Children are the planet’s great resource. They represent hope in the future. But too often, they are victims of circumstances beyond their control. They are recruited into conflicts they don’t understand. Sold into slavery to work in miserable conditions. Deprived of the most essential of rights: education.
Half a century ago, around the same time man first stepped on the moon, a select group of scientists (and one architect) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) were already envisioning a world in which computers would democratize technology and give us a smooth ride to the information highway.
While the future founders of Google and Facebook were studying in elementary school, architect Nicolas Negroponte created the Architecture Machine Group, a combination of laboratory and think tank, which studied new approaches to the human – computer interaction. This was social networking on an individual level. The year: 1968.
But it wasn’t until the mid 1980s that Negroponte through his MIT Media Lab began to look at the real social impact of mass computing. What he envisioned was one computer for every child. What he needed was an inexpensive, portable and energy-efficient computer so that millions of the world’s poorest children could have educational potential and free access to ideas. The audacious plan also needed a highly qualified team.
Rodrigo Arboleda met Negroponte in 1982 and the early days of the MIT Media Lab. As a Colombian architect educated in the States, he immediately grasped the importance of One Laptop per Child. He had seen this type of social inclusion in his native country when a Catholic priest from the department of Boyacá – Monsignor José Salcedo – used a transistor radio back in the 1950s to communicate with 4 million farmers on issues relating to agriculture. Salcedo’s radio broadcasts on Radio Sutatenza were influential in educating a poor, yet vital, segment of the population. From radio, Salcedo went on to create the first farmer’s newspaper in Colombia – El Campesino.
Negroponte and Arboleda discussed the fundamental ideas behind the futuristic works of Alvin Toffler’s “Future Shock” and “The Third Wave.” Toffler’s books predicted a global shift in monetary wealth through technology and a new role of the tested nation state in an age of digital freedom. When Toffler’s trilogy was published in 1980, the future founders of Google and Facebook had moved up to high school.
Since it was officially presented in 2006 as a non-profit organization during the World Economic Forum in Davos, One Laptop per Child (OLPC) has sent 2.3 million computers to 45 countries in the world. The logistics of building and shipping these bright and rugged computers depends not only on the political will of leaders in different countries, but on the dedication of Arboleda and senior software developer, Walter Bender.
Bender and Arboleda came to Bogotá in 2012 as part of a greater tour of the region to promote the new XO-3 computer and hold high-level talks with several state Ministries. Colombia, unlike Peru and Uruguay, has lagged behind in getting its hands on this inexpensive technology – each computer costs only a couple hundred dollars – to expand educational access and connectivity in the poorest and most remote areas of this country. Colombia is a highly digital country with widespread connectivity, but Arboleda stresses that OLPC isn’t a computer project. “It’s a project of education and one of social equality.”
With 19,000 laptops circulating in Colombia, Arboleda believes that the country needs at least half a million in the hands of children at a primary school level. “We are here to promote a change of culture in education,” says this Latin American CEO. “We don’t think that children should pay a yearly fee for a license or a monthly fee for connectivity. Children have a right to knowledge.”
Host governments finance 90 percent of OLPC computers. With a goal of empowering one billion children in the developing world over the next five years with advanced educational technology, Arboleda has witnessed plenty of success stories. In Uruguay, for example, president Tabaré Vasquez helped ensure that One Laptop per Child’s computers reached the hands of every single child.
“Uruguay is 100% covered,” remarks Arboleda. Peru has also been expanding with almost one million computers available to children despite a difficult geography. In Africa, Rwanda is the current leader.