The Efficient Revolution, the Malthusian Trap and the Circle of Trust

Dear Reader, I hope you’ve experienced joy today. I have experienced the special joy of discovering a fine mind and writer. For me it’s the joy of wanting to know more about their ideas and their progress on an important project.

My discovery was Finnish author Lauri Muranen, proprietor of The Efficient Revolution. I became aware of Lauri recently when I noticed smart Tweets originating from one @LauriMuranen. That meant we were following some of the same people — an indication that Lauri may be someone I will profit from following — he could be a source of fresh ideas and perspectives.

So, what happened today was Lauri replied to Richard Tol’s citation — a citation of what I took to be another tiresome “peak planet” piece. I got only so far as the Guardian headline, that was enough for me.

Limits to Growth was right. New research shows we’re nearing collapse: Four decades after the book was published, Limit to Growth’s forecasts have been vindicated by new Australian research. Expect the early stages of global collapse to start appearing soon.

Minutes later Lauri tweeted to Richard “I suppose it didn’t occur to the authors that most of the indicators they present paint a rather positive picture”. Hmm… I conclude that I need to go back and actually read that article. Lauri was precisely correct — read the linked piece, you’ll see why I was motivated to go one more step — to see where else Lauri is writing. My good fortune today was that Lauri’s topmost post was The World Overshoot Day, headed by the above Earth Overshoot Days graphic. That “closes the sale”, for now I know I need to read further. Looking for Lauri’s RSS feed, I don’t find it on the homepage, so I open the homepage source to search for the usual RSS/feed keywords. Ah, there it is — so Lauri is added to my Energy Policy feeds, then I go back to reading About The Efficient Revolution.

May I explain why I’ve bothered to write about today’s discovery? That’s because this is a good example of the discovery process by which I grow my “circle of trust”. That’s a terrible name, but it’s what I have for many years called the group of thinkers that get a share of my attention. My attention is just about the most valuable thing I have, so I try to squeeze the most value I can from the scarce minutes of my attention. 

So what happened here is very simple. I follow on Twitter a very clever Dutch energy economist Richard Tol or @RichardTol. I do that because I learn new things from Richard, while he is very careful not to waste my attention. E.g., by tweeting 50 items per day. By sharing those citations with me, Richard curates a part of his world. For me the signal-to-noise ratio of Richard’s transmission is very high, so we have a deal.

All the members of my “circle of trust” are like Richard, in that they are much more clever than I, so devoting some of my attention to their signal rewards me highly for the fragments of time I’m able to spend with them. As you’ve probably surmised, everyone in my “circle of trust” got there via referral by earlier members. After reading some of the new candidate’s work I may decide to give them a probationary membership. They keep the membership so long as they hold up their end: very high-quality and high-signal-to-noise.

I hope you are still with me, because my objective today is to persuade you to follow @LauriMuranen, to read The Efficient Revolution, and hopefully to contribute to Lauri’s project. I think I can “close the sale” if you’ll hang in there to read just a few paragraphs from his About the Efficient Revolution

The efficient revolution is my attempt to write a ‘crowd sourced’ book about the story how humanity has been able to cut its chains of virtual slavery to the finite boundaries of earth. The success has been achieved via circumventing those boundaries with efficiency – by getting more out from less. Moreover there is plenty of evidence suggesting that this will be the way we can escape our current predicament.

Let me explain why this particular story and why crowd sourced.

One often hears that we are on the brink of peak this or verge of that. Be it oil, phosphorus, fresh water, employment or common sense. In effect, we are told that we are overshooting the environment’s capacity to replenish resources on par with our consumption.

While overconsumption does present major challenges, I would argue that this line of thinking constitutes a Malthusian thought trap.

Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus was an English economist, who predicted in his 1798 classic An Essay to the Principle of Population, that England would soon face severe food crisis due to quickly rising population. The idea was that while human population is growing exponentially (1, 2, 4, 8…), food production only grows linearly (1, 2, 3, 4…). The inevitable consequence of such development is that at some point food consumption will exceed food production and hunger will result.

