Black Swans and the Future of Energy by Paul Polak and Krish Desai

Energy experts now confidently predict that by 2040, solar and wind will drive no less than 60% of global power; natural gas will replace the lion's share of the burning of coal, and the market for electric cars will soar. Nassim Taleb, on the other hand, questions the ability of experts to predict just about anything. He asserts instead, in The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, that the future is consistently shaped by unexpected, high-impact outlier events, which we do our best to rationalize after the fact. Who could have predicted the Black Swan disruptive transformative impact of Henry Ford's Model T…

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Running the Numbers

by Paul Polak and Sydney Bergen Over the last 30 years I have found it useful to constantly and obsessively “Run the Numbers” when I look at any business opportunity. I try to do this in a way that quickly strikes to the heart of any business. Running the numbers can identify key transformative opportunities as well as the greatest likely stumbling blocks to success. Just about every entrepreneur I know can generate the financial projections required by a standard business plan. But the ability to carry out rapid and sequential back-of-the envelope estimates of things like where the sweet spot in the market lies,…

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Achieving Scale

Scale is the single biggest unmet challenge in development and impact investment today. IDE, the development organization I founded, has helped some 20 million people living on a $1/day move out of poverty, but this is a drop in the bucket compared to the 2.7 billion people still living on less than $2/day.  About the only big business to reach poor people at scale is mobile phones, and that happened pretty much by accident.  I think it’s entirely feasible to help 100 million poor people at a time move out of poverty with technologies they need to raise their incomes, with the right distribution systems, and…

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Paul Polak’s Top 10 Books

Following is a list of the ten books that have been most helpful in increasing my understanding of the world. 1)    Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, by E. F. Schumacher (Blond & Briggs, 1973) 2)    The White Man's Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, by William Easterly (Penguin Press, 2006) 3)    Mao's Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962, by Frank Dikotter (Walker & Company, 2011) 4)    Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948, by Madeleine Albright (Harper, 2012) 5)    Three Cups of Deceit: How…

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Transforming Solar Pumping to Eliminate Rural Poverty

What if we could harness the limitless power of the sun to carry  water to the crops of millions of small poor farmers around the world? If I want to water my petunias, I turn on the tap outside my house, hold my thumb over the end of a battered green hose, and water away. If a small farmer in Ghana or China wants to water a small patch of vegetables he’s growing to sell in the local market, he breaks his back hauling water in two buckets or sprinkling cans from a nearby stream. It takes six hours a day every other day for…

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Four Transformative Business Opportunities in Emerging Markets

University of California, Berkeley- Haas School of Business March 13, 2012 I’m going to describe a little bit about the four businesses and then we’ll have a little bit of time for question and answers. Here’s an example in the area of health. The four businesses I talked about are: health, education, water, and energy. One opportunity in health is that about a billion people need reading glasses. You don’t have to design a technology; you can actually have reading glasses of various strengths built in mainland China for about 50 cents or less. The real challenge is the global distribution system and a robust…

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Is it Immoral to Earn Attractive Profits from Poor Customers?

 by Paul Polak There are at least 7 billion different perspectives on morality, but the viewpoint I like best defines sin as the failure to reach your potential. By this definition we have at least 2.6 billion deep sinners – the 37% of people in the world who live on less than $2 a day. They are the future Steve Jobs’, Mohandas Gandhis, Madame Curies and Pablo Picassos who will instead eke out a living as drug dealers, child soldiers, prostitutes and destitute slum dwellers. The three trillion dollars or more we have wasted in misguided development aid probably represent an even bigger sin. But…

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¡Viva la revolución

Five years ago, at the Aspen design summit, I said that 90% of the world’s designers spent all of their time addressing the needs of the richest 10% of the world’s customers. I also said that before I die I want to see that silly ratio turned on its head. What followed was an amazing sequence of events that included the creation of the traveling exhibit Design for the Other 90% at the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum; the formation of D-Rev: Design Revolution, a Palo Alto based non-profit incubator for the design and mass market of radically affordable technologies; and earlier this year the launch…

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The Future Corporation

The Future Corporation will remain competitive in the global marketplace by creating vibrant new markets serving $2 a day customers at scale. Three years ago, General Motors, the biggest, most powerful corporation in the world,was brought to its knees by failing to react quickly and effectively to competition from Japanese imports, which were smaller, more fuel efficient, and cheaper. Companies like Wal-mart, Coca-Cola, and Microsoft will soon face the same do-or-die crossroads General Motors did if they don’t react quickly and effectively to the challenge of earning attractive profits at scale from emerging markets.  This will require nothing less than a revolution in how businesses currently…

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How Much Money is Enough?

By Paul Polak How much money is enough, and what will I do with myself when I get there? This question is just as challenging for multimillionaires as it is for dollar-a-day farmers. The dilemma is tantalizingly similar for both. For the one-acre farmer whose family now has enough to eat for the whole year because they have increased their income to three dollars a day, the question is what’s next? Do they keep increasing their income from farming, or focus on educating their kids, stabilizing their income, and living a happy rural life? For the multimillionaire, the question is what’s next? Do they keep…

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