I was first introduced to Nicholas Negroponte in the late 1980’s as a Syracuse University graduate student. We were assigned “The Media Lab” by Stuart Brand (Whole Earth Catalogue) and then took a field trip to MIT and met Mr. Negroponte. After the introductions, we were handed off to the program’s graduate students to experience their research first hand. I can’t remember what exactly we saw twenty years ago, but it was a breathtaking, mind-blowing experience.
Last Tuesday evening, the D-Crit program at the School of Visual Arts hosted Nicholas Negroponte to discuss where the One Laptop Per Child project is today. The D-Crit lecture series is small and intimate with about 50 guests in a classroom followed by a bit of wine and cheese washed down with a few lively bon mots.
Negroponte is nothing if not charismatic. He has been under fire for years facing criticism for his program from critics who pose that the computers are luxury items in areas where so much more is needed. His critics contend two main points: the machines are like valuable currency and expose the children to attacks. The other is that OLPC is a one size fits all solution and imposes western educational values on other cultures. It negates the importance of teachers.
Issues such as shelter, nutrition and clean water are seen as larger priorities by other NGOs, and many view his program as another example of U.S. imperialism. Yet, Negroponte is indefatigable. His passion is obvious; he will tell you in a heartbeat to replace the word “laptop” with “education” in your criticism. He believes that more access to a connected world, means more learning. More learning will diminish poverty.
The sheer magnitude of the mountain Negroponte chose to scale since 2005 is amazing. He has had to get extensive capitalization, deal with the fluctuating price of manufacturing commodities, coordinate industrial designers and developers, and reach terms with manufacturers, factories, satellites, cell towers, and governments. And one must also consider the reality of working in developing countries: there are many nefarious individuals with whom one must negotiate or pay off.
Negroponte states that he wants to do what the market won’t. Early in the process, manufacturers refused to create a low-cost laptop or to drop prices below $1,000; the market adds features as real costs drop to sustain pricing. Many, including Intel, fought him but now support his efforts. As OLPC moves into its next phase, Negroponte plans to manufacture a tablet that can run on solar power, yet this time he hopes to use his research and development to drive market forces to manufacture it rather than do it himself.
One Laptop Per Child has been a project driven by design. Prototypes are in the collections of the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum and the project has been discussed at length at numerous design conferences. It is one of the most publicized examples of “Design for Good.”
Beginning with Victor Papenek’s lucid 1984 treatise Design for the Real World, design focused social projects, or “Design for Good” have come under fire for their often-inappropriate solutions, lack of accountability and metrics. While much of the criticism is valid, the other side of the argument is while the problems of developing nations are daunting and there are few successful programs to model against, do we just give up?
The AIGA has recently announced an initiative, “Design for Good”. While the design industry should continue to apply its creativity to address many of the world’s problems, it has to bring more rigor to the process, specifically, “design thinking”. This means establishing criteria for success and doing the grunt work of collecting meaningful data and having the courage to admit mistakes. Pioneers such as Nicholas Negroponte can inspire, but the lesson is not to just do something, but to actually have an impact.