This dilemma is known as a Malthusian trap.

What I call a Malthusian thought trap is the failure to appreciate the dynamics of developed human societies to innovate their way out of such traps, as happened in England in the 1800s and as is happening in the world today. A Malthusian prediction, such as the famous Club of Rome prediction on the depletion of world’s resources, assumes that societies stand idly by as the proverbial house around them is on fire.

This is not the case of course.

(…snip…)

The central argument of this book/blog is that human societies have been far better able to escape the traps of finite resources and environmental constraints (amid growing populations) than they get credit for.

Sold? Excellent — you can see how I got hooked:-) Not sold? Well, did you see how Lauri introduces the Comment area of each post?

CONVINCE ME I AM WRONG AND I WILL PROMISE TO CHANGE MY MIND!

This makes it completely clear why he terms this project a ‘crowd sourced’ book. I see a resonance there with my SeekerBlog tagline “Many of the things we think are true are not. Together we can fix that.”

How Will We Feed 9 Billion?


Image credit National Geographic, Photographer George Steinmetz

When we think about threats to the environment, we tend to picture cars and smokestacks, not dinner. But the truth is, our need for food poses one of the biggest dangers to the planet.

Agriculture is among the greatest contributors to global warming, emitting more greenhouse gases than all our cars, trucks, trains, and airplanes combined—largely from methane released by cattle and rice farms, nitrous oxide from fertilized fields, and carbon dioxide from the cutting of rain forests to grow crops or raise livestock. Farming is the thirstiest user of our precious water supplies and a major polluter, as runoff from fertilizers and manure disrupts fragile lakes, rivers, and coastal ecosystems across the globe. Agriculture also accelerates the loss of biodiversity. As we’ve cleared areas of grassland and forest for farms, we’ve lost crucial habitat, making agriculture a major driver of wildlife extinction.

National Geographic’s special feature on Feeding 9 Billion is a good resource, especially for their graphics illustrating key aspects of the challenge. Of the agricultural inputs it is water, land use and energy that get most of my attention. Land and energy collide when you consider how you will substitute low-carbon energy sources for electricity, fertilizers, machinery for 9 billion. Study this graphic of Ice-Free Land, then ask yourself how you would solve these challenges?

To scope the problem a good place to learn the scale of what is required read Our High-Energy Planet, a report produced by The Breakthrough Institute:

“Climate change can’t be solved on the backs of the world’s poorest people,” said Daniel Sarewitz, coauthor and director of ASU’s Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes. “The key to solving for both climate and poverty is helping nations build innovative energy systems that can deliver cheap, clean, and reliable power.”

If you are wondering if there will be any farmland left after fossil fuels are replaced with renewables, a good place to begin is by studying energy expert Vaclav Smil’s Power Density Primer, and Energy Transitions.

On improving agriculture, these earlier posts should be helpful:

Lastly more Vaclav Smil, investigating the materials resources: Will nine billion people exhaust our materials resources?

Are you worried about overpopulation?

A dear friend is very concerned that global overpopulation is making sustainable resource management impossible. A current example is the California drought and water crisis. Because this subject is definitely not intuitive, I thought I would share some resources that I outlined by email:

Regarding your sincere population worries – here are some possibly useful resources. First, the one hour BBC-produced talk by Swedish demographer Hans Rosling is an friendly introduction to  population dynamics BBC “Overpopulated”.

The fact that BBC funded such an expensively-produced mini-documentary reflects the reality that many people continue to accept the 1960s perspective voiced by Paul Erlich and The Club of Rome. This Malthusian view was what I believed through the 1990s. It was only when I had time to study current population research that I realized I was very out of date.

For a more in-depth, but still easy to follow lecture, see mathematical biologist Joel Cohen’s Floating University segment Malthus Miffed. I think it would be difficult to digest Dr. Cohen and still be frightened about runaway long term population growth.

