computing, design, environment

Design can change the world

My new favorite t-shirt says “design can change the world”. I got it from a cool little not-for-profit whose cunning designs have a disproportionate impact in solving problems in developing countries.

Their current flagship project, the hippo roller, though not much more than a tough plastic barrel and pulling handle, is beginning to have an immense impact on the role of women in developing societies.

Hippo RollerIn many small villages a large proportion of a woman’s day is spent fetching water. This design allows a single person to transport a much larger amount of water much more quickly with much less effort (I might be able to push a car, but I could never carry one on my head). The beauty of this invention isn’t just in the immediate benefit of more water, but in the benefits that flow downstream (all puns intended) of freeing women and children up from this back-breaking work and giving them time to focus on education and self-improvement. This then has a massive cumulative beneficial impact on the rest of the village. All this just from applying a very old solution (the wheel) to a very old problem. Social change through re-inventing the wheel.

Darfur StoveIn a similar vein Engineers Without Borders have been applying advanced design to alleviate a growing problem in Dafur refugee camps. The problem is that collecting firewood is becoming an increasingly dangerous activity. The area immediately surrounding the camps has been denuded of tinder so the women have to go further and further to gather the wood required to feed their families. This has the double-whammy impact of both increasing malnutrition as less meals are cooked and increasing the chances of being mugged or raped by the marauding gangs in the outlying areas.

The solution the clever kids from Berkeley designed to meet this problem is beautifully simple – make a more efficient stove. The more efficient the stove, the less fuel you need to cook the same amount of food. The less fuel you need, the less time needs to be spent scavenging. The less wood that is removed from around the camps, the less the resources get depleted. The less the resources get depleted, the more people the area can sustain. That’s what I call a virtuous circle.

Inveneo LinuxAnother not-for-profit I’ve been lucky enough to be involved with, Inveneo, have a more high-tech solution, but a similar understanding of how to trigger these positive feedback loops by introducing efficiency gains early on in the process. Even though you may pay more for the hardware, if you draw down less power the downstream benefits are magnified to dwarf the initial outlay. By improving the power consumption of their hardware and software Inveneo manage to make computing infrastructure affordable enough for poor societies to sustain the ongoing costs themselves.

What ties these all together is maximizing the efficiency of resource utilization – getting more results from less input. But what makes it even better is that the beneficial results seem to be exponential. The savings fan out as the compounding effects of the initial efficiencies multiply.

The eureka moment for me was realizing that changing the world needn’t involve a lot of hard work – it’s all about leveraging small efficiencies. Archimedes knew this when he said “give me a fulcrum on which to rest and I will move the world.” By increasing efficiency at an early stage in a process the benefits compound along the way, giving us the lever required to shift the direction of our resource depleting way of life.