No Penalty for Poverty: A Conversation with Hugh Whalan


Hugh Whalan has started three businesses in Africa focused on innovative financing of solar power to some of the poorest consumers on the planet. His first company pioneered crowdfunding for energy loans to the developing world. His next company, a solar distribution and asset financing operation in Ghana, was acquired by a U.S. private equity firm in an industry first. He is currently running PEG, which is using pay-as-you-go technology to provide financing for solar to 500,000 customers in West Africa by 2018.

Allan Chochinov: Hugh, I’ve read in your bio that you traveled to 31 countries by the time you had turned 25 years of age. That’s some youth. What did your parents do, and did your exposure to multiple cultures stimulate your interest in your current work around … well, empowerment?

Hugh Whalan: My parents were civil servants. Mum was the first person in her family to go to university, and Dad left home at fifteen to join the Navy. In their own way, they were both risk takers, and had benefited greatly from the calculated risks they had taken. They worked hard, and sacrificed a lot to give me opportunities like spending a term at a boarding school in Japan and going on a school hiking trip to India and Nepal. The experiences I had when I was young instilled in me a sense of adventure and my parents certainly encouraged me to take smart risks. After high school, I spent time with landmine removal teams in Cambodia, taught English and geography in a Ugandan school, and worked in a refugee camp in Northern Kenya. That sense of adventure led me to the kinds of opportunities that I am now involved with. More

OpenIDEO and Amplify Seek Ideas for Urban Resilience Challenge


By 2045, an estimated six billion people will live in cities. As climate change sets in, with temperatures and sea levels rising and weather patterns becoming more erratic, cities will have to be able to respond to the changes with additional pressure from increased populations. OpenIDEO’s Amplify’s Urban Resilience Challenge, together with the Global Resilience Partnership is exploring new ideas for communities in urban slums to adapt, transform, and thrive as they meet the challenges presented by climate change. Amplify, a global network focused on tackling challenges in international development and specifically on resilience in urban slums states:

“as we build our cities to make room for growing populations and changing climate, it isn’t enough to solve for any single issue or protect against any one risk. We have the opportunity to transform social structures, small-scale infrastructure, communication systems and the way we use existing resources to build better, more resilient, places to live, work and play.”

The challenge is opening up opportunities for individuals, NGOs, social entrepreneurs, and designers to collaborate across sectors, address multiple challenges, create change, and prepare for the future.

Learn more about the challenge and submit your own ideas here.

Tulane’s New Center Focuses on Social Innovation and Design Thinking


Just before the devastation created by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Tulane University’s School of Architecture founded URBANbuild, a design-build program that combines academic and technical knowledge, offering students firsthand experience in building energy-efficient homes. After Katrina, the program was in a unique place to work with the surrounding community to deal with the consequences of the storm.

“‘We had an opportunity and a responsibility to help the communities in a much greater way,’ Byron Mouton, director of URBANbuild, says. “Helping people who decided to return to understand that they had access to greater options. Since its inception, the program has spearheaded the design and execution of 10 projects, including affordable housing in underserved areas and even a pop-up community market—all have had a small-scale but deeply-felt impact on the urban fabric of New Orleans.”

Ten years after Katrina, Tulane continues to work with the community. Looking at how the natural disaster can shape the way designers deal with catastrophic hardships, the community outreach arm of the School of Architecture (Tulane City Center) has provided space for lectures, workshops, and fellowship opportunities, and has become a go-to resource for academics as well as the surrounding community.

Read more about Tulane City Center’s ongoing work with the community here.

+Acumen Offers New Free Course on Social Impact


+Acumen, a global learning community for social change makers, is offering a new course called Making Sense of Social Impact: Acumen’s Building Blocks for Impact Analysis. The course, taught by the Acumen Impact Team, will address the meaning of social impact and how to assess it, as well as preparing participants to apply the framework of understanding to initiatives and causes of personal interest.

“We believe this course will be especially insightful for those interested in impact investing, but it is by no means limited to that audience. Whether you are a philanthropist, a professional in the nonprofit, impact investing or social entrepreneurship field, or if you just want to know to ‘do good’ in a better way, this course is for you,” states the instructor.

+Acumen is a relatively new initiative by Acumen to emerging leaders with the skills they need to tackle some of the world’s biggest challenges.

Click here to register for +Acumen’s free course on Social Impact.

How Architecture Can Detangle Complex Geo-Political Relationships


Coral Frontiers, a student proposal for coral regeneration on the Island of Diego Garcia, explores how architecture can shift the balance of power, acknowledging the complex connections (and the lack thereof) between the military, the human rights of native inhabitants of the island, as well as environmental challenges.

“The project was done within the studio Architecture and Activism at the Royal College of Art… The studio set out to explore how architects can intervene in the field of politics and critically engage with contemporary urban conditions… [the proposal] explores a speculative scenario in which, due to pressure by the international community and human rights institutions, the [native inhabitants] return to their homeland.”

The proposal takes care to avoid imposing design solutions, and encourages active participation and empowerment of displaced communities.

To learn about the challenges facing the Island of Diego Garcia, read more about the Coral Frontiers proposal here.

