Saturday, December 03, 2011

Design Challenge: Inventions That Matter

I am a technology nerd. I think it goes with being an unrepentant optimist. One thing I like to do is read through popular magazines about new technologies, and think about how they might change our collective future for the better.

This morning, I was looking through Time Magazine's recent list of the 50 Best Inventions (sorry, if you aren't a subscriber, you won't get much from this link). It was depressing. Only one, a malaria vaccine in late stage trials by GSK, was really targeted at the BOP and had a chance of making lives better for millions of people. A second invention, a solar charged rural information system housed in an oil drum and promoted by UNICEF had application to the BOP. But it seems to me that just providing a solar charger for mobile phones would probably be a lower cost approach.

Perhaps I live in a bubble (OK, not perhaps). But I know of many inventors working on technologies that are aimed squarely at the other 99% of the people who do not have iPads and Priae (my attempt at the plural of Prius).

Paul Polak has been working on "Design for the Other 90%" for decades. Groups like MIT's D-Lab, Catapult Design, International Development Enterprises, CSU's Engines Lab, Haddock Invention,  Design that Matters, and D-Rev work in the field. Communities like Appropedia collect and test concepts. Companies like d.light, Envirofit, Vestergaard Frandsen and cell phone providers are bringing new products to these markets. And accelerators like the Unreasonable Institute and Village Capital are providing services to BOP inventors to help form companies to disseminate inventions that matter.

Am I am being too sensitive in my disappointment? I know inventions are the ideas, and innovations are what actually get used in the real world, and this list was of the former. But what I would like is for my readers to list the inventions that they are excited about in the comments below.

So... what are exciting inventions could make a difference for the other 6 billion people in the world that don't care about hummingbird drones or electric mood indicating bunny ears? What are the inventions that matter?


Robin said...

ColaLife is a brilliant idea - the inventors realized that you buy a Coca Cola just about anywhere in the world, even in places that lack basic infrastructure. So they found a way to piggyback on Coke's existing distribution channels. They designed a small pod that fits between Coke bottles in storage crates, which can be used to store medicine, supplements and other basic life-saving supplies to those who need them.

Bopreneur said...

I guess one of the challenges in the twitter and fb age is to actually have people go through the steps of posting comments on a blog. In any event, here are 3 inventions that highly regarded inventor Shawn Frayne of Haddock Inventions is excited about on twitter. Though not excited enough to get on blogspot.

1. Mobile Money, invented in the Philippines and finally embraced in Silicon Valley. Classic confluent tech.
2. Progressive Payments for Solar: Developed in parallel in India and in Silicon Valley.Pay for sun electricity like cell minutes
3. Arduino. Making product dev nodes bloom faster. Born in Italy, going to work in Philippines for disaster monitoring
He adds: "Only caveat to our #impinvent list - Products now cross 'emerging market' & 'wealthy market' lines so rapidly, back and forth...hat what is an 'appropriate tech' or 'tech for developing countries' is no longer clear. Netbooks, mobile money, decentralized energy."
Then he adds something provocative: "Any invention that's worth its embodied energy is an impact invention."

kevindoylejones said...

lists reflect unconscious bias.

Dave said...

If it's fair game to post technologies here, not just inventions, I'd add the bio-gas digester. You can't really point to one model or one inventor, as TIME must be looking for, but I'm really impressed with their range of benefits even beyond just the gas after just having seen some in action in rural villages.

Bio-gas digesters collect human and animal waste (faeces and urine) in a tank below ground, where bacteria breaks it down to produce methane and other gases which are trapped and piped directly to kitchens for cooking fuel, burning cleanly and without odor. As the waste exceeds the tank's capacity, the excess overflows into collection pits where it is mixed with field waste like leaves, grass and rice husks to make fertilizer and mulch. In households with at least one cow or buffalo and a few goats, it produces enough cooking fuel for the family. With more animals, there could be enough gas for heating and lighting too.

