Using criticism to fuel innovation

By Amy Ryles, 11/01/2013



Until recently, life in the village of Wonchi, Ethiopia, was undisturbed by the hyperconnected world that you and I now live and breathe. There were no bleeps of mobile phones, and certainly no whirring laptops (although maybe it’s just mine that whirs?).

That is, until the founder of One Laptop per Child, Nicholas Negroponte, arrived in a truck jam-packed with Motorola Xoom tablets for every child.

Wonchi, Ethiopia

Rewind six months or a year or maybe even 5 years before, Negroponte had been asking US politicians and heads of state: “What, in your opinion, is our most precious resource?”

Coal? Copper? Gold? Natural gas? Timber, even?

Nope. Somewhat remarkably there was unanimous agreement: children are our most precious resource, for each new generation holds the key to unravelling the world’s big problems. Despite the obvious importance of education, however, 100 million children never make it to first grade. And so One Laptop Per Child was born to give free laptops to children around the world. It was showered in (well deserved) praise, and hailed as a revolutionary means of supplementing education in countries where formal educational structures were not up to the task.

Yet, seemingly from nowhere, it was attacked: it’s not sustainable. It’s Eurocentric. Perhaps most damningly though, it was criticised for believing that well-designed technology could replace teachers. A natural reaction to this might be to say, “Ah. You’re right. We never set out to replace teachers – just to help them a bit because there aren’t enough to go round.” And to then start researching alternative ways to make sure the technology melts into the current education system, distracting the mission in its hasty retreat to appease.

Yet, absurdly, Negroponte was inspired, and flipped the criticism on its head. Where others saw criticism, he saw opportunity. He mused, “They have a good point. What if technology could replace teachers?”

And so he pulled up in Wonchi with these tablets (pre-programmed with hundreds of apps), and distributed them to the children. Other than advice on how to recharge them, the kids were left to their own devices.

“They’ll probably just end up playing with the boxes the tablets came in,” Negroponte thought.

Yet to their astonishment, in less than a week, each child was using 47 apps every day. Within 2 weeks they were singing ABC songs in the village; and within 5 months they had hacked the Android operating system to use the camera that had been disabled. “You would not have been able to hack the system, nor would I,” said Negroponte (who set up the media lab at MIT- so I’m guessing he knows a bit more about computers than me), “But they had.”

Children with tablets

So a learning for the kids turned into a learning for us – part of the beauty of having the confidence to see where your idea takes you, with no clue of the outcome. How could we challenge our critics – and maybe even create an opportunity for innovation – by amplifying and exploring the very thing they are critical of?

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