That said, we also know very well how to make population growth a problem again. If we hobble the engine of economic growth – especially the improvement of the incomes of the very poor in Africa and Asia, then we could blow through the 9 Billion U.N. population forecast (plus 2.5 Billion from 2014).

It could happen – consider how badly the 2008 global financial crisis was handled by politicians and central bankers. “Never underestimate a politician”. But even with the below trend growth that we observe in the USA and EU, the Bottom Two Billion is transitioning out of subsistence farming to urban progress. Continuing that progress is essential to the forecasts of better health leading to falling family sizes.

For more well-written background on the subject please read the recent survey article by Stanford’s Martin Lewis: Population Bomb? So Wrong. E.g., did you know that India and America fall into the same (TFR of 2 to 3) fertility bucket? Excerpt:

India’s declining fertility rate, now only slightly higher than that of the United States, is part of a global trend of lower population growth. Yet the media and many educated Americans have entirely missed this major development, instead sticking to erroneous perceptions about inexorable global population growth that continue to fuel panicked rhetoric about everything from environmental degradation and immigration to food and resource scarcity.

In a recent exercise, most of my students believed that India’s total fertility rate (TFR) was twice that of the United States. Many of my colleagues believed the same. In actuality, it is only 2.5, barely above the estimated U.S. rate of 2.1 in 2011, and essentially the replacement level. (A more recent study now pegs U.S. fertility at 1.93.) Still, from a global perspective, India and the United States fall in the same general fertility category, as can be seen in the map below.

Click to embiggen

In today’s world, high fertility rates are increasingly confined to tropical Africa. Birthrates in most so-called Third World countries have dropped precipitously, and some are now well below the replacement rate. Chile (1.85), Brazil (1.81), and Thailand (1.56) now have lower birthrates than France (2.0), Norway (1.95), and Sweden (1.98).

To be sure, moderately elevated fertility is still a problem in several densely populated countries of Asia and Latin America, such as the Philippines (3.1) and Guatemala (3.92).

Click to embiggen

I highly recommend a careful read of the Martin Lewis essay. E.g., the surprising correlation of TV viewing with TFR (is it causation or coincidence?).

So, that’s a summary of the perspective of academics who make a living worrying about population growth. But we also know very well how to make population growth a problem again. One way is to destroy the engine of economic growth – especially the ongoing improvement of the incomes of the very poor in Africa and Asia. If we did that, then we could blow through the U.N. 2050 forecast of 9 to 10B population.

It could happen – consider how badly the 2008 global financial crisis was handled by politicians and central bankers. “Never underestimate a politician”. But even with the below trend growth that we observe in the USA and EU, the Bottom Billion is transitioning out of subsistence farming to urban progress. That progress is essential to the forecasts of better health leading to falling family sizes.

Another way is to allow climate change to develop so much momentum that there are no feasible mitigation or adaption strategies. That is sure to diminish incomes & health in the vulnerable populations. And those are the key drivers of the population turnaround.

Dear reader, if you know of other quality resources please provide the links. And especially please mention any peer-reviewed work that contradicts the consensus view reflected by professors Rosling,  Cohen and Lewis.

Target the planning laws not the one per cent

 

At FT.com Robin Harding (@RobinBHarding) has a very smart essay on the true cause of high real estate prices. This is a wide-spread disease, with familar standout cases such as London and San Francisco. Excerpt (emphasis mine):

About 40 per cent of the stated wealth of the UK – more than £3tn – does not exist. It is a terrible illusion. For the US the figure is about 12.5 per cent of total wealth, or $10tn, and growing fast.

The “assets” in question are what planning or zoning restrictions have added to house prices. They are the ransom that renters and recent buyers must pay to existing homeowners – whose homes the rules protect – for use of an artificially limited stock of housing. So severe have those restrictions become that the value of the ransom runs into the trillions.

