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How we end up doubling down on broken things

The PlayPump by PlayPump International was supposed to be a game-changing pump that pours clean, potable water into a storage tank as children played on it.

Clean water powered by play was a succinct and inspiring idea that garnered a lot of attention and money:

National Geographic aired a segment praising the water-pumping tech, The Clinton Global Initiative wrote a check for $16.4 million to accelerate the pump’s rollout in African communities, Jay-Z held a benefit concert to help raise an additional $60 million by 2010 — just about every donor and celebrity under the sun loved the idea.

Despite the hype, the PlayPump fell way short of its purported magic — the aura of building-for-a-better-world was shattered by the need for 24/7 ‘play’ to be a sustainable source of water, difficult operation, and it expensive and complicated repairs.

The PlayPump failed because it didn’t get better, it didn’t get better because everyone just assumed it was working and doubled-down on building a broken thing. No one regularly asked the communities they were aiming to serve: “does this help you? What can we make better?” [1]

Anyone can bolster your good intentions by telling you that they love the idea, but that hardly certifies that that your work will help. Only the people you’re aiming to serve can validate the work by telling you “here’s what’s working for me, here’s what isn’t — go make that better.”

Just ask.

[1] Unicef PlayPump evaluation: https://www-tc.pbs.org/frontlineworld/stories/southernafrica904/flash/pdf/unicef_pp_report.pdf



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William Liao

William Liao


Taiwanese American, daily blogger of ideas about impactful work in service of others, photographer (ephemera.photography)