The SOCCKET is a soccer ball with an internal mechanism that turns movement into stored energy that can be accessed through a built in jack. It’s marketed as a “FUNctional solution to real-world problems” – specifically the lack of access to reliable electricity and the negative side effects of using kerosene lanterns, diesel generators, and wood-burning stoves. It’s garnered a lot of praise and accolades.
Last week I wrote a critical post that kicked at the SOCCKET and its maker Uncharted Play from a number of angles. Among other critiques, I thought that marketing the equivalent of four weakly-rechargeable AA batteries inside a relatively expensive soccer ball as a solution to anything grossly overplays the potential of the ball and misleads investors and buyers about the social impact they get for their money.
Below, Julia C. Silverman, the Co-founder & Chief Social Officer of Uncharted Play responds to my post ‘Deflating the SOCCKET ball‘. I’ve already said most of what I wanted to say, but I’d like to hear from you. Is the case for the SOCCKET overinflated? Does Julie adequately defend the SOCCKET’s place in the social enterprise playing field? Is this thing a game changer for the poor or just another example of bad aid? Would you invest in the SOCCKET or wish it deflated for good?
As a heads up, some of the copy below is from the email responses I sent earlier this week to Bill Easterly and Seth Gitter. Just want to be transparent here.
At any rate, 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 (and I mean that without irony). As an aside, with regard to the title of your post, I’d like to note that the SOCCKET ball itself cannot be deflated!
I wanted to respond personally to your submission since I, too, come from a background in the social sciences. In fact, prior to launching Uncharted Play, I worked on a team of development economists at the World Bank in the Africa Sustainable Development division following several years of fieldwork on the ground in sub-Saharan Africa. Hence, I am no stranger to the development aid dialogue, both on the international and grassroots levels.
At any rate, the overarching point I’d like to highlight is that Uncharted Play is focused on facilitating FUN and letting kids be kids. This stance – and the very simplicity of what we do – resonates with our partners and fans. Providing SOCCKETs is not just about creating change that numbers can track; it’s about letting magic exist in the life of a child.
If it were just about producing as much energy as cost- and time-efficiently as possible (which it seems is the unswerving position of engineers and economists alike), Uncharted Play 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 something that simply reminds users of what they lack. As you acknowledge in your post, there is nothing particularly joyful about bed nets, deworming pills, bore holes, or even shoes, but the whole point of SOCCKET – it’s very essence – is that it’s supposed to be fun and exciting.
Further, I’d like to clarify Uncharted Play’s business model for the SOCCKET product because this seems to be a particularly sensitive point. We are a social enterprise, not an NGO; we answer to our investors and are kept afloat by revenue, not donations as your post implies (in fact, we only added a contribution page on our site due to overwhelming demand from people wanting to contribute to our movement). Given the distribution of accountability, it would be all too easy for us to simply pay lip service to our social mission while dedicating the bulk of our financial and human resources to sales, marketing, etc.. However, as I mentioned above, this is not the case: 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 engage closely with our partners and participants and track outcomes so that we can drive toward maximal positive impact.
Uncharted Play’s chief aim for the SOCCKET movement is to sustainably distribute as many of the balls as possible to resource poor communities around the world. In order to deliver the SOCCKETs, build context-relevant curricular programming around the ball, and collect data to monitor and evaluate our impact, we partner with best practice NGOs on the ground in our target areas, such as Instituto Promundo in Brazil, Children International in Mexico, Homeless World Cup in Haiti, and Universidad Pedagogica in El Salvador.
We have devised a unique business model so that we can simultaneously maintain financial sustainability and pursue our social goals. We take a two-pronged approach, which allows us to reach users in developing and, eventually, developed settings.
For our users in disadvantaged communities, corporations and public institutions underwrite the cost of SOCCKET distribution through bulk/wholesale ball purchases. Users (children) “earn” the balls by participating in the programming of our official NGO partners. For those in wealthier areas, SOCCKETs will soon be available for commercial retail on our website (in late 2012/early 2013), and we will aim to expand to an in-store presence during 2013. Revenues from the direct-to-consumer sales stream will go toward our SOCCKET social impact activities. Like you, many people are eager to get a ball of their own!
As you can imagine, we’ve dealt with the opportunity cost question before (and, given my own background, it’s a point I know not to take lightly). That said, I can confirm that, rather than taking funding away from other causes, the SOCCKET is actually attracting investment that would not otherwise come to the sustainable development space. Our corporate partners are wonderful, but they are not development institutions. When they were deciding to work with us, they were evaluating whether to put marketing dollars into SOCCKET sponsorship or into another campaign, not another charity.
We are a new company (just over 1 year old), and we certainly do not have unlimited resources. This has implications for where and how we have implemented our programming thus far. In the near future, we hope to “target failure” by going to countries with limited infrastructure; however, those initiatives will be more expensive to execute and will require more careful planning (e.g., getting in and out of the DRC is no easy task). Moreover, our initial programs in the countries that do not have the so-called “most glaring cases of need” will provide useful guidance in shaping improved technical, logistical, and social impact plans.
Uncharted Play remains extremely sensitive to the potential unintended consequences of our initiatives. We are well aware of the unfortunate fate that befell the PlayPump, and we took measures to make sure play with the SOCCKET will never become a chore for our users. For example, we capped the SOCCKET’s power storage capacity so that children would not be forced into “play slavery.” Further, we designed the SOCCKET product in collaboration with our end users rather than in a vacuum. Indeed, children’s feedback from pilot studies in Mexico, South Africa, El Salvador, Nigeria, and Brazil has been critical as we continue to iterate our technical designs for the SOCCKET.
From the kids’ engagement with our prototypes, I can tell you that, even without the ball’s energy-generating functionality, the SOCCKET is indeed a “boon” for our users. In the communities where we work (and hope to work), children are used to fashioning make-shift balls from whatever is available, such as a bundle of plastic bags, an empty bottle, or a piece of garbage – I’ve even seen a brick. Since the SOCCKET is an honest-to-goodness sphere that does not need inflation, cannot be deflated, and lasts multiple years instead of mere weeks, the ball has been very well-received indeed by users.
In terms of the added impact of SOCCKET’s energy component, 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 introduce 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. “We should make one that has a soda fountain in it!” or “We can make it different colors so it looks like a rainbow when you kick it!”. Just seeing a cool idea like the SOCCKET immediately inspires kids to unleash their own imaginations. 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.
Thanks again for getting in touch. I hope my responses have helped to illustrate the delicate balance Uncharted Play has worked to achieve as a social enterprise that is both financially sustainable and socially responsible. I say this not as an excuse for any failings you might perceive, but as a call to action for other organizations to follow our example and place social impact as a central objective in their mission and, more critically, their operations.
Keep in touch. I’ll make sure my team lets you know when the ball is available :)
Cheers – Julia