Meeting the Standard: Tech & the Developing World

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Indian children wash their hands before eating their free supplementary diet snack at the nutrition centre of Apnalaya - an Indian NGO providing nutritious free meals to children.
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When Malawi teenager William Kamkwamba had a vision to make a windmill that could power a light to allow him to read at night, the world took notice.

“The windmill could pump water and generate electricity, pumping water meant irrigation, and a defense against hunger, and I said to myself that this is what I need to solve this problem," said Kamkwamba on The Takeaway back in 2009.

It's easy to fall in love with stories like his—they are triumphant moments that hold a world of hope within reach.

But the challenges for helping large segments of the rural and undeveloped world are far more complex, and fundamentally different from the path to success for one stellar individual.

Joining The Takeaway in our fourth and final installment of "Meeting the Standard" are two women who know a thing a thing or two about engineering on a global scale.

Heather Fleming is the CEO of Catapult Design, a product strategy firm designing tools for disadvantaged communities, and Noha El-Ghobashy, is the Managing Director for Engineering Workforce & Global Development at ASME.

Both women agree that while stars like Kamkwamba are bright spots for the future of some isolated and rural villages, there's no one-size-fits-all approach.

"One thing that we tend to do with our Western perspective is assume that even though these challenges are similar all across the globe, that you can apply a single solution that will fix every community or every country or every region," says Fleming. 

El-Ghobashy agrees, saying that communities are not monolithic, despite having similar needs of basic transportation, general health, and access to clean water and electricity. She says that when designing technology for the developing world, cultural norms and values must be taken into consideration—without this recognition, innovations for these communities cannot be successful. 

These needs are "incredibly complex," says El-Ghobashy. "There isn't an infrastructure to support a lot of the solutions long-term to be sustainable. If you don't build the capacity of the community to be able to repair the technology once it's broken—it's inevitable that it will break at some point—then it is going to be stored in a storage room somewhere and it will become junk."

According to El-Ghobashy, this type of "junking" problem happens all across the developing world—at the community level, at the household level and at the clinic level, where donated machines that are fairly complex end up in storage areas when they break down. 

"The danger in that is that it creates a dependency model and really doesn't move the needle on economic prosperity," says El-Ghobashy.

How then, is this problem solved? It begins with the design phase, says El-Ghobashy. At the start of the innovation process, the entire ecosystem of the solution needs to be taken into account—developers need to embrace the local marketplace, which often relies on informal economies. Additionally, using parts that are readily available aides in the success of a product or tool because of the ease with which it can be maintained or fixed when it does break down. 

"Being able to understand the behavior of the community and how they go about their everyday lives" is key, adds El-Ghobashy."Engineers really need to think outside of the technical boundary conditions and think about people as human beings, not using them as research projects. That's what makes us thinking about standards in this space so complex—for them to be successful, it requires that we have an infrastructure to support standards."

But how hard is it for engineers to get behind this kind of thinking? Fleming says its best to appeal to an engineer's intuitive nature.

"The worst thing you could possibly do as an engineer is deliver a solution that will fail in a year or two," she says. "Whether it be that it breaks and people don't know how to fix it, or whether it be that you've designed it in such a way that people aren't using it correctly and therefore still drinking dirty or unclean water but thinking that their children are not getting sick from the water because using this device that was supposedly engineered to some sort of standards."