Francisco Noguera

The Base of the Pyramid at Pop!Tech 2009: Two Perspectives

I’m back in Washington after four days in Maine attending Pop!Tech 2009: America Reimagined. You may have read some of my previous posts highlighting the work of the Social Innovation Fellows. I conducted three additional interviews whose notes will hopefully turn into blog posts some time later this week. Stay tuned for that.

I went through my notes last night and reflected on the ideas I was exposed to over the last few days, thinking about how the BoP idea was or wasn’t present in the conversations at Pop!Tech, either explicitly (like in the work of many Social innovation Fellows, for instance) or woven in as an underlying trend that propels the conversation from within. Two speakers caught my attention due to their direct tie to the concept and practice of the Base of the Pyramid: Alec Ross and Esther Duflo.

Alec Ross leads the innovation efforts at the State Department. In essence, his role is understanding how emerging trends in areas like technology and social media can be used to advance the goals of US foreign policy. He delivered a crisp and concise talk that addressed what, in his words, is only “the first page of the first chapter of a new strategy for US foreign policy”. The key words during his talk were “connectedness” and “empowerment”. He addressed a number of innovations and trends in the space of mobile applications, drawing upon many of the ventures and resources that we often cite in the pages of NextBillion.

The fact that bottom up innovations like mobile money are scaling up is exciting and intriguing in its own right. Hearing about them from the man that sits next door from Hillary Clinton’s office is promising in a whole new way. He encouraged the Pop!Tech audience to read The Economist’s recent report on mobile money while letting us know that those were the tools through which the US is looking to shift its approach to foreign policy, moving from “repower” towards the “empowerment” of those living in developing countries. His speech was frank and humble, accompanied by an invitation to the community interested in the crux between innovation and development to share ideas with a State Department that is willing to listen and fully aware that innovations at the BoP are a trend governments and policy makers must thrive to work with, rather than shape through regulations.

Esther Duflo’s intervention was also highly relevant to the NextBillion community. She spoke about her work leading the MIT Poverty Action Lab and her efforts to understand what works and what doesn’t in the fight against poverty. In particular, she invited the audience to be “modest and humble” in addressing the question of poverty alleviation. Breaking the complex issue of poverty into smaller challenges may be a useful way to address this issue, she argued. “If we think about the issue of poverty as a LEGO, we have can then focus on getting it right about each individual building block and how they can later be put together”. She also suggested randomized experimentation as a method to conduct a rigorous assessment of what works and what doesn’t within those “building blocks”.

The talks of Mr. Ross and Ms. Duflo were complimentary. Individually and collectively, their conclusions and recommendations are applicable and relevant not only to the idea and practice of BoP but also to many of the other innovations, breakthroughs and predictions discussed during Pop!Tech. Rather than a conference track in itself, my feeling is that Base of the Pyramid and grassroots innovations are seen as mainstream and as one of the features that characterize the state of our society.