Category Research

Exploring the nature of generosity

We often equate a large donation to a cause as a generous act. We praise the funds coming from donors with deep pockets that finally arrive at non-profit organizations that allow them to carry on with their missions.

Donors expect to know whether their financial contribution will actually improve people’s lives, thus insist the recipient organizations develop metrics to measure the effects of impact investing. These efforts are laudable since donors can be transparent about what happened to their money and how it was used to improve others’ lot but has little to do with the nature of generosity. A small coin can be a generous donation if it is given with a sense of compassion.

When comparing Bill Gates with Mother Theresa, one might argue that the latter had just as much impact than Gates but had a budget of zero. This Christian leader indiscriminately spent the only commodity she could spare–her time–with the most neglected members of Calcutta’s society, never expecting to be paid back.

At my previous office, E Buró, we did volunteer design and communications projects for non-profit organizations working on a variety of areas like rural development, education and sustainability. Through that experience, we met one of our favorite clients, but in summary doing volunteer work as part of the business was not financially sustainable for the office. However, doing it on our own personal timeframes, made more sense.

Designing a gift-based economy

In my effort to keep understanding the concept of a gift-based economy, this time i’m sharing some reflections on Nepun Mehta’s work. I first heard of him last year, when I read about his commencement speech given at the University of Pennsylvania.  As of today, it’s been read 176,884 times. You can read it here.

In this humble but very inspiring speech, Mehta talks about a pilgrimage him and his wife did in India relying entirely on strangers” kindness for food and shelter on their 1,000 kilometer long journey for three months. Throughout this trip Mehta describes how people like vegetable vendors, shared the little they had to support him and his wife. Mehta calls this process inner transformation, referring to how giving becomes an act of love and brings joy to the person giving, despite of how fair that exchange might be. In this video below you can hear him talk about ”designing a gift economy”.

These acts based on self-less generosity is what makes Mehta”s organization, ServiceSpace, stand out. It started as CharityFocus in 1999, an organization that provided free web services to non-profits.Since then it has evolved into ten different initiatives that share volunteerism as its common thread. Amit Dungarani, a volunteer with ServiceSpace, describes in a video interview how “by giving I”m getting something back and both parties are mutually benefited”. Mehta seems to emphasize this process of giving as an ongoing personal transformation that happens every time an act of generosity is made. Dungarani also describes how ServiceSpace is intentionally run by volunteers, as opposed to being an organization that relies on raising funds to pay for staff salaries.

All of ServiceSpace projects are run with a $0 overhead.ServiceSpace’s work is very much related to communications and technology. Besides CharityFocus, other initiatives include works & conversations, a magazine with touching stories of artists” lives;; a website that hosts resources and news related to development work in South Asia;; a site and mailing list of good news delivered daily to nearly 130,000 people.  Only one project has a store-front presence: Karma Kitchen, a pay-it-forward restaurant where guests pay $0 for their meal but are invited to pay for the next people coming in. Dungarani has some insights on the value of volunteering small acts. “Focusing on the small is something everyone can do and seems less daunting,” he explains. ServiceSpace relies on these small acts that amount to millions of dollars of work in public service. Mehta calls these successive acts of generosity “giftivism” (gift-iv-ism).

The takeaway: Nipun Mehta has done a great job at starting a great organization, but also communicating the great joy that acts of love and generosity bring to those who donate their time and skills without expecting any reciprocity (communicating generosity can also be an act of generosity).

In one of his TED presentations, Mehta asks, “what designs emerge when we assume people want to behave selflessly?” That is the premise behind a gift economy, relying on people’s trust, as opposed to a rational evaluation of what might be a fair trade. How can we as designers and communicators begin experimenting with small acts of generosity?

And finally, the biggest takeaway I get from ServiceSpace is that we can all do more for others if we’re nudged a little by love, and like Mehta says, and move “from isolation to community” a little more.



The poetry behind caregiving

Recently featured on FastCo Create, I read the great story of Caregifted, an organization that supports caregivers, people who spend decades, if not a lifetime looking after their relatives with  some form of disability like autism or Alzheimer’s. These unexpected conditions require family members to re-structure their lives around their relatives’ special needs, often leaving successful careers and personal goals behind in order to assist their relatives.