New Documentary on Design and Informal Settlements

By 2050, one fourth of the world’s population will live in informal settlements, often called slums or shantytowns. Within Formal Cities is a documentary project by intern architects Brian Gaudio and Abe Drechsler that highlights stories from these informal settlements in South America and focuses on design’s role in addressing the global housing crisis.

“To learn about the housing crisis, Brian and Abe traveled to 5 cities: Lima, Santiago, São Paulo, Rio De Janeiro, and Bogotá where they visited projects and interviewed over 30 designers, government officials, and residents. Their goal is to inform and inspire the next generation of architects to address this problem. To date, the pair has lectured at universities, given webinars, and exhibited photographs highlighting design and infrastructure projects from South American cities.”

Gaudio and Drechsler began the documentary project in 2014 when they were awarded the Duda Traveling Fellowship from the School of Architecture at North Carolina State. The partners have succeeded in receiving financial support for their project from NC State, a crowdfunding campaign, and their local chapter of the American Institute of Architects and will continue fundraising as they complete the documentary and debut it in 2016.

Watch the documentary trailer here.


Theaster Gates Brings His Placemaking Vision to Gary, Indiana


Theaster Gates is one of the most recognizable faces at the intersection of the arts and community development in the U.S. His current initiative, creating a two-track program for culinary students and those who would start food businesses in Gary, Indiana, will address what the city’s mayor calls a “pressing need.”

“Over the past 50 years of U.S. Steel layoffs, Gary has experimented with its fair share of economic development elixirs, from urban renewal in the ’60s to casinos in the ’90s. Fifteen years ago, Gary invested more than $20 million into the Steel Yard, the 6,000-seat baseball stadium. ‘It was supposed to drive economic development,’ [Mayor Karen] Freeman-Wilson says. ‘That didn’t happen.’”

Known for his successful efforts that transformed a swath of vacant homes into art spaces in Chicago, among other highly visible and much renowned initiatives, Gates recognizes and respects the appetite for grassroots change, mindful of concerns about arts, development, and possibilities of gentrification.

Read more about Gates’ work in Gary, Indiana and beyond, at Next City.

Photo: Lloyd de Grane

“Communities Building Their Own Economies”


The most effective way to tackle complex economic issues is not simply a grassroots effort, nor is a top-down approach a viable fix. It is the combination of the two, the nurturing of community-building initiatives combined with education and accountability that provides the mechanisms by which low-income communities are able to overcome poverty, generate their own assets and recover wealth.

“Empowering communities to take control of economic development is slow, patient work—and people funding or supporting it need to take this into account when assessing success. Long-term, place-based commitments are critical; parachuting in and out does little to build local capacity” states Steve Dubb of Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Myriad examples illustrate that education-centric approaches that enable and empower low-income communities have long-term, positive impacts.

Read specific examples of these successes at the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Image: Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative

Pathways to Practice – Lessons From The Field


A Winding Path, Not A Straight Line

“No!” said Charlie Cannon emphatically when asked if there is a “clear pathway” to an impact design career. But, said Cannon, there are many more pathways today than there have ever been. Speaking to a room full of enthusiastic young designers and social change seekers at Better World By Design – Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design’s annual student-led conference devoted to a sustainable and socially just future – Cannon summed up the sentiment of the Pathways to Practice panel by questioning the very concept that there are any easy answers, or whether that’s even a bad thing. “The idea that anyone in impact design – or even design as a whole – is only going to work in any one job, sector or problem, other than something incredibly broad like ‘changing the world’, seems improbable,” said Cannon, who serves as head of Industrial Design at RISD. “And that’s potentially incredibly freeing … you could be CEO of your own company in five years. It could be a one-person company or it could be five thousand people, but either way it’s possible.” More

Innovation by Design Finalists Announced

Ocean_CleanUpFast Company’s Innovation by Design finalists have just been announced. Entries into the competition are judged by their functionality, originality, beauty, sustainability, depth of user insight, cultural impact and business impact. In the Social Good category, finalists submitted projects to address various challenges, from ailing oceans to remote internet access.

Finalists included:

  • The Ocean Cleanup: Created by Boyan Slat and the staff and volunteers of The Ocean Cleanup. Instead of going after the estimated 5.25 trillion individual pieces of plastic in the ocean, The Ocean Cleanup uses long, ingeniously designed floating barriers to let the ocean currents concentrate the plastic itself.

  • Advanced Ordnance Teaching Materials (AOTM): Created by members of the Golden West Humanitarian Foundation. The AOTM comprises 10 models made using consumer grade 3-D printers that teach technicians-in-training across borders and language barriers how to properly defuse and dispose of bombs .

  • New Ebola Protective Suit: Created by Jhpiego, Johns Hopkins University Center for Bioengineering, Innovation, and Design, Clinvue. The suit includes a clear visor incorporated into the suit and air vents in the hood for keeping cool in hot climates—and, most ingeniously, a single rear zipper that easily causes the suit to peel away, without the contaminated exterior ever touching the wearer’s skin.

The Innovation by Design competition is a showcase for design solutions and inspiring stories about projects that speak to the nature of innovation. Read about the rest of the finalists in the Social Good category, as well as the other competition categories at Fast Company.