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Category — Appropriate technology

Appropriate technology: Lessons from nature

“Our life is half natural and half technological. Half-and-half is good. You cannot deny that high-tech is progress. We need it for jobs. Yet if you make only high-tech, you make war. So we must have a strong human element to keep modesty and natural life”

Nam June Paik, Artist (1932 – 2006)

There’s a saying in the technology world which asks “What would Google do?”. When I’m confronted with a problem, I’d rather ask “What would nature do?”. Why? Well, if you believe Google have the answer then you’re immediately assuming that modern technology – in some shape or form – is the solution. More often than not that’s the wrong place to start.

I recently sat on a panel at the Aspen Environment Forum which focused on the use of social media in the environmental movement. (You can watch the video here, or read my summary of whole the event here). Many people had already made their minds up that Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and so on were ‘the’ answer, before really thinking through what they were really trying to do, what their message was, or who the different audiences would be. That’s also the wrong place to start.

Asking what nature might do immediately pulls us away from looking for a modern, high-tech solution and more towards a simpler, low-tech (and potentially more appropriate and sustainable) one. It also encourages us to think entirely out-of-the-box.

So, if you were to ask “What might nature do?”, what kind of solutions might you come up with which you otherwise might not have?

1. Elephants

Some of my earliest mobile work back in 2003 was in Southern Africa where I was asked to help understand and apply modern communications technology to local conservation efforts. One of the bigger problems people were trying to tackle back then was human-elephant conflict – elephants ‘encroaching’ on farmland and destroying livelihoods literally overnight. In response, some farmers resorted to poisoning or shooting elephants. Not a good conservation outcome.

All kinds of modern technology solutions were proposed, and many trialled, to try and solve the problem. Electric fences, RFID tagging, sensors and live-GSM-tracking among them. Few proved as successful as hoped, or particularly replicable or affordable.

So, what might nature do?

It turns out that elephants run a mile when they encounter bees. According to this BBC article, early research in Kenya indicates hives can be a very effective barrier, so much so that 97% of attempted elephant raids were aborted. Where satellites, RFID tags and mobile phones failed, humble honey bees might just be the answer.

2. Pigeons

Each summer, as tennis players battle it out on the lawn courts at Wimbledon, the authorities do battle trying to stop pigeons interfering with play. All manner of modern technology is available to deter birds – lasers and radio controlled aircraft to gas guns and ultrasound emitters. Again, each have varying degrees of success and many can be expensive.

What would nature do?

Wimbledon’s answer doesn’t involve anything more high-tech than a bird of prey. A few laps by Rufus around the tennis courts are enough to scare the hardiest of pigeons away. No batteries – or lasers, or sound emitters – required. Simple, sustainable and replicable.

3. Wasps

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the grandly-named “Waspinator” was a little black box with wires, buttons and flashing lights. No doubt there have been attempts to develop high-tech wasp deterrents in the past, but the Waspinator isn’t one of them. In fact, if you saw one you’d likely be a little disappointed. This particular solution looks like nothing more than a brown paper bag. But don’t be fooled – nature has very much influenced its development.

According to the website:

The Waspinator is a fake wasps nest. Wasps are very territorial and will aggressively defend their nest against wasps from another colony. When a foraging wasp sees another wasps nest it will rapidly leave the area for fear of being attacked by the nest’s defenders.

Wasps have a very long range of vision and when they see a Waspinator they think it’s an enemy wasps nest and quickly leave the area for somewhere safer, leaving the area around the Waspinator completely free of wasps

It couldn’t be simpler. And no moving parts (if you exclude the wasps).

So, drawing on these examples, what five lessons does nature teach us?

1. Understand the context of your target audience/user.
2. Use locally available materials wherever possible.
3. Low-tech is not poor-tech.
4. Keep it simple.
5. The answer is likely already out there.

Next time we look to develop a technology solution to a problem, we might be best asking what nature might do before turning to the likes of Google, or any high-tech solution provider for that matter. Mother Nature usually knows best.

August 18, 2011   48 Comments

Mobile technology and the last mile

Since our founding in 2003, kiwanja.net has been primarily focused on serving the needs of the smaller, local, grassroots NGO community. FrontlineSMS is testament to that approach – a low-tech, appropriate technology which works on locally available hardware and without the need for NGOs to employ the services of teams of technical experts. We haven’t got everything right, and FrontlineSMS remains a work in progress, but we’re excited about where we are, how we got here and where we’re headed.

We were recently approached by Philip Auerswald, Editor of “innovations“, to write an article on that journey, and our approach to mobiles-for-development. The result was a tri-authored piece by three members of the FrontlineSMS team – Sean McDonald, Flo Scialom and myself. A PDF of that article – “Mobile technology and the last mile” - is available here.

