Innovation at BSL: Going solar with shacks – Improving living conditions in developing countries

Edited by Dr. Aileen Ionescu-Somers

Blog Post by GFW Group 4 BSL students: Abdullah Albawardi, Christopher Palermo, Eduard Mazhinov, Emma Chang, Eric Illick, Guan-Quan Tan, Stefany Solorzano, Tomy Ndakana, Victor Semenov

Living conditions all around the world have been consistently improving since the 20th century. However, many people in developing countries have not yet attained anything like the relatively luxurious standard of living of citizens in more developed countries. For this reason, our group dedicated its efforts towards a solution aimed at correcting and changing some aspects of the quality of life of people in developing countries, while tackling no less than FOUR Sustainable Development Goals (see illustration). Click HERE for our fun video showing our fantastic team moving through the prototyping steps during the Gap Frame innovation week. And if you are in the mood to discover more, read on:

Poor people in developing countries, whether in urban or rural settings often live in squalid conditions, in what are commonly termed “shacks”. A shack is a roughly built hut or cabin that is usually extremely flimsy, increasing the vulnerability of people, especially under severe climatic conditions, or earthquakes. Playfully adapting this term to our concept idea, we came up with the idea of the “Solar Shack”. We chose to focus our efforts specifically on prototyping cheap and sustainable housing for underprivileged, poverty-stricken people in areas where shacks are the most common form of housing.

To achieve this, we felt that whatever we designed needed to be self-sustaining (or self-maintaining, if you will). Thus, we focused on the provision of solar powered houses, with water filtering capabilities. Additionally, because of the limitations of available cash resources in the target countries concerned, the price and feasibility of the houses were a priority focus in our prototyping. We considered that having an individual house price of <$1,500 would be optimum, assuming that every unit can hold and sustain five people. Furthermore, such a low price could make the house proposition far more attractive to, for example, sponsoring or donor organizations.

We then expanded our idea to a concept of complexes of approximately six shacks, to form a solar compound within which a community could live. Each unit in the compound would have a chargeable battery of its own that would require minimum maintenance. Each house would also have a water collection and filtration system with a water tank. Furthermore, every compound would have a central battery and tank that will function as a backup charging and filtering system that all houses would draw from and contribute to when not in use.

We then brought the concept to yet another level with the idea of connecting compounds. We envisaged a solution whereby compounds are connected to a central battery and tank that all can draw from but also contribute to when not in need. The goal is to have layers of redundancies so that even if an entire compound ran out of water and/or electricity, the outer central tank would be able to support the “needy” compound in emergencies. Then, both the inner compounds and the larger grid would also have windmills generating electricity that would further contribute to actively charging the central batteries.

For our prototype context, we decided to choose a location that was a less obvious choice than most and where we could have significant impact. We thus narrowed our focus location to Madagascar, often a less “popular” choice for developers, and where poverty is extreme. Specifically, we focused on the smaller northern Malagasy town of Antsohihy rather than the capital. One of our own group members was from Madagascar and so we had some level of expertise and knowledge in the team who could report on the country’s complicated affairs.

The climate of Madagascar is quite humid and it rains very frequently. Since it is an island away from the mainland coast, it is frequently exposed to typhoons. As such, we have to design houses that can withstand torrential rain and very high wind speeds that can whip up debris that can possibly damage the houses. With these considerations in mind, we decided against using wood in the construction of the shacks because wood tends to become soggy and weak when continually exposed to strong winds and torrential rain. While possible to reduce the problem with more expensive and higher quality wood, our budgetary restrictions led us to reconsider our choices.

Assembling our materials in Antsohihy would be a logistical challenge but still doable. As Madagascar is an island, acquiring the materials and moving them to where we need them would be a potential challenge because of the geographic isolation of the location. As we decided to source the majority of our equipment from affordable sources from China, it would be extremely costly to have our materials flown in. Mahajanga is the closest port to Antsohihy (6.5 hours by road). As such, it would be the most appropriate location for us to offload our goods. From there, we could use trucks to transport the cargo over land. From there, our local contractors can supervise the transport and subsequent construction of the shacks.

When the group discussed the overall structure of the solar shack, we had a dilemma. We wanted to choose the appropriate material to hold our shack together and possibilities we discussed were to either have the walls made of bricks, or recycled plastic bottles along with concrete to support the structure. We have yet to really resolve this issue.