Wealth of this kind is far more destructive than the alleged sins of the top 1 per cent. It is wealth created not by improving our living standards but by making them worse; by building too few houses in London and San Francisco, not too many. It is not earned by skill or effort. It is taken directly from the pockets of some – the young, especially those who were born poor – and transferred to others via political regulations on building. This is not wealth, this is plunder.

[...snip...]

You might think the rise in house prices reflects a natural scarcity of land. Britain is a small island; San Francisco sits on a narrow peninsula. However, the best available studies suggest that the vast majority of this rise in urban house and land prices reflects not natural scarcity but planning restrictions.

A clever 2005 study by American economists Edward Glaeser and Joseph Gyourko compares the price of an extra square foot of land attached to a house (a slightly bigger back yard, perhaps) with the average price of a square foot of land under a house in the same city. If the problem is a natural shortage of land, the two prices should both be high because it is profitable to build on the back yards until the two prices converge.

That is not what happens, however. In the cities of coastal California, the average price of urban land is 10 times the price of land in a back yard because zoning laws make it impossible to turn one into the other. In Los Angeles, the price of the extra square foot on the garden was $2.60 while the average price of urban land was $30.44. In San Francisco, the back yard land was worth $7.84 per square foot, versus $63.72 on average for the same lot.

The ratio of these two figures – as much as 10 to 1 – suggests only 10 per cent of the value of land in expensive cities is due to its natural scarcity. The rest is planning restrictions.

Paul Cheshire and Christian Hilber at the London School of Economics applied the same trick to British and European offices in 2006, with terrifying results. For the well-heeled West End of London, the cost of planning restrictions was eight times the cost of actually building an office. In Birmingham, it was 2.5 times the cost of building the office. This was not because land in the West Midlands is desperately scarce – just land you are allowed to build on is scarce.

We have many examples of localities that have avoided the housing-tax (Austin, Houston, Dallas). However, I don’t know of any cases where the populace has chosen to tear down the restrictions on building. There are powerful incentives for the present property owners to prefer that prices keep climbing.

Politician are not keen to educate the populace about the full cost of their preference for building restrictions. E.g., the total economic loss caused by preventing workers from moving from relatively low to relatively high productivity areas. We know that a Haitian taxi driver’s productivity improves by roughly 10x if she can move to New York. Same job, but her productivity is automatically so much higher because the value of her service is proportionately higher. The same applies to a software developer moving from Oklahoma to San Francisco.

My Haitian taxi driver case illustrates that building restrictions have costs similar to immigration barriers. Progressives are more likely to recognize the need for immigration reform, whilst vigorously “protecting” their Manhattan or Palo Alto neighborhoods. The terrible costs of these “protections” weigh most heavily on the poorer demographics. Robin closes with this:

These rules have added billions and billions of dollars to the price of housing, money that must be paid to those who already own houses by those who do not. If we want to make society fairer and more equal, just let people build.

Hans Rosling: DON’T PANIC — The Facts About Population

Help us cross the river of myths

Hans Rosling is a Swedish development economist, and for very good reasons, a TED superstar. The captioned one hour documentary was on BBC November 2013. His Gapminder Foundation is a data analysis and presentation goldmine – you can get a self-directed education there.

For the cram course see 200 Countries, 200 Years, 4 Minutes

Instead of studying history one year at the university, you can watch this video for less than five minutes.

Joel Cohen: Malthus Miffed: Are People the Problem, the Solution, or Both?

I highly recommend that you inspect Floating University’s Great Big Ideas: An Entire Undergraduate Education While Standing on One Foot. 

In the Fall of 2011 Big Think teamed up with the Jack Parker Corporation to launch The Floating University, an online educational initiative that debuted at Harvard University, Yale University, and Bard College. Seeking to upset the status quo, evolve the structure of higher education, and democratize access to the world’s best thinkers, FU’s inaugural course, Great Big Ideas, became the most requested class at all three schools where it was offered.(…snip…)

There are twelve lectures, each taught by a leader in the field who is also a great teacher. The first lecture of the series is the captioned Malthus Miffed by Joel Cohen, a mathematical biologist and a professor of populations. It is a suitable topic for the first lecture because an understanding of demography is one of the foundations for understanding how the world works, and especially what policies are likely to succeed (e.g., immigration, development, climate).