About “Innovations”:
“The journal features cases authored by exceptional innovators; commentary and research from leading academics; and essays from globally recognized executives and political leaders. The journal is jointly hosted at George Mason University’s School of Public Policy, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and MIT’s Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship”.

Many thanks to Phil and the “Innovations” team for inviting us to contribute.

June 21, 2011   46 Comments

Mobile as exploration

It was early evening, 14th October, last year. I’d just received the email completely out of the blue. I’d had a long day in London, and was staying over for an early start the following morning. The email was from National Geographic, and it carried news that I’d been named an “Emerging Explorer“. Of course, I thought it was spam.

Because the nomination and selection process for these Awards are entirely confidential, I still don’t know to this day who nominated me. Not only that, but I also had to get my head around what on earth my work had to do with exploration. The email wasn’t spam, after all.

On reflection, it was a very bold move by the Selection Committee. Almost all of the other Emerging Explorers are either climbing, diving, scaling, digging or building, and what I do hardly fits into your typical adventurer job description. But in a way it does. As mobile technology continues its global advance, figuring out ways of applying the technology in socially and environmentally meaningful ways is a kind of 21st century exploring. The public reaction to the Award has been incredible, and once people see the connection they tend to think differently about tools like FrontlineSMS and their place in the world.

The Awards were made during “Explorers Week” in Washington DC in June. You can watch my 15 minute presentation (above), or read a short blog post of thoughts from the start of the week. We’ve also recently begun a new series on the National Geographic website – “Mobile Message” – designed to help spread the word on what mobile technology means for the developing world.

It was a huge honour to be the first mobile innovator to be named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. With the incredible progress being made by many other friends and colleagues, I’m confident I won’t be the last…

December 22, 2010   35 Comments

Spreading the “Mobile Message”

Over the past year or so, it’s become increasingly clear to us that we need to take the “mobile message” out of its technology silo and make it more available – and accessible – to a wider audience. This was the thinking behind our regular series on PC World, and is the thinking behind a new series we’re launching today in collaboration with National Geographic.

The “Mobile Message” is aimed at a broad audience, but most importantly people who would never likely visit a mobile-specific site. Recent talks at Communicate – aimed at conservationists – and Nat Geo Live! – aimed at the general public – have convinced us even more that we need to stop just talking among ourselves and take the message out to more mainstream, broader audiences.

According to the first “Mobile Message” posted today:

“Over the next few months we will delve into the human stories behind the growth of mobile technology in the developing world. We’ll take a closer look at the background and thinking behind FrontlineSMS, and hear from a number of users applying it to very real social and environmental problems in their communities. We will also hear thoughts and insights from other key mobile innovators in the field, from anthropologists to technologists to local innovators.”

You can read the rest of the introductory post on the National Geographic website here.

December 8, 2010   22 Comments

Video: Mobile Phones for Development

Date: Monday 20th September, 2010
Venue: London School of Economics
Speakers: Dr Jenny Aker, Ken Banks, Dawn Haig-Thomas
Chair: Diane Coyle

IGC Growth Week 2010 Public Discussion

“Mobile phones have the potential to contribute significantly to economic growth in the developing world, in both the private and public sector. From improving market information for fish traders in Lake Victoria, to enabling medical outreach services in rural South Asia, the mobile is a versatile and adaptable tool. What impact can mobiles have on those previously excluded from financial services and communications networks? Which policies will help turn the promise of mobiles into real benefits for the poorest people?

This session, moderated by Diane Coyle, OBE, of Enlightenment Economics, features a panel of researchers and practitioners sharing ideas and experience from the field, discussing a range of case studies from literacy and conditional cash transfer programs in Niger to SMS-based communications for rural hospitals in Malawi”.

Jenny Aker is assistant professor of development economics at The Fletcher School of International Affairs, Tufts University.

Ken Banks is the founder of FrontlineSMS and kiwanja.net.

Dawn Haig-Thomas is director of the GSM Association Development Fund.

Further details of the event, including an audio version of the discussion, are available on the London School of Economics website.

October 10, 2010   38 Comments

FrontlineSMS at The Feast ’09

I’ve always maintained that the greater the distance between an ICT4D ‘problem’ and the problem solver, the greater the chance of failure. The difficulty here is that quite often the problem and the resources available to fix it are in different places, and available to the wrong people.

While ‘we’ – those who rarely fully understand the problem – have easier access to the technology and funding, those who do more fully understand it don’t. This is why the current proliferation of local innovation and IT-focused business hubs across Africa is so exciting and has so much potential.

More via this short edited five minute talk I gave last year at The Feast in New York. Further in-depth thoughts on who might be best placed to run ICT4D and mobile-for-development (m4d) projects, check out this recent blog post, “Dissecting “m4d”: Back to basics“.

