I wrote recently about the New Participants in the development process and I’m pleased to introduce one here, for our first Akvo guest blog. Chris Watkins of Appropedia was able to attend the BarCampAfrica event, hosted a few weeks ago on the Google Campus in San Jose. None of the Akvo team could be there but Chris was kind enough to offer his take on what it was about. Over to Chris…
I have a confession: I love BarCamps – the free structure, the inclusive nature, and loads of interesting people. And I’m passionate about international development. So when I heard of BarCampAfrica, I knew I had to go.
To set the tone, during the opening session, we were asked to stand up if we were from Africa or had ever been to Africa – I was surprised to see the majority of the room standing. It soon become clear that this was by and large a group of action takers – people who care, who had gone out and done it, learnt the lessons, and were taking action now.
Try living for a week on $2 a day.
That’s what my students and I do when I teach my class about international development. It helps them begin to understand the trade-offs that must be made when you have only very limited resources. More broadly, it was in the Peace Corps in Botswana that I learned to carry water on my head, and noticed how heavy the bucket was; and I learned to pound sorghum in to flour and felt the ache in my back. As a designer, I came to understand the importance of technologies that can transport water or grind grain.
Listen to the right people. Okay, so you probably don’t know what it’s like to carry fifty pounds of firewood on your head. Well, don’t pretend that you do. Talk to someone who has done it. I believe that the key to innovation in international development is truly understanding the problem, and using your imagination is not good enough.
Do the hard work needed to find a simple solution. As Leonardo da Vinci said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”—and it is the key to this type of design work.
Create “transparent” technologies, ones that are easily understood by the users, and promote local innovation.
Make it inexpensive. My friend Paul Polak has adapted a famous quote to the following: “Affordability isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” and there’s a lot of truth in that. When you are designing for people who are earning just one or two dollars a day, you need to keep things as cheap as you can and then make it even cheaper!
If you want to make something 10 times cheaper, remove 90 percent of the material.
Provide skills, not just finished technologies. The current revolution in design for developing countries is the notion of co-creation, of teaching the skills necessary to create the solution,
rather than simply providing the solution. By involving the community throughout the design process, you can help equip people to innovate and contribute to the evolution of the product. Furthermore, they acquire the skills needed to create solutions to a much wider variety of problems. They are empowered.
In early discussions within the Open Sustainability Network, it was agreed that we didn’t want Yet Another Website. So we use existing resources: We didn’t set up a separate wiki, instead using Appropedia.* We didn’t set up a new social network, instead using an existing, like-minded community of people doing serious sustainability and knowledge-sharing work: Global Swadeshi. When someone suggested that OSN should be building a knowledge base, Lonny Grafman expressed that this is a job some of us are passionate about (indeed, that’s what Appropedia is doing) – but it’s not the role of OSN. OSN is for supporting and connecting these initiatives.
I like this approach – we exist to connect, and this new community is avoiding fragmentation and building on existing initiatives in very practical ways.
There is much more to report on OSNCamp last weekend – the first meeting of the Open Sustainability Network. Stay tuned.
*Appropedia is not the only wiki in the network, but it’s active one, a number of the organizers were Appropedians, and no one objected. (I was the one who suggested a separate wiki, but happily went with the flow when no one agreed.) In that spirit, when Vinay Gupta suggested an OSN social network, I objected and suggest we use the one he started: Global Swadeshi.
(Pardon the recent silence on this blog. There’s a backlog of inspiration in the Appropedia community, and we’ll be sharing it here again very soon…)
It’s awesome, and we need to adapt it for OSNCamp… give it a greener hue, with more elements for physical design. Anyone want to take the lead for our own Geekiodic table, for tomorrow’s OSNCamp in San Francisco?
I gave this talk, “Ending Poverty with Open Hardware” in Reykjavik earlier this year. It addresses how open source appropriate technology could change the world and save millions upon millions of lives.
Appropedia and the open source appropriate technology movement that it support are key parts of reducing poverty and its effects worldwide. With the right tools, even very poor people can enjoy reasonable health and food security and we see free information sharing about solutions as being key to that global effort. Please do everything you can to support Appropedia, and if you can make it to San Francisco, come to the first annual Open Sustainability Network this weekend, 18th and 19th of October.
