Third DLD07 session, on "how to be good", with Nicholas Negroponte (ex-MIT Media Lab, founder of the One Laptop Per Child foundation - see these previous posts); Gabriele Zedlmeyer, who's in charge of marketing for HP in Europe (HP works with schools and social entrepreneurs in developing countries); Steve Mariotti, who's teaching low-income children how to start their own business through the National foundation for teaching of entrepreneurship (NFTE) in the US; moderated by Spanish entrepreneur Martin Varsavsky (FON).
I had a chat with Nicholas earlier today, before the start of the conference, and asked him when I will be able to buy one of the XO laptops that the OLPC foundation has developed (the "100-dollars laptop"), even paying for two (the second going to a kid in a developing country). There are things to be worked out (big numbers, distribution, tech support, etc) so it won't be immediately but, he said, "we will do it", and added that a webpage with specific information will go live soon.
As it was inevitable, the panel focused almost exclusively on Nicholas and the laptop. Some people look at the 100-dollar laptop as a form of terrorism, he says. I look at the problem like this: we're not gonna have peace in the world as long as there is poverty. And we won't eradicate poverty without education. If you work at education you can do a much bigger difference than if you work at other sectors. When you live in a rural part of a poor nation, even though that poverty is a better form of poverty than urban poverty, it is often so difficult that kids would have a tree as classroom. How do we fix this? Not only by building schools and training teachers: it's about leveraging the children themselves. We don't give kids enough credit.
The reason we did the 100-dollar laptop vs telecommunications is that in telecoms there are many things already happening. Laptop wasn't happening. One of the reasons why it wasn't happening is a phenomenon that I fully respect, but it's real: the natural tendency of electronics is to drop in price. What do you do when you're a company? You add features and you hope that you add them fast enough so that you can keep the price stable, or even rise it. The second phenomenon is that if a computer programmer writes a piece of software, they want to make it better - they add features. So in order to get laptops to poor kids, and get the prices down, you have to re-think the laptop completely. In our case, key is very large numbers. We will be hopefully launching in 8 countries (hence, 8 million laptops). A couple of corporations (the reference is to Microsoft) have been outspoken against it. I think it's quite silly, it's like arguing against the Red Cross because they don't use a given brand of band-aids. Companies look at children as a market. I look at children as a mission (the OLPC is a non-profit; Negroponte doesn't receive a salary).
The economics are simple: if you look at the 100 dollars (in the beginning will be 150), that's about 30 dollars a year for five years. Plus connectivity, 12 dollars a month. Now compare that for example to the fact that Argentina spends 1700 dollars per child per year for education: so 42 dollars is not a big piece. It is different in Africa, of course. But event if it is proportionally a bigger chunk of money, it may have a bigger effect - leveraging the kids.
The reason why we will start with primary education is that if you screw that one up, you spend the rest of the time fixing the problem - not to mention that most kids don't get past primary education anyway.
Why would you give a kid a laptop when they don't have food nor roof? If you're starving or unhealthy, you look first for food or health. But: substitute "laptop" with "education" and you won't ask that question anymore.
Addendum from a later out-of-stage discussion. Says Nick, talking with German journalists: "I would like countries like Germany to actually pick a developing country and "do" the laptop thing for that country - put in the money and help us get the laptops there".