The $300 House: It is Not Charity. It is Innovation.

I wrote an article in Harvard Business Review asking why can't we build a $300 house? Now, why do you need a $300 house?  Just let us look at a simple fact.  In the world today there are 75 million people who are homeless. 75 million is the size of the United Kingdom, the same number of people who sleep on pavement, for whom sky is the only roof.  Is this right?  Even insects have homes, do they not?  Even a spider has a home, does it not?  Why can't every human being have the right to have a home?


So I started with a basic premise: housing is a human right.  And then I said why can't we create a house for the poor?  And I came up with a $300 figure because I read Dr. Mahmood Yunus’ book. He is the founder of micro-finance, and he wrote in his book, using micro-finance, when poor people came out of poverty, they were able to build a house for $375.  So I kind of rounded it off and made it into $300.  And my point was the $300 doesn't mean we want a cheap house, we want a low-cost house. We wanted to give the poor value.  This is about shifting the price-performance paradigm. This is about giving more with less for a lot of people.

What do I mean by giving value?  To me, a house is simply a metaphor for delivering more health to poor, more education to poor, more jobs to poor.  How is this possible you might say?

Take for instance, health.  In the world today millions of people are dying, poor people are dying because of three diseases: tuberculosis, cholera, and malaria.  Tuberculosis is an airborne disease.  Imagine a hut in a slum which has no sunlight, no ventilation and there are 10 people sleeping in that hut.  This is typical of any hut in a slum.  If one of the 10 has tuberculosis, it infects the other nine.  So my idea is can we stay within the $300 price point and create a home for the poor with better sunlight and better ventilation, thereby dramatically increasing the incidence of tuberculosis?

Cholera is a waterborne disease. By staying within the $300 price point if I can provide clean water it decreases the incidences of cholera.  Malaria is carried by mosquitoes.  Again, by staying within the $300 price point if I can provide free mosquito nets for any exposed part in that hut, then I have decreased the incidence of malaria because health is not delivered only in hospitals, health can be delivered at home.  And can we use the $300 house to deliver value in terms of more health?  

Take education.  Education is not given only in schools. Education is delivered at home.  Take a country like Haiti.  In Haiti there is no electricity. That means once the sun sets the country goes dark.  We cannot even imagine in the United States living in darkness for 50 percent of our life.  That's what Haitian people have to go through.  That means a kid in a household in Haiti cannot do his or her homework once the sun sets.  Is that the fault of the kid?  Is the kid in Haiti any less intelligent than a kid in the U.S.?  If we can provide low-cost electricity then that kid can do homework in the evening.  That way we can deliver more education.

So this was the whole concept that I had with the $300 house.  And when I wrote that article in Harvard Business Review, it really generated a lot of interest.  I was really surprised.  And because of the tremendous interest, I created a social media platform, it's called www.300house.com, and I invited anybody who is interested to join us.  I had 2,500 people join the community.  And this is a blog I created with my colleague, Christian Sarkar, and the 2,500 people who have joined this community, these are not unemployed people.  These are architects and engineers who say, how can we help?  With that phenomenal response we said, why can’t we create a global competition for a $300 house?  

So we invited anybody to submit a design for a $300 house.  We got lots and lots of designs. Then we picked six winners. We invited them to Hanover, New Hampshire. I teach at Dartmouth.  So they came to Dartmouth and we paired them with other architects and engineers and we did a prototype design workshop where we actually designed a home for Haiti. And then our next step is to see how can we actually build that prototype and help Haiti, but also build a model village in Haiti.  That is how this movement has taken shape.  

A $300 house is not charity. Poor people don’t want charity.  Poor people have a sense of dignity.  All that they’re asking for is opportunity, is it not?  There is no difference between the poor and the rich, absolutely no difference except income differences.  Poor people have the same intelligence as the rich. Poor people have the same ambition as the rich. Poor people have the same aspiration as the rich. Poor people have the same needs as the rich.  Why can’t we give the poor people access to opportunities?  

That’s what the $300 house is.  It is not charity, it is innovation.  Therefore it is a challenge for commerce.  Therefore I say, big corporations should step in because they know how to innovate, they know how to scale, they know how to execute.  So, this is a challenge for big corporations who have to work in partnership, obviously, with NGOs and governments to make this happen.  

In my way of thinking, this is perhaps the biggest opportunity for big corporations going forward: solving complex social problems, like affordable health, like renewable energy, like clean water, and of course, affordable housing.  This is at the heart of reverse innovation.  How can we connect with societal problems?  And because much of these societal problems are in poor countries, by solving the  can we really create prosperity in rich countries?  

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.