We went a long way to defining and even designing our prototype (click HERE for a first cut of the cool design). The week involved looking at multiple aspects of our prototype, not all of which can be detailed here. We just wanted to share our exciting idea with you in this blog. The questions are: How feasible is the concept? Can we really develop this into a viable start-up during the next Gap Frame Week from 14-18 May 2018? What transformations will we have to make to the product and business model in order to assure success? Let’s see how we do as we bring the project to the next level!

It’s International Women’s Day! And BSL has its finger on the pulse

Aileen Ionescu-Somers, André de la Fontaine and Jacques Billy

It is March 8 and it is also… International Women’s Day. And what a year it has been! With the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements coming in quick succession to each other since International Women’s Day 2017, it seems that women’s rights and equality issues for women are riding a wave of global interest but also, hopefully, transformation and change.

Did you know that in the early 20th century, the trade union movement started marking this day, first using it in 1907 as a springboard to highlight the poor conditions of women workers in the clothing industry sweatshops of the time in the United States? In a case of “early globalization”, the day had been adopted far outside of the U.S by 1911. Today, March 8 day symbolizes the opportunity for women to share their equity struggles and celebrate breakthroughs on women’s rights worldwide. As we write, women’s marches are actively taking place across the globe, from Spain – where the mantra of the march is “If we stop, the world stops!” – to multiple other #PressforProgress March 8 initiatives – are an indication of an increasingly strong global push for gender parity.

Given BSL’s aspirational vision and purpose, BSL is keeping a finger on the pulse on developments that relate to the role of women in the workplace. In late 2017, Professors Aileen Ionescu-Somers and André de la Fontaine started work on a teaching case study related to the challenges of ensuring equal salary for women in companies. Did you know, for example, that women earn up to 18% on average less than men in Switzerland? Sensing this was a “hot topic”, Aileen and André asked themselves the question: How hard can it be to apply a fair wage policy between men and women? Surely that is both good for the company, but also for the well-being of the men and women that work there? It turns out that it’s not so black and white and there are plenty of obstacles, amongst which are lack of transparency and accountability, as well as fixed mindsets and attitudes.

So Aileen and André decided to carry out research and interviews with a view to providing a highly interactive solution-oriented case learning experience for our BSL students. The case study is currently being finalized and will soon be available for use in our classrooms. We need our students to know about and understand the ways and means of overcoming obstacles to equity between men and women, and certainly in cases where both are doing the same job. And since, “knowing what you didn’t know” is a first step to changing mindsets and achieving change, we look forward to deepening our students’ understanding of this topic. Watch this space for more news about our exciting case study!

But the real elephant in the room is the invisible “glass ceiling” preventing access to senior decision-making management and Board posts. Women are just not breaking through fast enough. Changes to the statistics are incremental at best. Our BSL Finance Professor Jacques Billy is Treasurer on the Board of Novertur International SA. NI launched a site www.business-monitor.ch in 2016 that published an insightful report this week on gender inequality in Switzerland. The report, published with the support of PwC, highlights sobering statistics on the status of women in Swiss based companies. Less than 24% of corporate decision—making posts are held by women. Less than 17% of Board posts are held by women. How can women break through this glass ceiling? Now that’s a good question for our students to get their heads around! Judging from global developments in these last months, women seem determined to get answers and close the gaps.

 

Saving Capitalism, For the Many, Not the Few

This title attracted my attention when I read it, and I purchased the book written by Robert B. Reich, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and a former member of the Clinton administration.

Reich starts by reminding us of the time in  his childhood when middle –class people from the US, like his own parents, had a very decent standard of living and were able to provide their children with a good education. He continues by evoking the everlasting debate in America between the supporters of the “free market”, supposed to solve all the problems in society, and the advocates of more governmental intrusions in the market. This debate according to him is not relevant, because the “free market” is a myth, a “screen of smoke” used by the people who take advantage of the current situation. The rules of the game are strongly determined by governmental regulations, and the real issue is about  knowing who has the power to establish, modify or suppress these regulations, and in whose interest this will be done.

He defines the five buildings blocks of capitalism as follows:

  • Property: what can be owned
  • Monopoly: what degree of market power is permissible
  • Contract: what can be bought and sold and on what terms
  • Bankruptcy: what happens when purchasers can’t pay .
  • Enforcement: how to make sure that no one cheats on any of the rules.

