Friday, July 31, 2009

Theory into Practice

The last week has been spent in the workshops, as teams finally had the chance to start building their prototypes. There has been some awesome progress made by all of the teams and there are individual project team updates on their way to the blog, very soon. So much has happened this week, and I’ve only got thirty minutes before we depart for the villages so as such this entry will be mainly picture based, but I’ll squeeze in as much description as possible!

Amy reminded the teams on Monday morning that a change in thought process was needed if they were to meet the deadline of having a first prototype ready for the village visits, due to take place on 3rd to 5th August. She told them to choose their approach, their workshop and just start building! She set about outlining some case studies which she felt could help the participants in understanding the following six aspects that should inform each of their designs:

Design for Affordability

Design for Usability

Design for Sustainability

Design for Manufacturability

Design for Re-use

Design for Failure

Amy and Ben went through each of these aspects of appropriate technology design individually and meticulously, but it was the final one, design for failure, that Amy stressed as the most important. She said that understanding that your device will fail is crucial and after that it’s all about trying to figure out when it will fail first, how it will fail, and then figuring out the best and worst failure modes and then trying to plan and design for the former. For example, if a part fails that can only be fixed by a blacksmith, then it becomes difficult for the villagers to service the device themselves, and thus it can become redundant pretty quickly. Despite all of this advice, Amy pressed home the point that there is no fail safe approach in design, “there are no solutions, only trade offs”.

Radikha, of the kid Friendly latrine team, gets specific with her measurements

Cutting some metal for the Shea Oil team, at Suame magazine

The Shea team discuss the specifications of their design

Later in the week, Ela Ben-Ur followed on from Amy’s presentation, giving an interactive session on the importance of User Based Design. The session was based on up-skilling the teams in how to get constructive user feedback on their prototypes, ahead of their village visits later in the week. If designs are to be accepted by the customer, it is crucial that they have some input into the design process as nobody knows better than they the nuances behind the everyday problems they face in their lives. Ela experimented with the group in the different ways you can gather feedback (a tech fair, smaller sessions, individual interviews etc) and she could not stress enough how important is the process of setting the stage just right, introducing the project and the idea just enough, and then letting the users come the extra mile themselves, so they really understand it and have a stake in it. Most importantly, “get the prototype out of your own hands!”

This was followed by our final session from Paul Hudnut, as he instructed us to think “Who really wants this?”. Determining just who your final product is aimed at (Nurses, Health Clinic, UN, EHO, villagers etc) is crucial and should constantly inform the design process. Paul told us that it’s all very well inventing things, but if you don’t market it you become a collector, rather than a disseminator. Thinking about scale is another element which needs to be at the forefront of the design process, he said. To help the participants understand where he was coming from, Paul introduced the concept of a proto-venture.The rest of the week was thankfully spent in the workshops, actually building things!

Gago and Carla's gifts for Amy and IDDS

The groundnut team work on the mechanism for their device

Rajnish from Recycled Plastic Products with his Plastic heating iron

Hanging the sachets out to dry....

Water shortage!

The Chlorine Production team busy at work in the lab

The Small Scale Energy Storage team doing some experimenting on the 4th floor

A Guatemalan (Jose) teaches a Tibetan (Gago) how to speak Spanish
Jennifer, from the Small Energy Storage team, busy at work!

The Electric Carousel Generator team, work outside at Suame Magazine
Suprio and Laura, of the Chlorine Dosing team, discuss one of their prototypes
Joseph leads the Cassava team in a discussion about the usability of their device
The Agricultural machinery workshop men helping to construct the monstrous rice thresher

Welding some of the final parts together

Jess, of the Chlorine Production team, and Daniel, of the Shea Oil Extraction group, help each other out in the workshop

Jess feeds the troops as they attempt to meet their most important deadline yet!

Our bright, new, freshly silk screened IDDS t-shirts

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Monday, July 27, 2009

Potluck Dinner!

If Sunday was about sharing cool ideas and cool technologies, then today was all about sharing cultures and, most importantly, food! The third annual IDDS Potluck dinner took place this evening, much to the delight of participants and organizers alike. Amy has repeatedly said that IDDS is about ‘creating a family’ and the potluck is one of those events that seems to be bind people together as readily as it satisfies their stomachs! Over the weekend the teams were given the chance to go and source some of the ingredients central to their dish, and this in itself provided quite a few stories. The Indians in particular had quite the adventure. They started by asking questions on the street and were eventually directed to an electronics store run by an Indian man, and he duly sent them on their way to the largest Indian food store in Kumasi!

