The SOCCKET ball bounces back?

Foul Play?

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?

Hi Aaron,

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

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Categories: Aid Effectiveness, Social Enterprise


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7 Comments on “The SOCCKET ball bounces back?”

  1. July 2, 2012 at 6:26 am #

    I’m wondering…is there an awareness about the conflation of “movement” and “business model” here? I (and many others) define movements in socio-political terms, i.e. ordinary people organizing and advocating for change, not answering to investors. I don’t want to argue semantics, but I do think those in social enterprise should be careful not to co-opt the language of people who mobilize their fellow citizens for sustained collective action aimed to bring about broad political and economic changes–a very different endeavor.

  2. July 2, 2012 at 11:36 am #

    I think the people behind Soccket are going to have a big impact on our world but not with this initiative.
    My first venture after leaving University (management degree) was to set up ‘Britain’s first liftshare agency’, a company we called Freewheelers. The media loved us (we were never out of the papers and our launch was covered by BBC TV news). The adulation we received blinded us to serious flaws in our business plan and model… and our youth and entrepreneurial zeal made us sidestep all the tough questions levied at us. We ultimately failed although is now a free website service… and the learning I gained from those days helped me to set up a very successful business in London a couple of years later. I see parallels with the Soccket team so have very mixed feelings about what they are doing.
    I think the Soccket team need to decide what they’re REALLY trying to achieve.
    Is it about play?… in which case there is many more cost effective ways to bring more play to kids in very poor communities. Even footballs… (a much cheaper, simpler and less resource-heavy product, it would seem).
    Or it is about lighting/ energy? In which case, they should take a look at this product (or dozens like it) which we can retail for only $8 (and we make a profit… which means it is a sustainable business model).
    Or is it about education?… in which case there’s bound to be thousands of more appropriate solutions.
    Sadly, the rationale given by Julia is a post-rationale which can be nuanced according to who the audience is. We have a nice bit of kit. We have a company. We must now justify it.
    The question which I am yet to see Unchartered Play answer is:
    When the ball breaks, who is going to fix it (and stop it ending up in landfill, contributing to environmental problems, not solving them)? Business models which involve giving stuff away like this – so there is no value chain which involves local people in selling and fixing the products – are just aid (however it is funded back home) and will not result in a sustainable product lifecycle.
    I am convinced that this technology is so seductive that Unchartered Play will always be able to find funders and could keep rolling on for years to come. But I just don’t see this product ever being a sensible or cost-effective solution to the problems of energy access, children being allowed to be children (and play) or education.
    One final point. This sentence jarred on me: “We are working to distribute a product that emphasizes the joy in life, not something that simply reminds users of what they lack,” but maybe I misunderstand it. It’s just that a mosquito net might not be much fun… but my brother not dying of malaria would bring me a measure of joy. I think of these 12 girls who died in Idodi school in Tanzania after a dormitory fire:
    … and I ask myself, would a Soccket have been a solution… or would a more serious and more effective solution to their energy needs – with the capability to be replicated in every corner of the globe – have allowed these (or millions of other) children to be children.

    Thanks for encouraging this important discussion.
    Steve Andrews

  3. Rahul
    October 21, 2012 at 10:09 pm #

    Here’s something nobody seems to have thought about – Football needs a whole bunch of children to play, but I doubt all of them can benefit from the energy output. How do you decide whose ball gets used for the match, or who gets to use the ball after the match?


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