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Innovation out of constraint

19 October, 2008

When I was teaching a class on applied anthropology to students returning from the developing world, I often found that engineering students were among the most energized by the challenges that they saw. So many interesting problems for low tech engineering can be found in the developing world, and students seemed to rise to the distinctive challenges posed by low-cost, low-tech, sustainable design for real world problems. I always thought that this was one dimension of technological change that anthropologists could get more involved in.

I was reminded of this when I saw an intriguing piece by Ethan Zuckerman, Innovating from constraint. Zuckerman talks about a recent presentation he did on NGOs and innovation where he shifted the focus away from social capital and communication to innovative technology. He offered a range of examples of African innovations:

including the zeer pot, William Kamkwamba’s windmill, biomass charcoal, and endless examples of innovation using mobile phones. My argument was that innovation often comes from unusual and difficult circumstances – constraints – and that it’s often wiser to look for innovation in places where people are trying to solve difficult, concrete problems rather than where smart people are sketching ideas on blank canvases.

He also offers a set of principles for understanding innovation in the developing world:

– innovation (often) comes from constraint (If you’ve got very few resources, you’re forced to be very creative in using and reusing them.)

– don’t fight culture (If people cook by stirring their stews, they’re not going to use a solar oven, no matter what you do to market it. Make them a better stove instead.)

– embrace market mechanisms (Giving stuff away rarely works as well as selling it.)

– innovate on existing platforms (We’ve got bicycles and mobile phones in Africa, plus lots of metal to weld. Innovate using that stuff, rather than bringing in completely new tech.)

– problems are not always obvious from afar (You really have to live for a while in a society where no one has currency larger than a $1 bill to understand the importance of money via mobile phones.)

– what you have matters more than what you lack (If you’ve got a bicycle, consider what you can build based on that, rather than worrying about not having a car, a truck, a metal shop.)

– infrastructure can beget infrastructure (By building mobile phone infrastructure, we may be building power infrastructure for Africa – see my writings on incremental infrastructure.)

There’s a short version of the rules available at White African.

I often wonder if more anthropologists worked with Engineers Without Borders (EWB International, USA branch, Australia branch), might we see more appropriate technological innovation for problems in the developing world…

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Chris Loughnane permalink
    21 October, 2008 2:38 am

    You struck a chord with me, I am a Mechanical Engineer who took as many anthro classes as I could. I find that an understanding of those you are designing for makes for excellent devices.

    You might be interested in reading about IDEO’s (among other consultancies) cooperation with the Rockefeller foundation in a project they call “Design For Social Impact”. Many of us (I am a Mechanical Engineer myself) working in the design industry see it as the next ripe opportunity (what medical devices were a decade ago).

    The developing world is full of problems that would best be solved by low-tech, well designed solutions. It’s an exciting time to be working in this realm.

    Keep up the good work, it’s a wonderful read

  2. David Inglis permalink
    21 October, 2008 8:48 pm

    Being an engineer married to an anthropologist, I expect at some time to spend some time in the field. Hopefully Engineers Without Borders can help me to be useful. An organization that comes to mind and one that has done some inspiring work (to engineers) is Path, http://www.path.org. They are out there to help solve global health issues and they take cultural relevance seriously.
    At a talk I attended by their founder he gave a simple example of a failure. TThey had developed a vaccination tool that shot the medicine as an aerosol onto and into the skin, it gets the medicine under the skin without a needle. Problem was that the thing looked like a gun and no patients wanted to go near the thing.

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