September 6, 2010   23 Comments

The rise of “user-experienced” innovation

Around the time of two recent talks – Thinking Digital in Newcastle (UK) and National Geographic (Washington DC) – much of the world’s tech media was focused on Apple. Both the iPad and iPhone 4 had hit the shelves in relatively quick succession, and many people were marvelling at the latest innovations from California.

To the everyday man and woman on the street, cutting-edge innovation has rarely been so tangible. Sure, the technology behind motor vehicles or aircraft has advanced rapidly in recent years, but often what makes these things clever is either hidden out of sight – a new fuel injection system in a car, or a new kind of braking system, for example – or they’re not things many of us would ever get to interact with – such as the latest fly-by-wire controls of an aircraft cockpit.

The staggering advance in the consumer electronics world has changed all that, and we’re now holding mobile phones in the palm of our hand which are infinitely more powerful than the computers which took man all the way to the moon and back. These devices are changing the way we live, and the way we interact with each other and our environment. Consumer electronics are particularly relevant in interaction terms because their primary purpose is to allow us to interact with them. Thanks to advances in the technologies behind mobile phones, tablet computers, gaming consoles and television among many others, cutting edge technological innovation has come to every individual man and woman on the street. It’s got personal.

That said, we’re living in interesting times. The rate of innovation is unprecedented. What we’ve seen happen with mobile technology in the last five years alone is beyond incredible, and you sense the rate of innovation is only speeding up. This may be in part down to the fact that these devices have both a hardware – device – component, and a software – usability – component, meaning there are twice the number of opportunities to innovate.

What I’ve been sensing lately, however, is a growing ‘backlash’ – for want of a better word – and a desire to build what are seen as purer, more sustainable, locally sourced, culturally relevant technology-based solutions. Although you could argue a certain romanticism in the approach, the fact of the matter is that most technologies being pushed out by the electronics industry remain relevant to only a small percentage of the global population. It’s not only down to cost either, although that’s a large part of it. It’s also down to the fact that many of these devices just don’t work in places without high-speed data networks and/or a mains supply to charge them nightly. Many people just don’t have that.

I’m writing this on a flight home from Washington DC, and have just watched a programme which featured a water-powered lift. The idea is brilliantly simple. The lift – which runs up a steep cliff – harnesses the power of the nearby river and uses gravity, one of the oldest and most sustainable of energy sources, to pull one of two carriages upwards while the other drops.

It’s such a simple but effective piece of engineering that if it broke you’d likely be able to find someone locally who could figure out how to fix it. That’s clearly been the case since it began operating 120 years ago.

The likes of IDEO, Catapult Design, IDE and D-REV are household names to anyone interested in designing and building “for the other 90%”, and I’m a big fan of the approach. I’ve been also been a big fan of the appropriate technology movement for some time, and am excited to be speaking at the “Small Is…” festival later this year. The irony is that despite all of this I work in a high-tech world which is about as far away from much of the appropriate technology work ethic as it could be. John Mulrow in World Watch Magazine recently wrote a great article about the relationship between mobile technology and appropriate technology, but for me many questions remain.

Our world is becoming increasingly dependent on information and communications technology and many local, indigenous, traditional ways of designing, building and doing are slowly being replaced, and in many cases lost, forever. I’m not entirely sure if that represents progress or not.

August 10, 2010   41 Comments

Rethinking innovation

Last week I had the incredible opportunity to talk about our work with FrontlineSMS at the National Geographic Explorers Symposium in Washington DC. A big part of what we do is to try and take the mobile message to an entirely new audience, and to help people re-think what innovation means in the developing world, using mobile technology as our lead.

It’s great to see such a revival of interest in appropriate technology, something I first became a fan of at University way back in 1997. As a sign of this growing interest, World Watch recently published one of the best and most comprehensive articles to date on “mobile technology as an appropriate technology”. You can read about that here, and it is well worth a look.

There are, of course, increasing examples of innovative applications of technology, particularly in the field of renewable energy and particularly in the developing world. Two recent and favourite examples are the solar-powered light bulb and the energy-harvesting football, both of which I’m a big fan of – not necessarily in the technology itself (although it is pretty neat), but in the approach.

Solar-powered light?

When I first heard about this I wasn’t sure if I’d read it right. A solar-powered light bulb? Well, the Nokero N100 is a solar LED bulb which can be left outside in direct sunlight during the day. This charges up its internal battery which then gives you up to four hours of light at night. It’s a brilliantly simple idea, and one which has huge potential in developing countries. Not only could it solve significant lighting issues for many households, but it also has positive health implications (replacing kerosine lamps) and, of course, potential benefits to the environment. More on the the Nokero N100 here.

Kid-powered football?