Prof. Cohen really is a great teacher – a skill achieved by investing a lot of energy in developing the craft, including practice. Even if you don’t think you are interested in demographics I predict you will be glued to your screen for the duration of this lecture. The course package includes Readings and Discussion Questions. 

Enjoy!

From subsistence farming to prosperity?

Nairobi 2009

[Image Nairobi 2009 ©Corbis, Nigel Pavitt]

For several years I’ve been writing about the development challenge — what policies are the most effective to help Paul Collier’s “Bottom Billion” escape from poverty to our world of prosperity? There are a number of central ideas which I think of in an interdependent relationship: (Industrial agriculture, urbanization, cities) => (Ideas, innovation, economic growth) => (Women control their own fertility, women’s education, population growth stabilizes). This virtuous pyramid rests on a foundation of affordable, low-carbon energy.

The purpose of this post is to offer recommendations for print, audio and video resources on these topics.

A good place to begin is with iconic ecologist Stewart Brand:  Environmental Heresies at MIT Technology Review “The founder of The Whole Earth Catalog believes the environmental movement will soon reverse its position on four core issues.” Rethinking Green (video, SALT lecture). And his 2010 book Whole Earth Discipline.

For a current and informed view of development challenges and progress, see the 2014 Gates Letter “3 Myths That Block Progress For The Poor”.

Are you concerned that population growth is out of control? Then read the recent essay by Stanford professor Martin Lewis “Population Bomb? So Wrong”. Marian Swain at the Breakthrough Institute looks at the current situation for population growth rates, carbon free energy, food supplies and development in Four Surprising Facts About Population: Why Humans Are Not Fated to Ecological Disaster. I’m reasonably confident that you will have fewer population nightmares after watching Hans Rosling in the BBC documentary “DON’T PANIC — The Facts About Population“.

My current favorite introduction to both climate change and energy policy  is Stanford University nuclear physicist and Nobel laureate Burton Richter’s 2010 book: Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Climate Change and Energy in the 21st Century. It is very accessible to the non-technical reader, and balanced in the presentation of energy policy options. Dr. Richter calls energy-policy winners and losers as he sees them.

For an overview of agricultural reform try Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak’s “Organically Grown and Genetically Engineered: The Food of the Future” [video of their SALT talk], [the book at Amazon]. On agriculture and urbanization, try Why big dams and big ag are good for the poor (transcript of interview with Harvard’s John Briscoe).

Regarding urbanization: ideas come from places where people congregate – in particular cities. Innovation comes from banging ideas against each other. And the central engine of economic growth is innovation – both in the form of new technologies and new institutions (or rules). This is one of the insights that made Paul Romer one of today’s most influential economists. Romer’s “endogenous growth theory” or “new growth theory” is sure to win him a much-deserved Nobel Prize. From Dr. Romer’s Stanford biography:

(…) The contrast between the economics of objects and the economics of ideas is the thread that runs through my work. In graduate school, I wondered why growth rates had been increasing over time. Fresh from cosmology, I was not motivated by policy concerns. It just seemed like an important puzzle. Existing theory suggested that scarcity combined with population growth should be making things worse, but they kept getting better at ever faster rates. New ideas, in the form of new technologies, had to be the answer. Everyone “knew” that. But why do new technologies keep arriving at faster rates? One key insight is that because ideas are nonrival or sharable, interacting with more people turns out to make us all better off. In this sense, ideas are the exact opposite of scarce objects. (See my recent paper with Chad Jones for more.)

For an introduction to Romer’s growth theory I recommend Paul’s chapter “Economic Growth” inThe Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, and the Econtalk interview “Romer on Growth” (if you prefer to read, see the full transcript).