With dishes from over twenty countries to look forward to, the teams worked hard through Monday morning and afternoon, before reconvening at the hostel to begin the preparations. As we began setting up outside in the parking lot, the smells wafting down from the suites set more than a few stomachs rumbling. The camaraderie on show in the kitchens added extra evidence to the philosophy on life that stresses that you don’t really know someone until you’ve cooked with them. Some of the participants have more experience than others in the kitchen but that didn’t dissuade people from getting stuck into the process, learning some new skills along the way. If all else fails, there’s always wash up duty right!? Being from Ireland, with none of my country folk around me, and not being able to cook meant that I was left with very choice for my dish…

My dish was a little less labor intensive than everyone elses

The Tanzanians work on preparing some Ugali with sauce

The Colombians share a joke during the cooking

Eric takes his cooking seriously. Very seriously.

By the time all the participants got their food down to the pot luck My taste buds couldn’t quite believe their luck, as the food source moved from plain bread and baked beans to Indian Buttered Chicken, Guacamole, Buckeye’s, Maccaroni and Cheese, Ugali, Red-Red as well as dishes whose name I can’t remember. Amy kicked the proceedings off with a mini-call to arms and I was delighted to see that there was a scramble for my ‘dish’ first due to its limited supply. The British, not content with the Bangers and Mash which they supplied, had brought hundreds of little British flags and true to their proud nation’s history, attempted to colonize every other dish that had been brought to the table. Thankfully we put together a team of Indian, African and Irish rebels, and we eventually managed to root out even the most subtly hidden flag.

A tasty treat, all the way from Guatemala!

Patricia from Sierra Leone got into the spirit of the occasion!

Some gorgeous exotic deserts were followed by some American Ice-Cream and chocolate sauce and despite our full stomachs, we finished up the evening by learning some cultural dance moves. Indian, Ghanaian and Brazilian dancing were the order of the day, with a small cameo from Paul from Sierra Leone thrown in for good measure. A massive clean up ensued after which we all settled in for the night, getting ready for a day of building and prototyping tomorrow!

Laura teaches Andres some moves in front of some avid spectators

The ultra slick Sumit provided the tunes for the occasion

Don't worry, I'll be adding some recipes to the blog once we collect them from the participants at the end of the conference!

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Sunday, July 26, 2009

Learning 'How To'

The teams had Saturday completely free and many of the participants took the opportunity to go down to Cape Coast to see the beach and to visit the slave castles that Barack Obama visited on his recent trip to Ghana. From all accounts, it was an eerie experience for all involved. Tombo Banda, an organizer and participant from Malawi, said that seeing the dungeons where they used to keep slaves before sending them off, and the awful conditions that they suffered there, really impacted upon her and made the historical episode much more real. Definitely something I’m planning to check out after the conference is finished.

Sunday was another day off, but this time the focus was on knowledge sharing, an integral part of the IDDS experience. A number of the participants and organizers had agreed to organize ‘how to’ sessions, teaching their fellow participants about their area of expertise and in some cases, actually building some cool technologies! The how to sessions were thought up by Amy at the first IDDS, as she realized that with participants coming from such a huge range of disciplines and backgrounds, they themselves could actually teach each other about cool technologies, rather than simply learning from Amy and the staff. Judging from the enthusiasm that was brought to bear upon the whole event, it seems that everyone is eager to imbibe new skills and methods!

Learning ‘how to’ draw like Nathan

Nathan, just so you all know, is the awesome photographer who has been taking nearly all the pictures on my blog. He is also a participant and an organizer and somehow manages to find the time to sketch during this manic five weeks we call a conference. He decided to attempt to teach a group of us how to sketch like him, and over twenty of the participants turned up to find out the secret behind his cool drawings. Of course, there was none. He started out by outlining the basic shapes that comprise all objects in the worlds which we draw, and how to draw them. He moved on to the methods of shading and outlining that form a central part of drawing caricature, before finishing on showing how to draw inanimate objects, something that could prove exceptionally useful for the participants sketching out their designs.

Nathan instructs his aspiring arttists

Marketing for BOP Technologies led by Bon Nanes

Bob Nanes, from International Development Enterprises (IDE) Ghana, has been at IDDS for a week and a half now, providing informal advice to the teams about potential markets for their products. In the spirit of the ‘how to’ sessions, he gave a superb session on the ways in which to approach marketing for the ‘bottom billion’ and I think the two quotes below are the basis of what he was trying to teach:

"You don't sell people a product, you sell them a dream. You may be making a chlorine water purifier, but you are selling them the vision of healthy children."

"Don't reinvent channels. There are hundreds of companies marketing to the BOP: soap, cigarettes, beer, buckets and batteries. NGOs always want to start a new channel, and it is usually a big mistake. Better to piggyback on what is there."

