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, 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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