Paul Romer’s current project is Charter Cities, a pragmatic scheme to overcome the development bottleneck of bad rules (for examples of bad rule systems think of Haiti, Zimbabwe, North Korea). I am persuaded that the Charter Cities concept has a chance to evolve into an effective development tool, and continue to find every Romer presentation fascinating. There are two TED Talks so far: Paul Romer’s radical idea: Charter cities (2009) and Paul Romer: The world’s first charter city? (2011 regarding Honduras).

For a 2011 look at cities as idea- and hence prosperity-generators, Harvard’s Ed Glaeser is getting a lot of favorable comment on his 2011 book Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. Glaeser is the subject of an excellent Freakonomics Radio podcast [MP3], and the London School of Economics lecture of the same title. See also the LSE review of Triumph of the City.

More on cities, ideas and growth: why do cities seem to be able to keep growing while most corporations die? Geoffrey West and colleagues at the Santa Fe Institute have been searching for a common theory which might answer that question. Geoffrey recently gave a thoughtful lecture at the Long Now Foundation (SALT).

Lastly, on the same theme, Steven Johnson’s 2010 book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation is summarized in his TED Talk: Where good ideas come from, and in his recent RSA Animate lecture of the same title. Enjoy!  

2014 Gates Annual Letter: Myths About Foreign Aid

Converging on a massive breakthrough for humanity

If you are reading SeekerBlog chances are you have already read the 2014 annual letter. If not I hope you will go there now. You will learn that 2014 foreign aid is not your father’s foreign aid. Especially not the way the Gates Foundation does data-driven aid. Bill and Melinda Gates are designing and building a new road for the traditional aid agencies. More and more, those agencies are following the Foundation’s lead.

The above graphic comes from a new Lancet paper. In the chapter on the Aid Dependence myth, Bill writes:

The bottom line: Health aid is a phenomenal investment. When I look at how many fewer children are dying than 30 years ago, and how many people are living longer and healthier lives, I get quite optimistic about the future. The foundation worked with a group of eminent economists and global health experts to look at what’s possible in the years ahead. As they wrote last month in the medical journal The Lancet, with the right investments and changes in policies, by 2035, every country will have child-mortality rates that are as low as the rate in America or the U.K. in 1980.

In the chapter on the Aid Breeds Dependency myth, Bill writes (emphasis mine):

Second, the “aid breeds dependency” argument misses all the countries that have graduated from being aid recipients, and focuses only on the most difficult remaining cases. Here is a quick list of former major recipients that have grown so much that they receive hardly any aid today: Botswana, Morocco, Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Costa Rica, Peru, Thailand, Mauritius, Singapore, and Malaysia. South Korea received enormous amounts of aid after the Korean War, and is now a net donor. China is also a net aid donor and funds a lot of science to help developing countries. India receives 0.09 percent of its GDP in aid, down from 1 percent in 1991

Conclusion:

If you read the news every day, it’s easy to get the impression that the world is getting worse. There is nothing inherently wrong with focusing on bad news, of course—as long as you get it in context. Melinda and I are disgusted by the fact that more than six million children died last year. But we are motivated by the fact that this number is the lowest ever recorded. We want to make sure it keeps going down.

We hope you will help get the word out on all these myths. Help your friends put the bad news in context. Tell political leaders that you care about saving lives and that you support foreign aid. If you’re looking to donate a few dollars, you should know that organizations working in health and development offer a phenomenal return on your money. The next time you’re in an online forum and someone claims that saving children causes overpopulation, you can explain the facts. You can help bring about a new global belief that every life has equal value.

In the rich world it’s easy to lose perspective on how much progress is being achieved. Good news is not “news” for the media that most people consume. It’s also easy to stop learning. I’m thinking of the way aid was managed during the Cold War, where the focus was buying political concessions or alignments of nations. In many cases this kind of aid was paid to the nominal government, enabling the leaders to fund their Swiss bank accounts and to pay off their cronies. In particular, when a big proportion of the nation’s income was aid the leaders did not have to fund themselves through taxation. Hence these leaders did not need to listen to their population. I sincerely hope that epoch of foreign aid is behind us.

