Skip to content
Home » Anna Rosling Rönnlund: See How the Rest of the World Lives, Organized by Income (Transcript)

Anna Rosling Rönnlund: See How the Rest of the World Lives, Organized by Income (Transcript)

Anna Rosling Rönnlund

Here is the full transcript of Anna Rosling Rönnlund’s Talk: See How the Rest of the World Lives, Organized by Income at TED conference. 


What images do we see from the rest of the world? We see natural disasters, war, terror. We see refugees, and we see horrible diseases. Right?

We see beautiful beaches, cute animals, beautiful nature, cultural rites and stuff. And then we’re supposed to make the connection in our head and create a worldview out of this. And how is that possible? I mean, the world seems so strange. And I don’t think it is. I don’t think the world is that strange, actually.

I’ve got an idea. So, imagine the world as a street, where the poorest live on one end and the richest on the other, and everyone in the world lives on this street. You live there, I live there, and the neighbors we have are the ones with the same income. People that live in the same block as me, they are from other countries, other cultures, other religions. The street might look something like this.

And I was curious. In Sweden where I live, I’ve been meeting quite a lot of students. And I wanted to know, where would they think they belong on a street like this? So we changed these houses into people. This is the seven billion people that live in the world. And just by living in Sweden, most likely you belong there, which is the richest group.

But the students, when you ask them, they think they are in the middle. And how can you understand the world when you see all these scary images from the world, and you think you live in the middle, while you’re actually atop? Not very easy.

So I sent out photographers to 264 homes in 50 countries — so far, still counting — and in each home, the photographers take the same set of photos. They take the bed, the stove, the toys and about 135 other things. So we have 40,000 images or something at the moment, and it looks something like this.

Here we see, it says on the top, “Families in the world by income,” and we have the street represented just beneath it, you can see. And then we see some of the families we have visited. We have the poorer to the left, the richer to the right, and everybody else in between, as the concept says. We can go down and see the different families we have been to so far.

Here, for instance, we have a family in Zimbabwe, one in India, one in Russia, and one in Mexico, for instance. So we can go around and look at the families this way. But of course, we can choose if we want to see some certain countries and compare them, or regions, or if we want, to see other things.

So let’s go to the front doors and see what they look like. Go here, and this is the world by front doors, ordered by income. And we can see the big difference from India, Philippines, China, Ukraine, in these examples, for instance.

What if we go into the home? We can look at beds. This is what beds can look like. Doesn’t look like the glossy magazines. Doesn’t look like the scary images in the media. So remember that the students in Sweden, they thought they were in the middle of the world income.

So let’s go there. We zoom in here by filtering the street to the middle, like this, and then I ask the students: Is this what your bedroom looks like? And they would actually not feel very at home. So we go down and see, do they feel more at home here? And they would say, no, this is not what a Swedish typical bedroom looks like. We go up here, and suddenly, they feel sort of at home. And we can see here in this image, we see bedrooms in China, Netherlands, South Korea, France and the United States, for instance.

So we can click here. If we want to know more about the family, the home in which this bed stands, we can just click it and go to the family, and we can see all the images from that family. We can go this way, too. And of course, this is free for anyone to use. So just go here, and please add more images, of course.

My personal favorite that everyone always tries to make me not show, I’m going to show you now, and that’s toilets, because you’re not really allowed to look at people’s toilets, but now we can just do it, right?

So here. We have a lot of toilets. They look pretty much as we’re used to, right? And they are in China, Netherlands, United States, Nepal and so forth, Ukraine, France. And they look pretty similar, right? But remember, we are in the top. So what about checking all the toilets? Now it looks a bit different, doesn’t it?

So this way we can visually browse through categories of imagery, using photos as data. But not everything works as a photo. Sometimes it’s easier to understand what people do, so we also do video snippets of everyday activities, such as washing hands, doing laundry, brushing teeth, and so on. And I’m going to show you a short snippet of tooth-brushing, and we’re going to start at the top.

So we see people brushing their teeth. Pretty interesting to see the same type of plastic toothbrush is being used in all these places in the same way, right? Some are more serious than others — but still, the toothbrush is there. And then, coming down to this poorer end, then we will see people start using sticks, and they will sometimes use their finger to brush their teeth.