The book then gives a detailed account of how the big corporations and their CEOs, and Wall Street with the big banks and the hedge funds’ managers,  now have the lion’s share in the decision-making process of regulation. It also shows  how they influence legislative activity to increase their benefits through lobbying, the financing of political campaigns and “revolving doors” for retiring US officials.

To give just a few examples of the evolution which has taken place in the last decades, it is useful to mention:

  • The extension of copyrights for corporations like Disney to 95 years (duration of copyright was 14 years when it first appeared in US)
  • The extension of patents and the so-called-pay-for delay to postpone the introduction of generics in the pharmaceutical industry, which is perfectly legal in the US
  • The bail out of banks “too big to fail” sponsored by the tax-payers and
  • Stratospheric stock options packages for CEOs not taxed as income but as gain in capital.

A factor contributing to this evolution is the decline of countervailing powers, like trade unions.

This recent evolution results in an increasing number of working poor (47 million in the US) and of the non-working rich (the Walmart heirs possess the same fortune as the bottom 40 % of American citizens) and the huge disparities in income (the CEOs of big corporations earning in average 300 times the median salary in their company compared to 20 times a few decades ago). Another consequence of this trend is the lower confidence felt by citizens with regards to banks, corporations and government.

This situation, characterized by a huge level of inequality, is not sustainable and has a very negative impact on society.

That Spirit Level, Why Equality is Better for Everyone

An insightful book “The Spirit Level, Why Equality is Better for Everyone”, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett is based on statistical analysis: if one considers such issues as life expectancy, violence, rates of imprisonment, drug use, teenage births, etc., America fares worse than more egalitarian countries such as Japan or the Scandinavian countries.

So, it is high time, according to Reich, to restore countervailing power to shift to a more equitable situation in the US. As he says: “The bottom 90 % of Americans – regardless of whether they are owners of small businesses or working poor, entrepreneurs or student debtors, small investors or homeowners, white or black or Latino, men or women – have far more in common economically with each other, than they have with the top executives of large corporations, the Wall Street crowd, or America’s wealthy. The bottom 90 %are losing ground mostly because of upward pre-distributions embedded inside the “free market”, rules over which those at the top have great influence. If the smaller players understood this dynamic, presumably they would seek to gain greater influence by becoming allies. This alliance, or set of alliances, would form the new countervailing power.” (OC, page 185)

I can only encourage you to read these two great books as  they are both eye-openers.

Philippe Du Pasquier, President of the Board

 

Business and Human rights – an NGO perspective

A visit from Danièle Gosteli Hauser, head of the Business and Human Rights group Amnesty International, Switzerland, gave an opportunity to Professor Marina Curran’s Masters class (and a few interested alumni and MBA students) to hear about the latest news in the field of corporate accountability.

A presentation of the debate taking place at UN and national level allowed our students to understand more clearly the importance of the discussion underway globally right now.  Amnesty International has led the way in the discussion on Business and Human Rights from the end of the 90s, the students discovered.

UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights

The work of John Ruggie, Special Rapporteur on Business and Human Rights, appointed by former UN General Secretary, Kofi Annan, and the unanimous agreement of the UN Human Rights Council on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in 2011 was very central to the presentation.  Students were given a narrative of the discussion on these issues from someone who participated in this step by step.

Who is responsible for Human Rights violations?

A short trailer of the movie “Blood in the Mobile” helped us understand the complexity of business for companies, the responsibility of everyone was highlighted.  Students in small groups gave their feedback following this horrifying film.  The importance of awareness building, the complexity of supply chain management and the difficulty of fighting against the status quo (people want to have the latest in technology) were all discussed. Gosteli Hauser pointed out that that all resources are being fought over today- a sad truth.  She further explained that Amnesty international, for this reason, concentrates a lot of time and research on the extractive industry.

In response to the question of who has responsibility for human rights violations, our students and participants clearly saw that everyone is responsible for what is happening in the world today- consumers, governments, companies and their suppliers, as well as investors, shareholders, intergovernmental organizations, international finance and academic institutions.  Gosteli Hauser gave an example of how companies could take responsibility with regards to their supply chains; they could begin by putting human rights clauses into their contracts with their suppliers – what better way to control your supply chain?

Voluntary Initiatives v Binding Legislation

A discussion on the many voluntary initiatives in place and their limited efficiency was followed by an explanation of the move toward more binding regulation by governments with regards to their corporations, wherever they might operate.