Summary – the three myths:

  1. Poor countries are doomed to stay poor
  2. Foreign aid is a big waste (including corruption, aid dependence)
  3. Saving lives leads to overpopulation

Tyler Cowen: Forget Europe. Worry About India.

… these economically segregated islands of higher productivity suggest that success is achieved by separating oneself from the broader Indian economy, not by integrating with it.

India continues to have very sticky institutional problems. So argues Tyler Cowen in this NYT op-ed. Standout examples:

  • the reluctance to wholeheartedly embrace advanced agriculture, including GMO opportunities
  • the “license Raj” seems to be returning to “one of the world’s most unwieldy legal systems”
  • free markets are more the exception – example Wal-Mart has been given the cold shoulder

 Imagine how Wal-Mart would stimulate logistics and retail innovation! On agriculture Tyler wrote:

Agriculture employs about half of India’s work force, for example, yet the agricultural revolution that flourished in the 1970s has slowed. Crop yields remain stubbornly low, transport and water infrastructure is poor, and the legal system is hostile to foreign investment in basic agriculture and to modern agribusiness. Note that the earlier general growth bursts of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan were all preceded by significant gains in agricultural productivity.

For all of India’s economic progress, it is hard to find comparable stirrings in Indian agriculture today. It is estimated that half of all Indian children under the age of 5 suffer from malnutrition.

This is fundamentally the outcome of a dysfunctional political scheme. One possible way out is to launch one, hopefully several, of Paul Romer’s Charter Cities. The hungry, hard-working labor is certainly nearby and eager to migrate into such cities for better jobs. Is there suitable coastal land, appropriate for new links to global trade?

KNOWOSPHERE: can MOOCS make a difference?

I think Andy Revkin's KNOWOSPHERE is a useful framing of one of the core development challenges. 18 months ago Andy wrote about how even South African students couldn't access higher education. SA is relatively rich compared to many neighbors.

I also think Tyler Cowen's “Average is Over” is fundamentally correct. So how are the Bottom Billion going to find jobs that lead out of the bottom? The only scalable, affordable pathway I've been able to think of are MOOCS. Remember that the top 72 students in the first Stanford online AI class were NOT Stanford students!

Here's Andy from 2012: What Can U.S. Universities Do About a Student Stampede in Johannesburg?

…To me, there is nothing more tragic than seeing young people who are already eager to learn denied that chance — whether through inequity created by poverty or simply, as in this case, the lack of infrastructure. (I had that same feeling when I first saw photos of kids, lacking electricity in their slum dwellings, doing homework under the lights in an airport parking lot in Guinea.)

From South Asia through much of the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, it’d be impossible to build schools or train teachers fast enough to keep up with the “youth bulge” that has given humanity more than a billion teenagers either to nurture or tame — the difference depending largely on access to education beyond elementary grades.

But in these same places, explosive expansion in mobile phone subscriptions and fast-dropping costs for smart phones provide the architecture for a partial end run around such bottlenecks. That’s why the decision by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to open more courses to online users is probably just a taste of what’s to come. [Stanford University has had remarkable outcomes, as well.]

What’s needed now is the educational equivalent to Paul Polak’s work fostering progress in rural agrarian communities in poor places. His mantra is “design for the other 90 percent.”

Universities in the developed world seeking a place (and a business model) in a century in which knowledge is no longer cached in ivory towers would do well to find ways to “educate for the other 90 percent.”

So here's the question: what do we have to do to enable Nigeria to Somalia to leverage all those free MOOCS into useful education and brainwork jobs? Just a smartphone is not sufficient. We are starting to see some enabling models in the rich world — WGU Western Governors University is great example. Check it out, how could it be adapted to South Africa?