This Seattle-based organization gives, in the words of Caregifted, “respite in the form of all-expense paid getaways to full-time, lifelong caregivers of severely disabled family members.” People who are selected by this organization can spend some time away in different coastal locations like California, the Pacific Northwest, or Maine in order to rest, reflect and recover their much-needed strength to carry on.

Caregifted was founded by poet Heather McHugh, who used her McArthur genius grant to start this project. McHugh’s godson was found in a similar situation as his son was born with a rare condition that required him and his wife to change their careers, and move back to the US from Cambodia in order to give their baby the special medical attention he needed.

The decision to found Caregifted shows a lot of compassion on McHugh’s side toward her godson, and extends it to other families in similar conditions. It reminds me of Walt Whitman, also a poet, who spend many years visiting thousands of sick and wounded soldiers during the Civil War, listening to these anonymous young men and writing letters to their parents. You can read more about Whitman”s Civil War years here.

What struck me about Caregifted is the fact that it is using communication as a tool to bring awareness to caregivers. When travel grantees go on their vacations, they are asked to do some form of documentation of their time away. McHugh is partnering with filmmaker Adam Larsen, to help share the stories of these ”undersong heroes” during their retreat. Below is a trailer of their Undersung documentary.

The Takeaway

How can our efforts as designers and communicators inspire others to give a voice to those who typically don’t have a voice? Can our work be rooted on compassion? Let me know what you think.

Seeing like a homeless

The story of Mike Williams, recently published on NPR, narrates how a successful inventor   became a homeless man in Sacramento. You can read the full story here.

Once an inventor of medical technologies, Williams ran into a series of events that saw him lose his house, his car and end up in a dumpster. “I found out that I was really nothing, and that was very hard for me to grasp; the fact that no one wanted me around,” he says. “I was something nobody wanted to see or be involved in, and that crushed me.”

A visit to the emergency room after being beaten and robbed in a park, introduced him to Dr. Jong Chen who treated his wounds. After a few conversations, Chen decided to help the inventor get back on his feet. Williams came up with the idea of a temporary shelter for homeless people, just 6 by 6 feet long with a bed and a chemical toilet; a helpful invention even for FEMA-related emergencies or for airport travelers.


They key to the story lies in how some circumstances bring humbling lessons for us. No success is guaranteed to last, and some events lead us to develop empathy for people in unfortunate circumstances. Williams had once designed the first intra-oral camera when he asked his dentist if he could see his own tooth only to be given a mirror, not a camera, so he invented one. The lesson I take is to identify circumstances around me that can create opportunities to invent something new, or to help others.

Williams’s pod shelter may or may not find success in the market, but the experience of living on the streets made him see things differently and take action to try to improve other people’s lives so they don’t have to suffer as much.

Super MoneyMaker by Kickstart

In several African countries, poverty is experienced in agricultural fields where families subsist on what a small farm can provide. In the late 1990s, Martin Fisher and Nick Moon, from Kickstart, discovered that one of the most effective ways to reduce poverty is to help these families increase their production, thus shifting from subsistence farming to commercial agriculture that could generate income.

They developed a pedal water pump called MoneyMaker Irrigation Pump, a two-cylinder pressurized pedal pump that pumps water from a river, or lake, up to seven meters deep. It allows farmers to irrigate up to two acres of surface. The advantage of this product is that it can increase the production of a family by up to 400% allowing them to grow a variety of products even in the dry season when crop prices rise.

This product was thought of around a business model with people and users at its core. Interested buyers are advised on ways to manufacture these pumps and sell them in their community, thus generating a new market in the local economy.

Kickstart estimates that with its products they have helped 533,700 people out of poverty and currently generate eight hundred businesses a month using their products. The selling price of Super MoneyMaker ranges from $ 35 to $ 95 depending on the location, since its inception in Nairobi, Kenya, Kickstart now operates in Mali and Tanzania.

SANA: a mobile health solution

In remote regions there is often a shortage of medical personnel prepared to meet basic needs and medical emergencies. SANA is an organization that is creating the first mobile health operating system using cell phones as an interface between marginalized communities and medical institutions. The use of cell phones is key, since it is quite common for remote villages to lack clinics. It is estimated that between 80 and 90 percent of the world population lives near an area with access to a cellular network.

