer nations should help in particular, because the governments in these under-developed countries are too weak to carry out the basic reforms. So, what can the developed countries do to help out? Can we use our own human capital and help launch new waves of social ventures that are focused on helping people in the developing countries? Can we virtualize this interaction, so as to increase the effectiveness. Doing so, can also help us reduce the number of unemployment here back home.
For me, this whole thing started out with a thought experiment. If we can somehow lift millions off of poverty without further wrecking our environment, then that would be an amazing achievement. Doing so would add to the human capital and who knows what kind of breakthroughs might come out of such a framework. We don’t know how many geniuses remain hidden in slums all across the world. Surely to have spent all your existence in despair and never having been given a chance to lead a normal life. There has got to be a better way. Also, lifting billions out of poverty invariably means more wealth creation. I think there is going to be another movement occurring all over the world, where we are going to keep hitting and increasing the upper limit of how much wealth can actually be created. We will see a greater number of millionaires, billionaires and I think that in as little as 10 years, we will be witnessing the emergence of at least the first trillionaire in the world.
Last but not the least. Are you a Sociologist? If you are reading this, then I’d like to connect with you in order to discuss some of these issues and ideas in greater detail. Sociologists have a pivotal role to play when it comes to the creation of the new world and when it comes to how societies should be designed. The world need to empower it’s social scientists. Developing effective social scientists, empowering them and for them to be working with engineers, scientists and business folks is an imperative need of our times.