This was an instant favourite because of its sheer simplicity and brilliance. It’s not a million miles away from the Play Pumps concept, harvesting the ‘wasted’ energy of childrens’ play to generate electricity. While children kick the ‘soccket’ football around, it harvests the kinetic energy generated by the ball’s movement. A short ten minute kick-around charges an internal battery which can later power an LED bulb for up to four hours. There’s more on Soccket in this New York Times article by good friend Jim Witkin.

I don’t know about you, but I think we could do with these kinds of innovation everywhere.

June 15, 2010   64 Comments

Rethinking Schumacher

Ever since I came across Fritz Schumacher’s “Small is Beautiful” at University back in 1997, I’ve been a close follower of the appropriate technology movement. Although for many appropriate technology is associated with ploughs, stoves and farming implements, for some time I’ve been thinking about how it applies to the work we do with mobile. I tackled this in a PC World article a couple of years ago, and more recently in a blog post on how appropriate “cloud-based” mobile solutions are in a world where so many people are yet to be reliably connected to the web.

Now the World Watch Institute have taken the discussion a step further in an excellent article in the May/June edition of their magazine. In it, John Mulrow argues that, if carried out appropriately, Schumacher’s original concept of local initiatives, local ownership and local innovation can be applied to today’s mobile world, despite mobile phones being a technology often designed, developed and controlled from the ‘outside’. This is one of the best articles yet on mobile vs. appropriate technology, and is well worth a read.

“Think Mobile, Act Local” is available as a PDF here.

April 7, 2010   68 Comments

Mobile meets health on the margins

The timing of this article could not have been better, given the discussions last week on the merits of mobile-based “cloud computing” and the clarification of our position a couple of days later. Despite advances in mobile devices and data connectivity, the need for mobile tools to also be able to work in less than optimal conditions is still as strong and as relevant as ever, as this use of FrontlineSMS by Telecoms Sans Frontiers in Nicaragua shows us all too well.

TSF – No Bugs In This Software That Fights Disease
(re-printed with the kind permission of SatNews.com)
November 5th, 2009

“Since the beginning of October, Nicaragua is facing a huge rise of dengue cases, which has become a major public health concern in the country. The Health Ministry of the Central American nation (Minsa) has a crisis unit (SILAIS) which currently focuses its activities in response to both the dengue and H1N1 plagues. An Internet monitoring system has previously been set up to control the health situation in the country; nevertheless access to computer is often difficult in some regions where only few health centers are equipped.

TSF and FrontlineSMS TrainingDue to this serious situation, and the necessity to improve the collection of information, TSF, in collaboration with PATH (an international non-profit organisation that aims at enabling communities worldwide to break longstanding cycle of poor health) is reinforcing SILAIS’ capacities in Information and Communications Technologies.

In order to monitor the spread of the dengue in Managua and to conduct mobile health actions, TSF has been implementing for the first time a very innovative system based on a widespread, cheap and solid technology, GSM.

To set up the program, TSF uses FrontlineSMS software. Developed by a TSF partner NGO, FrontlineSMS is free, open source software that turns a laptop and a mobile phone into a central communications hub. Once installed, the program enables users to send and receive text messages with large groups of people through mobile phones. Thus, GSM technology is used to reach as many geographical zones as possible to control health issues in those areas. The server in SILAIS is connected with the 32 health units in Managua.

Each health unit has been delivered a mobile phone by TSF, so that they can send different kinds of information through SMS to the server. Hospital and health centers fill in predefined forms from their mobile phones and send them by SMS to SILAIS. Designed by PATH and the SILAIS, those forms provide data about the classic and hemorrhagic dengue cases, about the H1N1 2009 ones and the need for medicines when the stock nearly runs out. Once the forms received, the server stores information and puts them in databases in order to facilitate statistical analysis, on Excel format for example.

TSF provides two-way communication to health units enabling SILAIS to receive a daily report and gather messages from the health units and will have an updated situation in each center. At the meanwhile, SILAIS will also be able to communicate important information to them through SMS (such as an alert or a warning about coming meetings for example) or give them automatic answers to predefined questions sent by the health units.

Image courtesy Telecoms Sans Frontiers

By providing communication links between health structures and the SILAIS, TSF will allow the Health Ministry to have more accurate information about the diseases spread within Managua and quickly survey and assess the needs in affected areas. TSF helps health professionals use advanced methodologies such as smart phones and open-source software. Mobile devices are great tools to track and transmit crucial data in order to detect an epidemic threat at an appropriate time. Through this program, TSF participates in strengthening health systems in Nicaragua.

Following the installation of the system, on October 24th, TSF organized training for all the beneficiaries of the project. The health units and SILAIS staff were trained on the application’s functionalities and available services”.

For a related article on FrontlineForms, the FrontlineSMS data collection tool used by TSF for the project, go here.

November 9, 2009   32 Comments