AS these two were going on, there were also som pretty cool demonstrations taking place concurrently, all around the hostel. Miguel presented the idea of the solar water heater, made out of simply 21 empty 2-litre water bottles, PVC pipe and tetra cartons. Using only this cheap material the device can heat the water past 55C, which is pretty cool! Other how-to's included a bamboo bicycle, pedal powered machines, biogas digester and a ceramic water filter. The variety on offer meant that every participant could find at least one session they were interested in and even though the sessions were optional, almost everyone made it to both sessions.

Miguel explains the Solar Water Heater

"Here's one I made earlier..."

Lisa and Jodie with the Bamboo Bicycle

Later in the evening a group of the participants set about making one of Carla's cool designs using recycled material. I think the results below speak for themselves!

Carla's group worked for five and a half hours to construct this!

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Friday, July 24, 2009

Suame Design Review

Today marked the first official design review of IDDS 2009. Each team was tasked with giving a presentation on their project so far, the sketches of their designs, and what they hope to build over the coming weeks. The purpose of the reviews is to give the teams the chance to get feedback on their current plans, right before they actually begin the building itself. In attendance were some of the workshop managers from Suame and some faculty engineers from the University but it was often the participants themselves who provided the advice and critique needed. Teams will take this information away with them, come up with some modifications on their design, and hopefully be building more efficient and practical prototypes next week.

Nathan Cooke, a participant, organizer and photographer at this year’s conference, remarked that the trips to Suame Magazine are the best for photo opportunities, simply because “everyone has a smile on their face”. The group descended on the ITTU in the late morning, and just about had some time for a serving of Jollof Rice, before getting the design reviews underway. The twelve project teams were split into three groups, and their reviews ran concurrently in three separate rooms. The groups went as follows:

Water, Sanitation and Health

Chlorine Dosing

Local Chloring Production

Kid Friendly Latrine

ICT Enabled Baby Monitoring

Energy and Environment

Small Scale Energy Storage

Cool Storage

Recycled Plastic Products

Portable Hydro Powered Light

Agricultural Processes

Groundnut Threshing

Cassava Processing

Rice Threshing

Shea Oil Extraction

The Kid Friendly latrine team, looking forward to their trip to Suame

Sean preps himself for the Rice Threshing presentation

Evan showcases his very own 'prototype' for the ICT Enabled Baby Monitor team

I personally sat in on the agricultural design reviews, and these were of great interest to the workshop men at Suame Magazine, as they have been involved in creating machines for increasingly the productivity of agricultural processes for decades. The experience they had to share was clear throughout the review, as they listened intently to what the teams had to say before proffering suggestions of how to improve the design.

The first team up were the groundnut threshing team, working on a mechanism for threshing groundnut’s from the plant speedily and without waste (a task that requires a substantial amount of time). They were quickly followed by the Cassava team, attempting to create a low cost machine to peel and grind Cassava, a crop common to the region. The Rice Threshing tram told the story of how they have changed from their original project of removing small stones from rice, to actually cutting off the stones at source, by coming up with a way to thresh the rice efficiently. Finally, the Shea Oil team gave us a detailed description of the time worn, arduous twelve step process that is currently used by the village women to extract the valuable oil from the nuts, before outlining their alternative, time saving method. Joe, a brilliant mechanic from the ITTU, brought out a prototype mid-presentation that he had made in line with speeding up the process. That should give the team plenty to think about over the next few days!

George Obeng introduces the Groundnut threshing team to the group

Daniel Kanter of the Shea Oil team plays around with a previous model

Later that evening, the teams had a chance to unwind at the Engineering Guest House, and catch up with each other outside of the project/work environment. We are delighted to finally have with us Ariel Phillips from Harvard University, one of the lead organizers of IDDS since its inception. Ariel became quite ill after a trip to India and it was feared she may not have been able to come to Ghana at any stage, and as such we are delighted she has finally made it here. Ariel specializes in group dynamics, something that will prove to be extremely important over the next few weeks if the teams are to create the prototypes they have put so much effort into designing!

Old friends, Sumit and Ariel, catch up

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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Entrepeneurship hits IDDS

There has been a nasty cold running around the IDDS family over the last few days but it has thankfully been replaced with a different kind of fever: Entrepreneurship! At a critical stage in their design process, just before the actual building of the prototypes themselves, IDDS shifts the teams focus to what may happen to their prototype when it is finished, and how they could get it to market. The teams thus learn how to design their product for the market right from the beginning, rather than simply coming up with a prototype and then adapting it to a specific group. This concept of Bopreneurship (entrepreneurship for the Bottom of the Pyramid) is an important focus of IDDS, as we look to ways to continue on the projects created here, once the five weeks of the conference has run it’s course.

