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On Social Innovation: Mine Kafone, Affordable Seek-and-Destroy; Why PlayPump Failed

I commend GE’s Focus Forward Films series.

It’s giving some truly innovative people the platform to introduce products that are both urgent and important. As much as I love the start-up world, people are comparing hardly necessary ideas (usually, their own) to solutions that resolve innate human needs - and it’s getting old.

##The toy that detonates mines, the Mine Kafone

Product Designer Massoud Hassani’s “Mine Kafone is profound. It’s simple, functional, and addresses a core human need: survival. It’s a toy that donates landmines.

Situation: Landmines in Afghan prevent children and families from roaming freely in their environment.

Action: Hassani recalls desert as a playground. Recalls racing “wind toys” with friends as a child. Builds a low-cost (40 euros), easy to assemble, ball-shaped wind toy that detonates landmines.

Result: TBD

##PlayPump: When social innovation assumes, it fails

For reference, Tim Harford’s Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure does a tremendous job addressing the ways in which we innovate and the behaviors that prevent us from innovating.

The topic of social innovation reminded me of the PlayPump. PlayPump is a system that uses merry-go-rounds to pump and capture clean water in Sub-Saharan African. In theory, it was designed to provide water to communities most in need by leveraging a fun, childhood activity over labor and rigorous transport. Pioneered by an advertising executive, it was awarded an MTV documentary and endorsed by Jay-Z.

PlayPump was a complete failure. It seduced a hefty $16M from USAID and PEPFAIR, displacing resource critical to communities in need. While I am all about trial and error, this project seemed like a result of celebrity foofaraw, careless due diligence, and a lack of forecasting.

Similar to reacquainting with high school friends, inertia, a good cause, and group think do funny things when placed in a room together.  The product demonstrated (at least) one huge flaw: it failed to understand its customers. Rather than have a few viable use cases to draw from, it was as though the public sector hired that guy who shoots tee-shirts out of a cannon at concerts to ready, fire, aim merry-go-rounds at the continent of Africa. The “Customers,” the local people expected to use  and benefit from these devices, abandoned them. PlayPumps were difficult and laborious to use, requiring tremendous effort to produce very small amounts of water. How small?  Like 27 hours of non-stop play per day to serve 2,500 people. They also cost four times as much as traditional pump systems and required support teams for complicated repair. [1]

How did this happen?

Limited observation. When film crews arrived at an area where film crews did not typically arrive, local children were excited. They smiled. They laughed, played, and probably even spun the merry-go-round. They probably spun it more than usual. Somewhere along the lines, I’m guessing, someone said, “Looks like it works.”

A creepy example for comparison: if I came into your room with a camera and informed you that I would be watching you sleep at night, would you behave as normal? Would my observations that, contrary to popular belief, people actually sleep fully clothed be sufficient grounds to confirm my idea that people need overnight wardrobes? MTV, you interested?

That Hassani was born and raised in Afghan eases some of my woes. He understands his customers. Hopefully, after due diligence and validation, his prototype will gain support to produce and scale.

Hassani’s prototype will be Coming to MOMA (New York) in March 2013, and he will earn his first solo exhibition at the urbane Galerie Slott in Paris at a result. Well deserved.


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