A question at BarCampAfrica: What use is a wiki, for the poor who have no internet?
First you need to develop the information the resource. But over time I’m sure the Appropedia community will put more and more effort into dissemination.
There are all kinds of ways of distributing offline content – in a computer (e.g. OLPC bundles), CD-ROM flash drives, hard drives, printouts (leaflets, booklets or books*), education programs based on content developed on the wiki.
Phones. A story was told at BarCampAfrica of a conversation in Africa. “Have you heard of Google?” “Yes, of course.” “Have you searched Google from a mobile phone?” “Of course – how else can you search with Google?” You only need one phone in the village with this capability to massively increase people’s ability to find information.
Villagers who have moved to the city to work, that maintain a connection to the village – if they have internet access, they can send or take the information back to the village.
That other way – the one none of us have thought of yet.
There’s no need to put weighting on the different channels. You might think #4 won’t be effective, for example. You may be right. For now, the important part is #1: Create the resource.
* This is one reason that it’s so important to use an open license that allows commercial use, so people can be motivated distribute this knowledge.
BarCampAfrica – The OLPC (laptop) project is another form of harmful subsidy, says one critic. It was a gentle critique – even the critic is a fan of the OLPC project in many ways (as am I – extremely cool tech and great educational ideas).
But it’s clear to anyone familiar with development issues that subsidies really are harmful, much of the time – and the speaker had examples of his own. Like the big headaches for ISPs in Africa when international aid organizations come in and dropping free connections on schools or communities. Such subsidies take out a whole chunk of the market that businesses no longer have access to – then when the aid organization leaves and goes somewhere else, the locals are left with local businesses that are weakened and less able to serve the community.
Now, I still see the OLPC as doing much more good than harm. Sure, they’re taking out a huge chunk of the market… but that market mostly didn’t exist before OLPC’s innovations made it possible to serve these people.
So, I like the suggestions: Open source the design*, let anyone build them, and keep the margin local.
On the other hand, I wonder if there is any possibility of a market-based solution that achieves OLPC’s aims, especially saturation. But if a no-subsidy model leads to more effective markets and institutions, then that may be a more important achievement. It also leaves space for more innovation – e.g. variations on the Educational Television Computer (a.k.a. the $10 computer).
* Actually, isn’t it already open source…? Help me out here...
As with all posts in this blog, the views expressed here are those of the poster, and don’t necessarily represent the Appropedia community.
Can anyone add to our page on appropriate technology villages? There must be examples out there. (If our wiki isn’t friendly enough for you yet, then feel free to leave a comment here.)
My trip to Latin America is drawing near, so I’m personally very interested in examples in Latin America, that would welcome a traveler for a short visit. Heck, if they have broadband, and some need that I can help out with, then a long visit might even be on the cards.
*or eco-villages that care about affordability and usability (because an affordable and usable sustainable technology is most of the way to qualifying as an appropriate technology).
A collaborative workspace, both to grow the library, and for plotting real-world action.
A networking tool. While our platform (MediaWiki) is not designed as a social networking tool, this is a community full of hardcore sustainability buffs and problem solvers from around the world, and from all walks of life.
A “shell” within which communities can operate, serving their members and connecting with partners both local and distant. A community of communities, if you will.
A way of increasing profile & findability.
A way of increasing synergy. Why work on a greywater treatment page on a locally focused site, that will have a small number of contributors and readers, when you can work with a global community on making an awesome page?
You can have your own pages on your own projects, too, as part of a collection of designs from around the world. Be like the developer of the Home biogas system (Philippine BioDigesters), who received emails of thanks, along with design improvements, from around the world.
This was prompted by a question from Steven Walling during a a recent presentation on Appropedia. It made me realize how far ahead Appropedia is when I envisage it, compared to what a visitor to the site sees today (e.g. the greywater treatment page is one-twentieth or one-hundredth as good as I’d like to see it). People already say how great the site is, but I foresee something much, much greater.
(I know I say “around the world” a lot, but hey, that’s what Appropedia is about!)