Paul Hudnut was our key note speaker for the two days, and he’s a pretty interesting character in his own right. Introducing himself to us as an Entrepreneur, an Unrepentant Optimist and an Educational Arsonist, he began his presentation with a quote which he believed was central to what IDDS is all about. His belief that “Education is not about filling a bucket, but lighting a fire” is one that is shared by our commander in chief, Amy Smith, and it was this which informed the rest of his engaging and thought provoking presentation.

Paul introduces some new ideas to the group

Paul's told us that as entrepreneurs, we have to begin by asking ourselves two questions:

1.What sucks?

2 What are we going to do about it?

Once this has been decided,. it was Paul's advice to just start the venture and learn by doing, rather than by just thinking and speculating. The importance of knowing your market, and your potential customers, could not be stressed home enough, and this will surely force participants to think just who will buy their product, and then start designing it to meet their specific needs and wants. Making sure that "your goods are good and that your services serve". Paul then gave an example of a company called Envirofit which he co-founded with other staff and students at the University where he teaches, Colorado State. The company works in tackling indoor and outdoor air pollution by applying innovative technologies to reduce pollution and health improve the health, environment and economy of people in all parts of the world. The company has been a major success in designing, distrubuting and selling both two stroke retro-fit engines and cook stoves in Inida, the Phillipines and Sri Lanka. The main reason for the success, he argued, was alligning an intimate knowledge of the market and their consumers, with innovations on the technolgoy itself. To find out more about the company, visit

The teams had plenty of opportunites over the two days to meet with Paul informally to discuss the direction of their project and their ventures but there were also some interesting team entrepreneurship exercises which Paul intoruced to the group. One of the most interesting of these was the hundred words challenge. The teams had been told about the importance of being able to tell a story about their venture, and in this exercise they had to attmept to distill that story down into a hundred words that packed a punch!

The teams try to apply what they have learned to their designs

On Thursday evening we were treated to our third round of participant presentations and once again I was amazed at the variety of projects on show. I kicked proceedings off with a presentation of the start up clothing company I am involved in, Acts of Random Kindness Limited. This was quickly followed by Casserdy Magaya, a Zambian participant who presented on the work he does with an NGO in Zambia, called Disacare. The company was set up in the early 90’s and ever since has been attempting to provide mobility aids and wheelchairs for physically disabled people in the community, not served by existing ill fitting wheelchair models. Nowadays, Disacare is producing a huge range of products, including adult, basketball and cerebral palsy wheelchairs, as well as bicycle ambulances and tricycles.

One of the very first users of the mobility aids
A bicycle ambulance with cover included for privacy
A wheelchair designed for those suffering from cerebral palsy


Carla Tennebaum was next in line, showing us about the work she has been doing in creating colourful designs out of industrial waste. Turning a problem into potential is the central tenant of the work that Carla does, and we hope to get the chance to learn from her how to construct one of her art pieces, later in the week. The Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, located in Abu Dhabi, was presented to us by Laura Stupin, finishing up the round of presentations. The city of Masdar is a bold project, aimed at producing the first non-carbon, zero waste city in the world and Laura is currently working with the University there to establish an energy program that will be linked to D-lab in M.I.T. Exciting times!

Some of Carla's work

An artists representation of the futuristic City of Masdar

I’m going to take this opportunity to shamelessly plug the start up clothing company that I presented on, Acts of Random Kindness Limited. We’re four Irish kids (all under 22) about to embark on a pretty exciting adventure. We’re a clothing company on a mission to spread and inspire kindness globally and have one simple, yet powerful idea. Every time you wear the Λ° logo, you perform one Act of Random Kindness. Surprise your family with their favorite meal, take your best friend on a road trip, or just make a stranger's day by paying for their coffee. Kindness is the simple pursuit, no strings attached.

1. What sucked?

A lack of human interaction between ordinary people on a daily basis, rampant apathy among young people, and people living only for themselves. Everything in life becoming a transaction!

2. What are we doing about it?

Our company was set up in January of this year by an eighteen year old guy with a vision. We believe that through fashion, and through really cool t-shirts as the ‘hook’, we can help inspire a new generation who live to give. We’ll also be providing a means for people to get involved in larger, more tangible Ark’s that we hope will soon be having a positive impact on people all over the world!

To find out more about the movement visit our temporary website,, soon to become in September, when we launch to the world!

Here’s a quote that I think sums up exactly what we’re attempting to do:

Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them to become what they are capable of being

Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

Helping an old farmer cut turf for the weekend in the far West of Ireland

Here’s an old Irish proverb that I think encapsulates a lot of what Paul has been preaching over the last few days:

You will never plow a field if you only turn it over in your mind.

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