Harry Potter and the Soccket of Fire

Image Joseph Campbell in his classic The Hero with a Thousand Faces described a "monomyth" common to many classic tales, which has since been applied to classics of our time like Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Harry Potter:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

According to my extensive research (1 Wikipedia article), these boons are things the hero brings back that "may be used to improve the world."

These hero stories are also very common in development and philanthropy, the latest example being the Soccket, a boon in the form of a soccer ball that generates electricity for poor children, discovered by some very admirable innovators.

Now I'm not going to do what you expect and get all crotchety at this point and say this is all useless nonsense. The great thing about the Hero Stories is that they sometimes really do come true, and in fact our market system is great for generating real hero stories.  Our most recent real-life hero story might be entitled "Steve Jobs and the Tablet of iPad".

The difference of course is that Steve Jobs only became a hero after the iPad was accepted by consumers. The problem in development philanthropy is that we get excited about the hero story before we even know whether the "boon" works for the intended consumers. (As Seth Gitter points out, there is no information on the Soccket web site on whether it is good bang for the buck or really any evidence on how poor kids reacted to the Soccket)

So my constructive advice for the Soccket creators is please give us a little more evidence on how well the Soccket works for those poor consumers and a bit less of rich people testifying how excited they are about this story.

And the lesson for the day is that the real-life hero narratives in development are more likely to come from private entrepreneurs than from philanthropy.


Hi Professor,

As co-founder of Uncharted Play and a co-inventor of the SOCCKET, I want to thank you for your interest in, and perhaps more importantly, your critique of our movement. Constructive comments like yours help us to confirm that we are on the right track to creating the maximum positive social impact in communities around the world.

… I am no stranger to the need for objective monitoring and evaluation of development efforts, and I have made sure to incorporate rigorous data collection into the DNA of Uncharted Play as an organization. Further, we design all of our products for, and in collaboration with, our end users in developing contexts. For example, children's feedback from Mexico, South Africa, El Salvador, Nigeria, and Brazil has been critical as we continue to iterate our technical designs for the SOCCKET.

…kids have found the product to be truly magical. The response has been universally positive, and variations on the same scene unfold each time we first present the ball. First, it's pure joy – and that is before the kids even know there is anything different about the ball.  When we actually say that the ball is special, that it can harness energy and power a lamp or a phone, there is always a collective yell of excitement.  Then, when we plug in a lamp to demonstrate,the kids’ eyes just pop out of their heads, and you can see the wheels beginning to turn.  There’s a moment of silent amazement, and then, right away, kids start brainstorming their own ideas. …I certainly think that type of creative inspiration qualifies as a "boon" for our users even if there is no MDG that adequately captures it or tried-and-true metric for recording it.

In this vein, the point you made in your post about the need for testimonials from users is well taken; we will be adding user comments from our field studies to our website….

{added responses to Seth Gitter}:

Uncharted Play is a social enterprise, not an NGO, so we are held accountable by our investors and kept afloat by revenue.  As such, it would be all too easy to ignore impact evaluation altogether so that we can dedicate more of our financial and human resources to sales, marketing, etc.. However, as I mentioned above, we are truly focused on collaborating with communities to implement meaningful, catalytic programs, and - rather than resting on our laurels or focusing strictly on profit - we are taking aggressive action to track outcomes, both quantitatively and qualitatively.

We are a new company (just over 1 year old), and we do not have the resources to support a randomized controlled trial, especially since funding for this is often restricted to 501(c)3 organizations (which, as I mentioned above, we are not). Thus, we can only speak to improvements from pre- to post-intervention as tracked by our partners on the ground.

By replacing pollutant kerosene lamps and providing extra hours of light after the sun goes down, clean energy solutions like the SOCCKET can immediately and dramatically improve the lives of billions around the globe. By tracking suppressed demand for kerosene, we are gathering very persuasive evidence about the SOCCKET’s direct impact on households.

Further, Uncharted Play is focused on FUN and letting kids be kids. If it were just about producing as much energy as efficiently as possible, we would be distributing a hand-crank. The big difference is that, unlike a hand-crank, a soccer ball is fun. We are working to distribute a product that emphasizes the joy in life, not another object that simply reminds users of what they lack. The whole point of SOCCKET is that it's supposed to be fun. We aim to remain firmly in the territory of the whimsical without degenerating into mere frivolity.

Our studies are not publicly available at this time.  If you have any suggestions about where we could get funding to help us launch an open online platform, please let my team know - we'd love to do it!

Thanks again for your interest...

Best – Julia

Julia C. Silverman, Co-founder & Chief Social Officer, Uncharted Play, Inc.

Read More & Discuss