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.

 

And suddenly, we were living in a new culture… How did that happen?

How do companies grow into new cultures? Can a given culture be changed? How palpable is a culture anyway? And if you wanted to change it, how would you go about it? These are questions that occupy Organizational Development consultants and researchers alike. At Business School Lausanne (BSL) we have decided to prototype new forms of organizations as a way to offer a living case study to our students. For the end of the year, I would like to offer a self-reflective piece about our organizational journey, from my own personal (and obviously limited) perspective.

On September 30, 2015, BSL had formally implemented self-organization as its new way to organize itself. Now, 1 year and 3 months later, we are looking at ourselves in disbelief. We have become a living and breathing organism with its own distinct culture and sense of purpose. And we wonder how this happened?! This blog attempts an analysis by looking at 6 distinct time period in the course of the last 15 months.

Step 1: October to December 2015 – We can learn this. The initial three months of implementing Holacracy were colored with a tremendous (good)-will to learn this new system. I think every single one of us put in discipline, time, energy, and an open trust. We learned the technique of Holacracy, got burned by what they unveiled in us regarding how judgmental and close-minded one is, we stopped and wondered, does this work? Some of us masterminded a massive systems-change that we proudly introduced in December 2015: from 2 circles, we shifted to 5 circles – in one go. A circle is something like a “department” or “business unit” – those roles that work together organize in a circle. Only later would we learn that this is absolutely not the way to go about solving “tension by tension”. We were still operating from a paradigm of hierarchy, quite unaware and unconscious but willing to try. We attempted to separate “role” from “soul” and forgot about the “soul” in the process, without knowing what to do about it. Holacracy told us – “just trust the process”.

Step 2: January to March 2016 – In the deepest of darkness. After these initial 3 months of openly learning the mechanics of Holacracy, our team dove into a dark place where we lost our previous natural sense of how to maintain personal relationships as a part of our professional collaboration. Suddenly, everything felt mechanic, cold, and distant and there seemed to be no place to connect from person to person. Our Holacracy coach kept on telling us: “Holacracy structures how you work together, how you want to relate to another, what we call ‘tribe space’ that is up to you to define.” We didn’t know what to do with this advice, “tribe space” was a term that didn’t resonate and sporadic attempts to create a “tribe space” were mostly left unattended. Critical colleagues raised concerns about a serious loss of trust in the team saying we have a big problem.

Step 3: April to May 2016 – Addressing dormant people issues. These dark three months forced some previously unaddressed and uncomfortable people issues to the bright daylight. We had learned to talk straight and to listen to another – one of the great benefits of Holacracy’s very mechanic technics. This dialogue culture enabled us to openly address pain points we didn’t have the courage to address before. We realized that not everybody would make it and we made generous offers to those that would not be able to dance this new journey of self-responsibility and co-creation with us at a much heightened innovation speed. These talks didn’t help the sense of darkness in the team, to the contrary, now the problems were in the open and things looked and felt bleak.

Step 4: June to August 2016 – Inventing a new recruitment process. Connected to step 2, we were facing some serious recruitment challenges that resulted from having addressed the people pain points. Quite unknowingly, we stumbled into a number of new practices that entirely overhauled our recruitment process. We started to ask very different questions to candidates, asked them to write an essay about how they might do in a self-organizing structure, and we used new strength-based assessment tools. We formalized with a policy that the committee consists of concerned colleagues that were intimately knowledgeable and concerned with the roles a new-hire would take. The blog “we are hiring for DNA” explains this well.

Step 5: September to October 2016 – Questioning the performance evaluation and bonus system. During the busiest time of our year, we also had to do our performance reviews. Given that we were new at self-organization, we didn’t quite know how to do this in our new setting. Those partners who cared formed a committee that defined in a few pragmatic sessions a process that seemed reasonable and time efficient. The result: a small disaster! By now, our team was entirely comfortable to discuss uncomfortable issues collectively and we quickly assembled a list of things that didn’t work. We agreed that we did no longer want to tie our financial bonus to our peer-based performance review. So how to advance? Simply, a call to those among us to self-organize and propose a better system for the coming year. This is an excellent example of what is called “safe enough to try”. We tried, it didn’t work so well, we still all accepted and embraced the consequences and vouched to do better next year. No hard feeling! As you can see, the goodwill and the trust were back – in a very new and different way. Not a trust in a boss or a hierarchy, nor a need to plead for personal favors, a trust in our way of making decisions, a trust in the ability for everybody to speak up and be respected, a trust that the others cared.

Step 6: November to December 2016 – The real test with titles and new-born authority. With our new-hires in place and with priorities cleared for the coming months, the question arose what to do with our old titles, in particular, “the Dean”. We recognized that our outside world demanded such a title and position, even if internally, we had delegated its accountabilities into a variety of roles and circles and the Dean no longer was a reality for us. There were 4 of us with external roles that at times resembled what is traditionally called a “Dean” role. In a governance meeting we discussed, argued, considered, reflected, rejected, improvised and eventually agreed that we shall be having the “Dean” title available to those who have an external representation need, clarifying that 4 people can use the title in 4 different special areas, such as academic programs, executive education, thought leadership, applied research. The website adjustment is still underway and shows how hot a potato titles are. Meanwhile, new authority arose elsewhere: we are making 3 significant leadership changes on January 1 in three key circles. Leadership in the sense of ensuring that resources and competencies are directed at realizing the mission identified. As my last act of “letting go”, the BSL Company Lead Link (a position even the Holacracy inventor Brian Robertson still holds at his company) will be energized by Carlo, while Branko takes over the School Lead Link and Massimo takes over the Support Service Lead Link. All of these appointments are announced as being intended for the year 2017, and we shall be seeing who has appetite and talent to embrace such roles thereafter.  Denitsa has risen to be our inspiration in her new people role, offering daily positivity challenges during the Advent months. David says that he feels there is more time that partners take to connect personally, creating a foundation to getting things done so much more easily. And last but not least, our newly invented Gap Frame Weeks have transformed the way the administration and the faculty interact with the student body, something that was palpable at our Holiday Season Party which was a huge success, independently organized by David. We are closing the year on an unprecedented high, “looking back at the pain with appreciation and understanding” (Aurea) and “feeling new wind beneath our wings” (David). Welcome 2017 – we are ready to embrace whatever is thrown our way!

Are these 6 necessary steps? Could we have anticipated or planned them ahead? Can you learn something from these? Do these steps provide insight into cultural transformation? I am not sure. And I am curious to continue with our “action research” to see if there is anything we and others can indeed learn, and if only in hindsight. And that is one of the purposes of a year-end reflection, too!

UPDATE Feb 13 2018: Carlo Giardinetti spoke at the MERIT Summit in Lisbon in January 2018 about self-organization. Watch the video here

Kathy, I wish you strength to continue with your own personal journey of sense-making, most particularly in the coming year. It is a privilege to co-write this blog with you as it brings my own reflection about how to enable organizations to become sustainable and to contribute to the common good to new heights. Thank you for that and thank you for sharing so authentically your own journey with you last blog.

Author: Katrin Muff, PhD

Active in thought leadership, consulting & applied research in sustainability & responsibility, and directing the DAS & DBA programs