The SANA system is installed on cell phones of medical staff who diagnose patients. During a medical evaluation a questionnaire is installed on the phone. Photos and descriptions are recorded and sent to a hospital or medical center where the information is received for analysis. Finally, the staff make a diagnosis on site and help the patient to make a decision.


Images of the app interface.

Medical organizations in turn can share their diagnoses with other organizations and thus generate a collective intelligence that, based on the cases of millions of people, can generate better diagnoses and low-cost treatments.

The SANA system is based on an open source information system, which is shared for free and can be used by institutions in developing countries such as the Philippines and India. SANA is doing tests in Mexico to evaluate the possibility of using this system in the country.


More details:

Remembering Hassan Fathy

Some designers such as Karim Rashid, Hani Rashid (Asymptote), both born in Cairo, Karim Mekhtigian, Rami Makram (Alchemy), and Tarek Naga are some of the contemporary designers and architects from Egypt. At a critical moment in the history of the African country, after four days of protests against President Mubarak, I remember the architect Hassan Fathy (1900-1989), a pioneer of what today would be considered sustainable architecture or appropriate technology.

Astonished by the lack of good design in marginalized areas of Egypt, Fathy rescued the ancient building techniques of his country and reintroduced the use of adobe in the construction as well as the vaulted ceilings that improve the thermal and ventilation efficiency of buildings and potentially can contribute to the buildings duration for hundreds of years. Materials and technique dictate the proportions and shapes of Fathy’s buildings. The curves of the ceilings harmonize with the walls, creating well-lit spaces, but most importantly: spaces that are accessible to the population with fewer resources.

In his project that encompassed a set of houses for 900 families in Gourna, who were forced to evacuate a cemetery they had invaded and converted into a residential space, Fathy tried to integrate the character and culture of the inhabitants in their design.

“Design should not be a false tradition or a false modernity imposed, rather architecture must be a living and permanent expression of the character of the community,”

explains Fathy in his book Architecture for the Poor. His architectural considerations included a ventilation, solar orientation, social integration, environmental surroundings, food production, drainage, among other factors.

During his career he designed shelters for refugees in Gaza, Palestine. Also within its repertoire of works exist residences, mosques, hotels, and buildings of mixed uses in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Spain, the United States, among other countries.

Fotos of the new Gourna village: Chant Avedissian, Christopher Little, Aga Khan Trust for Culture.

Foot-powered water pumps

It is estimated that four billion people around the world live on less than $ 3 a day at the so-called base of the economic pyramid. One of the most successful designs that has helped millions of families out of poverty is the pedal-based water pump that was first released by non-profit organizations such as International Development Enterprises (IDE) and Kickstart in 1980s.

This machine uses the weight and strength of a person to pump water from a well up to 7 meters deep and irrigate up to one acre of agricultural land. The cost of this product is around $ 25 dollars but is considered an investment since a family can double its income in a year.

With products like this, Paul Polak, one of the founders of IDE, has helped about 3.5 million families escape poverty and hope to help about 30 million families by 2020.

Sustainability Actors Map

In recent months I´ve collected basic information on how organizations, companies, and public sector institutions are using design methods to solve sustainability problems in three broad categories (social, economic, and environmental impact).

Sustainability map, from research to action. How organizations understand and apply sustainability practices.

Doing a scan of 116 organizations and companies that are using design methods for business, social, or environmental innovation, some highlights became apparent:

  • There appears to be a tipping point at which companies first begin learning about sustainability, and only later start applying sustainability in their own practices and in the services they offer clients.
  • Only 20% of the organizations act on the three areas of sustainability.
  • The next most common areas that organizations work on are: environmental and economic factors (also, around 20%), hinting at the fact that social sustainability may not have a business case for the organizations.


The results of this research helped create a better picture of how design methods are applied to sustainability issues, and get a better sense of the current best-practices.


Here are the 116 people, and organizations used in this infographic.

