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POPTECH 2010: How Not To Save The World

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By Harry Roman, Strategist at Droga5

PopTech kicked off Thursday with a recount of the disastrous campaign in the 1970s to bring clean water to Bangladesh. It's an ominous story about how millions of tube wells were dug into shallow layers of ground that had naturally occurring arsenic, which contaminated the water. What resulted was what the World Health Organization later dubbed "the largest mass poisoning of a population in history."

Ned Breslin, from Water For People, echoed this theme through his speech in which he spoke about the kind of quick fix solutions that are thrown at the water crisis in developing nations. Quick fixes like hand pumps for wells that fail and eventually lead to broken water access points. In providing this infrastructure, what we are doing is scaling failure.

There are many lessons that you can extrapolate from these stories, but what hit me the hardest was that sometimes our best intentions to do good can actually cause catastrophic harm exacerbating the original problem.

It's sobering to put these insights into context when you consider the growing mandate among global brands to do more good in this world. It's become fashionable in business to embrace a cause and have a go at fixing it. In thinking about the role these companies want to play in this capacity, two questions immediately come to mind: Are businesses suited for the task? And what are the boundaries for the problems that companies should be allowed to tackle?

I think the answer lies between what Kathryn Schulz, author of the bestselling book, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, and what Kevin Dunbar, a psychologist who studies the impact of failure on our brains both had to say. Dunbar talked about risk aversion and how a lack of diversity of thought held research scientists back from explaining unexpected findings. From Schulz we learned about error blindness and that believing that we are right can be dangerous in how we approach problem solving.

Arriving at solutions that have real impact, but more importantly, don't spawn new problems requires a profound commitment to getting it right. For corporations, this means a number of things. First, it requires that they step outside of their systems, networks and even category to embrace the approaches of some the remarkable leaders that are pioneering solutions today. It means that in order to make significant impact, brands have to force themselves to prioritize solutions that have longevity. Lastly, any endeavor that a corporation embarks upon has to seek out wide perspective embracing even skeptics to challenge their thinking. In doing so, I believe that any brand that wants to do good in this world will have laid the foundation for arriving at a solution that wont go awry.