The following post is part of TriplePundit’s coverage of the 2011 Net Impact Conference in Portland, Oregon. To read the rest of our coverage, click here.
Last week, I was in Portland, Oregon for the 2011 Net Impact Conference. About 2,600 attendees converged on the city, most of them members of Net Impact’s student chapters. While a majority of the sessions were typical panels, there were also some unique workshops.
A fan of experiential learning, I entered a session called “Would You Survive? Base of the Pyramid Urban Slum Simulation” with very little knowledge of what would unfold or how my fellow conference attendees would transform around me.
Some facts (provided by The Crossroads Foundation in Hong Kong):
- There are 6.8 billion people on the planet.
- 1 billion of us (1/7) live on one US dollar per day.
- 2.8 billion of us live on two US dollars per day.
To better understand these cold statistics, Sarah Cooke, of the Great Place to Work Institute, divided us into “families” of five and gave us square mats – about 4 feet by 4 feet – that represented the size of our homes. We were then told that each week we would need $180 for rent, $100 for food and $30 for toilet access (or we’d risk getting sick, needing medical care and not being able to work/make bags to support our families). The ultimate goal was to send a child to school, which cost a seemingly unattainable $500. In order to earn this money, we would have to make bags with newspapers and glue (flour and water) and compete with every other “family” to sell them to shopkeepers who gave arbitrary prices for arbitrary reasons.
The first week, my family only made $120 selling about 30 bags. We tried to be creative with our bags – doubling up on paper for added strength; other families made smaller bags to differentiate. It was quite a sight to see us all waving our products in the faces of the shopkeepers, yelling about why ours were better than those of our neighbors. Despite our efforts, my family couldn’t pay rent, let alone buy food or toilet access, so we were sent to live under a bridge where a slumlord would take all of the bags we made and sell them himself. We also had to buy our way out of this hopeless situation. It was at this moment that Janet, one of our family members, realized that we could steal rather easily from the woman to whom we paid our dues. She waited until the woman was distracted and grabbed a wad of cash – we were instantly rich and had enough money to buy our way out of the slums. Janet also divided our cash and hid it with different family members in case we got caught, something I found to be rather crafty.
But we quickly realized that we weren’t the only family who resorted to theft. Suddenly, people were stealing bags and cash from the shopkeepers. This happened to such an extent that one of the shopkeepers had no cash and couldn’t buy bags from anyone anymore. Then families were stealing from each other – hysterically laughing while doing it. What began as a room filled with conscientious professionals and students turned into pandemonium fueled by a by-any-means-necessary race for survival.
Not only were people stealing but also they were really getting into character, acting the way people in these desperate situations act. One of my family members, Katherine, asked our slumlord if she could help him collect bags from the other families in the slum and sell them for him (her plan was that this would distract him and we’d secretly sell our own bags and keep the money to buy our way out). He said he’d think about it. As she watched him giving his intro speech to another family, she turned to me and said “if I were really in the slums, I wouldn’t take that for an answer – I’d just jump in there and tell that family my role.” So that’s what she did and the slumlord accepted her as his QC assistant. It was impressive.
Through stealing, we were able to send one kid to school by the end of week 3 and at that point, the “game” was over.
While this was a simplification of slum living, it proved very enlightening. There were absolutely no repercussions for stealing and it was clearly the most effective survival method. It also became quite apparent that sending a child to school was the lowest priority on our list, as we needed every family member as a laborer just to scrape by. As much as you hear about the obstacles faced by people at the bottom of the pyramid, it’s hard to really understand what they endure. I’m not saying that I now really know what it’s like to live in a developing world slum, but I do understand the hopelessness and desperation I instantly felt.
Experiential learning is an incredible way to help people better understand the perspectives of others, whether they be customers, clients, partners or investors. If you or your company have used these methods, please share your experiences and your takeaways in the comment section below!
Ali Hart is a sustainable communications and engagement strategist with a passion for life’s essentials: food, water and storytelling. Her background in the Entertainment industry, penchant for humor and MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School are Ali’s secret weapons in her quest to master the art of behavior change and to make sustainability inconveniently fun.