Access Project
Alt, Mark (See Center for Sustainable Design, AIGA)
Amatullo, Mariana (See designmatters)
Architecture for Humanity
Alexander, Christopher
BaSIC initiative, University of Texas, Austin
“Batten Institute, Darden School of Business, University of Virginia “
Bishop, Steve (See IDEO,
Beilenberg Institute
Benyus, Janine (see Biomimicry)
Biomimicry (concept)
Bolton, Steve (See MBDC)
Brown, Tim (see IDEO)
Buckminster Fuller Institute
Burke, Anita
Capra, Fritjof
“Center for Business as an Agent of World Benefit (BAWB), Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University”
Center for Sustainable Design, AIGA
Center for Sustainable Innovation
“Centre for Sustainable Consumption, Sheffield Hallam University
“Centre for Sustainable Design, Surrey Institute of Art & Design”
“Charter, Martin (See Centre for Sustainable Design, Surrey Institute of Art & Design)”
Conserve India (bags & accessories)
Corporate Design Foundation
Cottam, Hilary
“Cox, Maurice. Director of Design, National Endowment for the Arts “
Cradle to Cradle (design framework)
Danish Design Center
“Designing for the 21st Century, University of Dundee”
Designmatters, Art Center College of Design
Designworks (See Rotman School of Management)
Design 21 Network
“Design and Innovation for Sustainability (Unita di ricerca), Politecnico di Milano”
Design for All Foundation
Design for the other 90%
Design for the world (ICOGRADA, ICSID, IFI)
“DKDS (Danmarks Designskole /
Danish School of Design)”
Domus Academy
Doors of Perception
Design that Matters, MIT Media Lab
DOTT, Stanford University Institute of Design
Earth Institute, Columbia University
EKOS International
Forum for the Future
Frog Design (Sustainable Design Initiative)
Fuad-Luke, Alistair
Global Academy
Global City (Aarhus)
“Global Poverty Mapping Project, Japan Policy and Human Resource Development”
GOOD magazine
Greener World Media
Hawken, Paul
Herman Miller
Herron School of Art and Design
“Heskett, John (See Hong Kong Polytechnic University)”
The hippo roller
Hirshberg, Gary (See Stonyfield Yogurt)
Hong Kong Polytechnic University
Inamori Foundation
INDEX: Design Awards
Innovation Lab (DK)
Institute of Design, Illinois Institute of Technology
Integrative Design Collaborative
Kaos Pilots
Keely, Larry (See Doblin)
Kelly, Brian (See Sustainable Enterprise Academy)
Kotchka, Claudia (See Procter & Gamble)
Learning Lab, Denmark
Liedtka, Jeanne M. (see Batten Institute)
Light, Andrew
The life-straw
Lovins, Amory (see Rocky Mountain Institute)
MaDe In Lab
Makower, Joel (See Greener World Media)
“Manzini, Ezio (see Design and Innovation for Sustainability)”
Melican, Jay
Meyer, Michael (See Batten Institute)
The Moderns
Monday Morning (DK)
Natural Logic
The Natural Step
NatureWorks LLC
NextDesign Leadership Institute
Ocean Arks International
“Open University. Department of Design and Innovation”
Orr, David
Owen, Gary (See ResponseABILITY Alliance)
Palleroni, Sergio (See BaSIC initiative)
“Parrish, Bradley D. (See Sustainability Research Institute)”
Pré Consultants
“Prestero, Timothy (See Design that Matters, ThinkCycle)”
Procter & Gamble
Product-Life Institute
Reason, Ben (see live|work)
RED Unit, Design Council
Rematerialise project
ResponseABILITY Alliance
Richardson, Adam (see Frog Design)
Rocky Mountain Institute
“Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto”
Rural Studio
Ruxin, Josh (See Access Project)
Sanders, Elizabeth B.-N. (See MakeTools)
Schumacher College
Sheltair Group
Sinclair, Cameron (See Architecture for Humanity)
Slow Design (movement, philosophy)
Social Design (movement, philosophy)
Stanford Institute Of Design (see
Stonyfield Yogurt
Strauss, Carolyn (See SlowLab)
Sustainable Edge
“Sustainable Enterprise Academy, Schulich School of Business, York University”
Sustainable Everyday Project
“Sustainability Research Institute, School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds”
Thomas Matthews
Todd, Sara (See Frog Design)
Todd, John (See Ocean Arks International)
Verganti, Roberto (See MaDe In Lab)
Willard, Bob
World Changing

“21_21 Design Sight Museum,Issey Miyake Foundation”