Benefits of bio-gas digesters, from the most direct to the least:
1. clean-burning, smokeless cooking fuel
2. fertilizer & mulch
3. toilets – to collect human waste, you need one, and that often means that a family that didn't have one before now does, providing proper sanitation for the household
4. no more smoke in the kitchen greatly reduces the respiratory health issues that so many women face by doing all of the cooking in small, poorly ventilated rooms
5. no more spending time or facing dangers while collecting wood, which especially benefits women and children who have more time for school or income-generating activities
6. deforestation is greatly reduced in areas where firewood was collected
7. families save money, no longer having to purchase wood or charcoal
8. with cooking fuel no longer so scarce, some families who were reluctant to boil water to kill pathogens now can
9. if there is enough gas for lighting, health and safety effects of kerosene can be avoided while children can study and adults can continue to be productive after dark

High-efficiency cookstoves (like those made by Envirofit) and solar cookers also provide a lot of the same benefits without the waste and sanitation pieces and are important inventions (or "technologies") providing better, healthier, cheaper and more sustainable options for cooking and making water safe to drink.

Chris Watkins said...

The inventions that excite me are not new, but to me they're still profound and I'm sure they have a lot of mileage left:

White LED lights - there's more than one way to package and power these, but they're all possible because of that fundamental invention of a simple, sturdy, low-powered white light.

Treadle pumps. I love that they're affordable, simple and just work. The only drawback is that it doesn't attract donors like the PlayPump did :-/. But maybe that's a good thing in the long run, to demonstrate that donors aren't the key to ending poverty.

Nanotube water filtration. I'm torn by this - I absolutely love sand filters and the like, especially slow sand filters with their amazing schmutzdecke. But I think these will be superceded by small, practical, consistent and reliable nanotube filters such as the LifeStraw Family. A bit sad for me as a water geek, but great for those who need water.

Bopreneur said...

Dave- there was an article recently on small scale biogas systems in Popular Science.

I have seen these in India with small dairy operations when I was doing research on cook stoves. As Chris mentions in his post, as with the biosand filters, these technologies don't seem to be spreading very rapidly. Not sure if it is an issue with customer wants, poor business model, or inadequate training. It seems like biogas and biosand are perhaps just a bit too difficult to do, given human skepticism about whether they will work? Contrast the more recent (and more rapid) adoption of old soda bottles as light "bulbs"

Rick said...

In the health care field:
(1) A composite health analytics model that integrates medical data with social and environmental factors to identify "upstream" sources of health risk and costs... For example, identifying asthma "hotspots" linked to home-based environmental triggers (dust, mold, pest infestation) -- and then quantifying those factors in terms of "downstream" illness and costs (e.g., higher ER utilization).
(2) New health financing models (e.g., a Health Impact Bond) that allow investment capital to flow to "upstream" prevention (see above) in exchange for a share of "downstream" savings.

While some technology and process innovation are required (and we're currently working on that), the real invention here is the invention of thinking anew in a $2.7 trillion sector (U.S.) dominated by conventional medical interventions/financing.

Unknown said...

As other folks have already posted, we (at Catapult) have found some of the coolest "inventions" to be service models that leverage technology in a neat way. Pay-as-you-go energy, real-time monitoring and sensing systems, clean water ATMs, energy swapping stations, etc.

How can we invent new ways to make technologies accessible through cross-pollination with trends in finance, cloud computing or collaborative consumption?

Bopreneur said...

Appreciate the recent posts on inventions that matter... please feel free to name companies, labs, inventors too, folks.
If TIME called me (fat chance) who should I tell them to research?

Chris Watkins said...

I don't claim to know who's most effective, but...

Re LED lights (and related work to supply energy in remote areas, and reduce indoor smoke), Alex Zahnd seems to do interesting work in Nepal. Passionate guy - I met him six years ago, and I'd guess he's still working at it.

Re treadle pumps, you would already know KickStart and Paul Polak's IDE. Not sure what the differences are in their approaches - I know Paul is very hardline on being commercially viable, which I think is the right approach.

Re nanofiltration of water, this is a job for big companies - Lifestraw's household version seems cost-effective (at least in the right ballpark) and usable - that's not to say that they're the best (I wouldn't know) but the technology is viable.
Btw, Robin: Love the ColaLife idea. Brilliant thinking.
On a more general note, I've been expanding the article on "Appropriate Technology" on Appropedia - I like the section that talks about Paul Polak and what he calls the "death of appropriate technology".

His emphasis is spot in, IMO. If cost isn't within reach of the target market, then that's an invention that doesn't matter.