So this particular woman in Malawi, when she brushes her teeth, she scrapes some mud off from her wall and she mixes it with water, and then she’s brushing. Therefore, in the Dollar Street material, we have tagged this image not only as her wall, which it is, but also as her toothpaste, because that is also what she uses it for.

So we can say, in the poorer end of the street, you will use a stick or your finger, you come to the middle, you will start using a toothbrush, and then you come up to the top, and you will start using one each. Pretty nice, not sharing a toothbrush with your grandma. And you can also look at some countries.

Here, we have the income distribution within the US, most people in the middle. We have a family we visited in the richer end, the Howards. We can see their home here. And we also visited a family in the poorer end, down here. And then what we can do now is we can do instant comparisons of things in their homes.

Let’s look in their cutlery drawer. So, observe the Hadleys: they have all their cutlery in a green plastic box and they have a few different types and some of them are plastic, while the Howards, they have this wooden drawer with small wooden compartments in it and a section for each type of cutlery. We can add more families, and we can see kitchen sinks, or maybe living rooms. Of course, we can do the same in other countries.

So we go to China, we pick three families we look at their houses, we can look at their sofas, we can look at their stoves. And when you see these stoves, I think it’s obvious that it’s a stupid thing that usually, when we think about other countries, we think they have a certain way of doing things. But look at these stoves. Very different, right, because it depends on what income level you have, how you’re going to cook your food.

But the cool thing is when we start comparing across countries. So here we have China and the US. See the big overlap between these two. So we picked the two homes we have already seen in these countries, the Wus and the Howards. Standing in their bedroom, pretty hard to tell which one is China and which one is the US, right? Both have brown leather sofas, and they have similar play structures.

Most likely both are made in China, so, I mean, that’s not very strange — but that is similar. We can of course go down to the other end of the street, adding Nigeria. So let’s compare two homes in China and Nigeria. Looking at the family photos, they do not look like they have a lot in common, do they? But start seeing their ceiling. They have a plastic shield and grass.

They have the same kind of sofa, they store their grain in similar ways, they’re going to have fish for dinner, and they’re boiling their water in identical ways. So if we would visit any of these homes, there’s a huge risk that we would say we know anything about the specific way you do things in China or Nigeria, while, looking at this, it’s quite obvious — this is how you do things on this income level. That is what you can see when you go through the imagery in Dollar Street. So going back to the figures, the seven billion people of the world, now we’re going to do a quick recap. We’re going to look at comparisons of things in the poorest group: beds, roofs, cooking.

And observe, in all these comparisons, their homes are chosen so they are in completely different places of the world. But what we see is pretty identical. So the poorest billion cooking would look somewhat the same in these two places; you might not have shoes; eating, if you don’t have a spoon; storing salt would be similar whether you’re in Asia or in Africa; and going to the toilet would be pretty much the same experience whether you’re in Nigeria or Nepal.

In the middle, we have a huge group of five billion, but here we can see you will have electric light, most likely; you will no longer sleep on the floor; you will store your salt in a container; you will have more than one spoon; you will have more than one pen; the ceiling is no longer leaking that much; you will have shoes; you might have a phone, toys, and produce waste.

Coming to our group up here, similar shoes, Jordan, US. We have sofas, fruits, hairbrushes, bookshelves, toilet paper in Tanzania, Palestine, hard to distinguish if we would sit in US, Palestine or Tanzania from this one. Vietnam, Kenya: wardrobes, lamps, black dogs, floors, soap, laundry, clocks, computers, phones, and so on, right? So we have a lot of similarities all over the world, and the images we see in the media, they show us the world is a very, very strange place.

But when we look at the Dollar Street images, they do not look like that. So using Dollar Street, we can use photos as data, and country stereotypes — they simply fall apart. So the person staring back at us from the other side of the world actually looks quite a lot like you.

And that implies both a call to action and a reason for hope.

Thank you.


Related Posts

Reader Disclosure: Some links on this Site are affiliate links. Which means that, if you choose to make a purchase, we may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. We greatly appreciate your support.