Here in Switzerland the Responsible Business Initiative,  and its intention of making Swiss and Swiss based companies legally obliged to incorporate the protection of human rights and the environment in all their business activities globally, was explained.  The aim of this initiative is to reinforce preventative measures to avoid abuses, through a mandatory due diligence.

The fact that Swiss companies are also liable for damage caused abroad by companies under their control (unless they can demonstrate that they carried out appropriate due diligence) is a new discussion.

New approaches in terms of international law, national law and the regulation of business have become a hot topic in corporate circles and also for governments and NGOs.

For more information on this topic please read more on the BSL blog on Business and Human Rights.

Author: Mary Mayenfisch-Tobin, BCL, LL.M, Solicitor
marymayenfish

The International Young Leaders Club came to BSL

In February 2015, BSL welcomed the charismatic team of Elena Kaplun and Simon Parker from the International Young Leaders Club (Geneva) who were kind enough to conduct a practical, exciting, and thought provoking workshop which aimed at the development of 3 skills; self-awareness, skillset, and leadership. With tactful people skills, warm personalities, and a wealth of expertise, Elena and Simon brought a highly enjoyable and thoroughly beneficial learning experience to all students and faculty that participated.

On a day-to-day basis, be it with friends, family, or professional colleagues, it’s no secret that communication can often seem like a nightmare of a challenge. How can one person say something with the best of intensions, however, what the recipient hears may be seen as arrogant, distant, cold, and sometimes, even an outright attack on another’s identity?
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The Fragrances of the World

The Fragrances and Flavors of the World : Guest Speaker Pascal Becker, Global Sustainability Manager at Givaudan, takes BSL students on a trip around the world of sustainable sourcing

Givaudan

Givaudan is the market leader in fragrances and aromas. Since it is a “business to business” company, the name Givaudan is not very well known by the average consumer. Nevertheless, chances are high that you are in contact with Givaudan’s substances several times a day. This is because their fragrances and flavors are ingredients in many, many consumer goods like shampoo, drinks, food and, yes, of course, perfume and cosmetics.
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Occupying the Collective Space

by Dr. Katrin Muff

Different ways of occupying…

As we will consider in this month’s blog, there are different ways of occupying that middle ground between the personal space each of us feel responsible for, and societal best interests. The collective space called “we” can be used to uplift individuals to act together for a better common future, or it can be hijacked by individuals or special interest groups to occupy or “blockupy” the collective space pressing their issues – for better, or worse, as we shall see below, and not necessarily in the interest of the greater common good.

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The Dodd Frank Act in a Nutshell

In response to the financial crisis, the Dodd Frank Act was signed by the US Administration in 2010. By affecting all the federal financial regulatory agencies and almost every part of the financial services industry, it reshaped the entire financial regulation in the US.

Its main objective is to fight systemic risk by identifying, evaluating and managing threats to the stability of the American financial system.

It has therefore created two new agencies, which are the Financial Stability Oversight Council and the Office of Financial Research. The authority of the Federal Reserve Board of Directors has been reinforced. Continue reading

Poverty and Obesity – Not a paradox

“A lot of people think there is a yawning gap between hunger on the one end and obesity on the other. In fact, they’re neighbors…They are both signs of having insufficient funds to be able to buy the food that you need to stay healthy.” Raj Patel[1]

Tiffany[2] lives with her two young children in social housing in a low-income neighbourhood to the North of Washington DC. While the bureaucrats and consultants are dining out in the smart restaurants of the city, Tiffany is wondering what she is going to give her children for dinner. She works a low-wage job, and is not eligible for food stamps (SNAP – Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program)[3], and barely makes enough money each week to pay the basic bills. Continue reading

The Legal Aspects of Halloween

Halloween night 2013 is now history, at least in this part of the world. Having seen the traditions “here” (in various parts of Europe) and “there” (in WI and NY, US), I might suggest a clear difference in approaches and “ambitions”. Nevertheless, globalization evens some of the differences out, as small “gangs” of young witches and devils are approaching neighbors in Geneva and Lausanne, making the latter get involved in search for sweets, nuts, fruits and candies, if any, in their apartments; as the companies and schools, in promoting diversity and enriching their “social” (or “entertainment”) programs, incorporate Halloween elements in their agendas; or as friends gather together, having found a new, creative reason to party. Continue reading