Tech and Design for Social Change – After the Hype
Recently, I’ve been posting about innovative gadgets (health-related devices last month and fresh water yesterday). We’re experiencing a unique and exciting cultural moment: while design and innovation once trended towards the production of sophisticated, expensive technology, innovators are now creating elegantly simple and inexpensive solutions that have the potential to make a big impact on the world’s problems.
But it’s important to remember that creating lasting social change takes more than just a gadget or technology, no matter how revolutionary. The infamous PlayPump fiasco illustrates the potential pitfalls of models that rely on a new device without seeing the bigger picture.
PlayPump, a South African venture, touted its water pump as a much more efficient alternative to traditional hand pumps. The pump, designed to work like a merry-go-round, was supposed to provide water solely via the energy of the kids that played on it.
The hype reached a new level in 2006 when politicians and celebrities, including Laura Bush and Jay-Z, endorsed the organization and pledged to raise millions of dollars to support the installation of PlayPumps across southern Africa. (CNN, National Geographic, MTV, and even Changemakers jumped on board to support what we thought was an innovative, sustainable design.)
Three years and millions of charity dollars later, many of the pumps were non-operational. They had broken, and the villages where the pumps were installed had no means to fix them—PlayPump’s maintenance hotline never returned their calls. Nor did the villages have access to the old pumps they had relied upon, leaving them hard pressed to find water long distances away.
A report commissioned by the government of Mozambique called the PlayPumps, “a real disaster,” noting that many PlayPumps had been installed in villages without the communities’ consent. Many were placed in areas with few children, where older women were forced to hand-spin the pumps with great difficultly.
The rise and ultimate crash and burn of PlayPump was a tragedy for the villages it harmed, an important lesson for future innovators about the myopia that can surround a seemingly good idea.
Another high-profile gadget, Life Straw, is now coming under scrutiny for its misunderstanding of how most Kenyans get their drinking water and its “bogus application of carbon credits” to offset the high cost of its product. Technology can save lives, but only if we grasp the complete picture about the lives of those who use it.
For the developing world, end-user education and strategies for community-based uptake are equally as important as innovation. Recently, the “Simple Fixes” series on The New York Times featured a team of researchers working in Bangladesh that discovered that filtering water through a sari cloth folded four times was able to reduce the number of cholera bacilli by 99 percent.
Over 18 months, cholera in the program’s pilot villages decreased by 50 percent—comparable to the results produced by expensive nylon filters. Five years later, however, the women who had been trained to use the sari system had nearly all given up the practice.
The solution seemed to have done everything right. It was cheap, simple, and used components that were readily available to its target population. But nurturing the uptake of a new set of behaviors takes a deep understanding of on-the-ground factors, strong grassroots support, and dedicated community leaders working in the field.
Do you know of a solution that combines design and technology with an uptake strategy?
For more food for thought on design and creating true impact, check out this fascinating talk by Kevin Starr, director of the Mulago Foundation.