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Published in Forbes on October 13, 2011.  Read the article here or below.

This Saturday afternoon, 100,000 Peruvian schoolchildren will collectively attempt to break a world record previously held by Bangladesh. In 25 regions of the country, in large cities and small towns alike, they will line up in their school courtyards and wait for a signal. As soon as someone yells, “En sus marcas, listos, fuera!” all 100,000 children will begin to wash their hands.

This event is one of thousands that will occur as part of Global Handwashing Day (GHD). Celebrated annually on October 15, GHD intends to educate the world about the importance of handwashing and encourage people to make it a habit. Last year, 200 million people and 700,000 schools are estimated to have participated in handwashing events around the world, in countries as diverse as Kenya, Japan, and Tajikistan.

Perhaps surprisingly, handwashing plays a vital – and often overlooked – role in disease prevention. Studies have found handwashing to cut risk of diseases like diarrhea and pneumonia by half, which otherwise kill a combined two million children a year. Soap is easy to find and affordable for most households. The real challenge is convincing people to use it on a daily basis.

Global Handwashing Day is an important effort in promoting that simple behavior change. It began in 2008 under the auspices of a public-private partnership for handwashing (PPPHW). Myriam Sidibe, Unilever-Lifebuoy’s Global Social Mission Director and co-founder of GHD, said the team essentially wanted to create a day with lots of press and a big global profile. “Having a dedicated day,” she explained, “really helps you talk about an issue and increase its visibility.”

The fascinating thing about Global Handwashing Day is the degree to which the private sector is involved. Sidibe was part of the team that created Global Handwashing Day, and other consumer goods companies, including Proctor & Gamble and Colgate-Palmolive, came on board soon afterward. “We worked hand in hand [with NGOs and multilateral organizations] for months,” said Sidibe. “We had conference calls every week. We designed the logo, picked the day, everything.”

The private sector seems to add tremendous value to this particular advocacy effort. Katie Carroll, Secretariat Coordinator of the PPPHW, said, “In the case of handwashing, the private sector brings scale, market access, and amazing marketing know-how. Donors also can’t match private sector ability to work on behavior change. Having that is really helpful to the rest of the organizations.”

The consumer goods companies’ engagement with social advocacy is a clear example of what Michael Porter and Mark Kramer deem “creating shared value.” In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, the authors discuss how businesses and governments have for decades created false dichotomies between economic efficiency and social progress. They contend that to remain competitive, sophisticated business leaders must reconnect economic success and societal benefits. Specifically, they must consider the latter to be “not on the margin of what companies do but at the center.”

How widely applicable is this concept? Is it feasible for businesses to promote social progress as strongly as, say, Unilever has promoted handwashing?

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Published in Forbes on September 28, 2011.  Read here or below.

A small group of enthusiastic gamers on a site called Foldit recently solved the structure of a protein found in an AIDS-like monkey virus. The structure had stumped scientists for over a decade; the gamers, incredibly, cracked it in less than three weeks.

Despite using advanced crystallography technology, scientists at the University of Washington kept encountering roadblocks while trying to discern the protein’s structure. This led them, in a self-proclaimed “last ditch effort”, to begin an online protein folding competition. They offered several potential molecular structures on Foldit’s 3-D interface, and then asked players to tweak them so that, just as in real life, they emitted the lowest possible energy. Within days, a group called The Contenders submitted an answer that fit the X-ray data almost perfectly. The scientists, in an article in Nature last week,proclaimed that this was “the first instance that we are aware of in which online gamers solved a longstanding scientific problem.”

This development has huge implications for the future of crowdsourcing, or of using large groups to perform tasks typically done by individuals. In this case, gamers applied critical reasoning and spatial intelligence to a problem traditionally dominated by subject matter experts. Seth Cooper, lead designer and developer of Foldit, said in an interview on MSNBC that the players’ lack of biochemistry backgrounds may have actually worked to their advantage. Unaware of traditional rules governing biochemistry, Foldit players were able “to be really creative and come up with a lot of different interesting solutions.”

Scientists may even be able to study the gamers’ unconventional folding techniques to improve existing crystallography software. Bradford Graves, a protein crystallographer at the pharmaceutical company Hoffmann-La Roche, believes this is at least as important a contribution gamers can make to science.

Before scientists start opening a suite of unsolved mysteries to gamers, however, there are several issues to keep in mind.

First and foremost, we must consider the value being generated through these crowdsourced molecules, and how that will eventually translate in monetary terms. Who owns the intellectual property on a collaborative, crowdsourced protein structure? Ben Sawyer, co-director of theSerious Games Initiative, warns that in the worst-case scenario, these puzzles could be “exploitative” to gamers who do not fully understand the financial value of their discoveries. This question will prove especially relevant in cases where a pharmaceutical drug is developed from a Foldit discovery (that is unlikely to be the case with the AIDS-like protein). Sawyer advises both Foldit and the scientific community to think carefully about what an optimal risk-reward ratio would look like.

We should also determine the audience for which a crowdsourced protein structure would be valuable. Many scientific groups, particularly in the pharmaceutical industry but also at the university level, tend to keep their work secretive. Sawyer asks, “How do you get people to solve [protein structures] without having your competitors also see it?” In such instances, open-source software could actually prove counter-productive. Bradford Graves contends that in addition to the secrecy issue, the pharmaceutical industry may see limited value because “the structure may not get you anything in and of itself; it’s what you do with it that really counts.” Given this, Foldit may see limited application to institutions focused on basic science.

Finally, we do not yet know if this concept can scale. If we open countless scientific puzzles to the general public, Foldit will also need scientists at the back end to evaluate the answers that come in. The only way games like Foldit will work is if you have a dedicated team to parse out the good molecular structures from the bad. In an ideal scenario, the scientists should also be able to give gamers feedback, thereby educating them in the process. It is yet to be determined if Foldit can develop the capacity to do this.

These caveats aside, Foldit is in many ways a game-changing (pun intended) concept. It provides a platform for gamers to interact, and potentially solve, pressing issues in the real world. Game designer Jane McGonigal said in a 2010 TED talk that most games today are played to escape from “real world suffering,” from “everything that’s broken in the real environment.” Serious games like Foldit show us that a meaningful bridge can in fact be created between the online gaming world and the real one.

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