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.

64 thoughts on “Rethinking innovation

  1. Pingback: Ken Banks
  2. Pingback: Mission MANNA
  3. Pingback: changefeed
  4. Steve Daniels says:

    These would not be considered “traditional” appropriate technologies since they are not produced locally and do not employ local materials or labor (maybe sales?). As good as the West has become at delivering products to the BOP, we must be careful not to breed a continent of consumers as structural adjustment did in the 1980s. The focus must also be on production or otherwise ensuring that these products generate income in other industries e.g. agriculture.

  5. Pingback: Metanomy Inc.
  6. Pingback: Ken Banks
  7. Pingback: Joel Braunold
  8. Pingback: JoeTurner
  9. Pingback: Asteris Masouras
  10. Pingback: @mikegechter's RSS
  11. Pingback: midwan
  12. Pingback: midwan
  13. Pingback: Dave Stone
  14. Pingback: Dave Stone
  15. Pingback: Nish McCree-Hale
  16. Pingback: Nish McCree-Hale
  17. Steve Daniels says:

    You’re right Ken that mobile has changed the way we think about these technologies and has become a powerful icon for the “new” appropriate technology since it is such an important platform for bridging the information gap. However, there is a notion in many countries (I know it is very entrenched in Kenya) that local products are poorly made, and people prefer imports. How are local manufacturers (most of which were killed off after structural adjustment anyway) supposed to compete? Even Kickstart, whose original mission was to employ local informal manufacturers in the production of income-generating products, eventually outsourced to China (at least this was to the direct benefit of local agricultural producers). The “other 90%” movement needs to get back to thinking about production, not just consumption. The maker movement is headed in that direction and we should think about how to bridge the gap between the two movements, but manufacturing is an area a lot of Westerners are afraid to touch because it’s a messy industry and no longer our expertise. Perhaps China and India are better suited to set up factories now.

  18. Steve Daniels says:

    By the way, I just remembered this is essentially the thesis of the book I just wrote (released soon, I’ll keep you posted Ken). Funny how that happens.

  19. Pingback: Roos Korste
  20. Pingback: Roos Korste
  21. Pingback: Karolina Kukielka
  22. kiwanja says:

    @Steve – Great! Would be really interested in reading that.

    @JoeTurner – Interested in why you think this is bad aid, but more importantly aid at all? I never saw it that way.

  23. Pingback: Dennis Dimick
  24. joe says:

    Yeah, well several issues there. One being exactly what aid is or is not. I’m not sure this is the best place to have that long discussion (but I have been having it over the last few weeks in several places).

    Regarding these innovations, the question is the value that they actually bring to the recipients over and above the glow of positivity it gives the inventor and/or commercial company marketing the product. The Playpump (and similar products) are and always were a dumb idea. Whether or not you define them as aid is immaterial, the investment is not worth the outcome.

    Similar kind of thing for the footballs – how much extra do they cost, given that the vast majority of African boys do not have footballs, how much do they cost to distribute compared to the perceived benefits? Would it not be better just to distribute footballs and/or ordinary batteries? If one cannot distribute solar chargers and batteries, how is a football supposed to be better distributed? How long will a football last when played on rough football pitches?

    The lightbulb might be actually meeting a real need, but again similar questions could be asked. And if the issue to be addressed is , I’d think it’d be far more effective to spread low tech solutions – rather than the new high tech.

    Appropriate technology was never about just promoting new innovation. When I was in agricultural lectures some years ago, they used to say that yields could be increased by a number of factors, but most important was improving farmer eduction. All the other steps made a difference, but the biggest – and perhaps most difficult – was education. There is no point in imagining that there is a silver-bullet tech answer when the underlying issues have not been addressed.

  25. joe says:

    And you’re right, light is an issue. I’ve experienced people who live in slum dwellings in areas without electricity who exist in the pitch black at night.

    I’m not sure how my experience of this reality makes this good or bad, however. The issue is not that there is no problem but whether the solution could really be expected to do something about it.

  26. Pingback: Tom Schrieber
  27. kiwanja says:

    @Joe – I think drawing a distinction between aid and products is absolutely crucial here. To take advantage of opportunities in new markets you have to build for your customer. Cheap cars in India are cheap because there’s a massive untapped potential which can be met in large part by price. Read some of Paul Polak’s work on this.

    I was curious about your experience of lack of light because I’m not sure if it’s for you to say how rubbish these designs or products might be, but rather the people they’re aimed at. If they buy them because they’re useful and appropriate, then great. If they really are rubbish, then no-one will buy them and they’ll crash and burn.

    From my perspective, one of the biggest problems in development these days is a general culture to discredit attempts to solve problems when the person doing the discrediting has no personal experience of the problem. This is dangerous and hugely destructive. If you’d like to see what impact a solar powered bulb may have in rural Zambia, for example, I suggest going out and spending some time there. That’s not a dig at you, but I think we seriously need to address the culture of negativity which is the default position for too many people in the ICT4D field.

  28. joe says:

    I think all criticism is positive. If a few more people had criticised the play pump then maybe a few less would now be sitting unused. I’m not having a dig at you, but you’ve no idea what my experience might or might not be. So why am I suddenly the issue? Are my questions not reasonable ones to assess the potential cost/benefits of this project?

  29. joe says:

    And anyway, I think your measure of the difference between aid and product is not borne out by the examples you use. The playpumps were never paid for by the communities where they were installed.

  30. kiwanja says:

    @Joe – You’re not the issue, Joe. And all criticism is *not* positive, not at all. If people have negative opinions then I think it’s only fair that they be challenged on why they think what they do. The number of times I’ve sat with people in marginal places who would kill for a solution to their lighting issue tells me that they’re the ones we should listen to.

    (And, as for Play Pumps, that was not the focus of the post).

  31. joe says:

    Playpumps were in the post, you brought it up not me.

    I don’t claim to be an expert on light bulbs, but I have some understanding of whether something is worth doing or it isn’t. The only way you can tell is by asking the kind of questions I list above.

    The only alternative is blindly launching every product someone dreams up and then wondering why it doesn’t work. Funnily enough, most businesses who are actually interested in their bottom line cannot afford to do that.

  32. Pingback: Ken Banks
  33. Pingback: Nat Geo Science
  34. Pingback: syednazirrazik
  35. Pingback: Ken Banks
  36. Pingback: Ajay Kumar
  37. Pingback: Dina Mehta
  38. Pingback: syednazirrazik
  39. Pingback: Juan CastaƱeda
  40. Pingback: Venkatesh K
  41. Pingback: arthurattwell
  42. Pingback: jrstahl
  43. Pingback: jimwitkin
  44. Pingback: vatsala dorairajan
  45. Pingback: jonathanmariano
  46. Pingback: Innovation Junkies
  47. Pingback: Eve Gray

Comments are closed.