"The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God." -St Irenaeus of Lyon

Posts tagged “living with technology

Crowdsourcing and Prototypes

This post carries on my summary of Clear Village’s Walled Kitchen Garden Project running in partnership with Imogen Heap’s composition of #heapsong3. Saturday morning we cleared the field; Saturday afternoon we started the collaborative design process.

Sunday morning brought the largest team to the site. The team hailed from many diverse locations. I travelled from Southern England, while others travelled from the other areas in England, United States, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Cyprus to join in the fun. Everyone worked around their own obligations with some people making a holiday of the workshop while others bounced around as they needed to. Martin greeted us on Sunday by mucking around on the guitar while other facilitators explained the project to the people joining in. With all the new faces, we hit “Rewind” on the design workshop, choosing to prototype an element of all of the designs.

Creativity gets unleashed with an incubation period. After the feedback session from Saturday, we could identify the strengths of each design to see if it was feasible. Saturday morning found us trying to prototype a reciprocating roof made of bamboo, a repetitive tripod structure, a free-standing triangular structure (affectionately dubbed “The Cheesecake”), and a central pole people’s pavilion that could serve as the entrance. My group was working on the central pole design.

I wanted the design to have some echoes of the local environment. Too many “new” structures stick out like a sore thumb because they lack continuance with other things around. On Saturday, we experimented with tripods made of fallen sycamore trees so we had two reasonably straight sycamore trunks with a fork. We brought one fork down from to the field for our prototyping. Continuance came from using the sycamore as the central part of the design. Our design called for putting the sycamore in the ground to anchor it. The trunk went straight up and down so I wanted it stable. No trees crashing down on my head, please.

Incidentally, the first thing we wound up prototyping was digging the hole. Our field was mostly a heavy clay soil. It had compacted considerably. Digging the holes proved rather fitfully difficult. We started working with the spades, but the soil was hard, the spades didn’t move the soil easily, and it was easier for us to go out rather than down. Then someone brought us the hole borer. The hole borer was sized almost ideally to our task. But the soil proved incredibly resilient. We would get the borer down 2 to 5 inches, it would get stuck, we’d pull it out, and then clean out the loose soil with hand spades or by hand. If nothing else, my team had the technical knowledge of working in the space.

When we got the central pole in, we placed the four bamboo rods that would be supporting the netting overhead. Our design called for four more holes to be dug to support bamboo poles that would give height to our pyramid (enabling people to walk around the structure). Since we purchased pre-cut bamboo, the bamboo itself served as a natural measuring stick. One 4-metre length of bamboo determined the side. We also had to figure out how to support the various angles coming together with lashing.

And other prototypes started to fill the field….

We learn so much about design when we actually try to build and install them. The “Cheesecake” team found some stability issues when they wanted to keep their structure free standing. The “Reciprocating Roof” team found that there’s actually a lot of knowledge required to make a roof self-support so they wound up pulling the plug on that feature. The “Tripod” team realised that they could get adequate support on two legs. And my “Centre Pole” team learned that digging holes is fitfully difficult.

When the gardeners could walk around the structures, they had a distinct preference for the openness of our centre pole structure. And as the stones were cast, the centre pole formed the base concept.

Tune into the blog tomorrow for our recording session with Imogen Heap.


A Life Marked by Absolute Insanity

I’ll be honest. I’m a risk-taker. I like big crazy projects that seem to have global import. In that spirit, I decided to seek greater understanding of global poverty and international development through creative self-financing, a convenient change in US student loan policies for overseas institutions, a small grant through a private foundation, and a seemingly inane professional choice relative to completing my PhD. For me, helping engineers respond to global poverty required a deeper knowledge of why poverty persists in the world despite claims that the Industrial Revolution had potential to lead to progress for all. Yes, even Adam Smith pointed to the promises of industrialization when it comes to ending poverty. 250 years later, poverty seems more entrenched now than ever. Looking at places of “big promises” it doesn’t seem to matter where you start. The last big push to make poverty history came with the UN Millennial Declaration in 2000; but all forecasts say the goals are likely to remain unmet.

If I have learned anything about poverty in the last year, it is that poverty has more persistence than ever. Lots and lots (and lots and lots…) if people try to “do something” about poverty, but it seems that many blunders come from the well-intentioned. I never mean to fault the well-intentioned. But being well-intentioned still differs from being well-informed.

When an organization has been around a while, commentators can focus rather specifically on one stage of the project. Many people describing how the Grameen Bank works to alleviate poverty focus exclusively on Yunus’s model detailed in the first edition of Banker to the Poor. The Bank employs a very active learning cycle so various forms of financial services have been piloted and developed through Grameen Bank. Moreover, microfinance is a much wider category than the Grameen Bank. Microfinance could be regarded as “development’s silver bullet” in the 1990s with everyone pioneering different models simultaneously. Many people tried to replicate Yunus’s original Grameen model with some varying degrees of success; other more established corporate interests came in on the guise of “financial inclusion” for the poor and highly profitable banking services. The upside is that many mircofinance schemes have been explored and evaluated.

Today I came across a blog post advocating a collective investment model in microfinance. The idea would be to extend a loan to a group that had a business opportunity. Specifically, the following articulation of the plan in action caught my attention:

a person in the BOP forms a group of between ten to twenty people living below the poverty line. The group then goes through one week of training after applying for a loan from a microfinance institution or organization, starts a group investment and hopefully generates income.

It is truly a piece of innovative thinking. I cannot find any reference to the collective investment model in any of the journals I subscribe to. My collection is limited, so I turned to the library supporting my studies in development: collective investment appears nowhere. Google Scholar is temperamental with keywords so I started with “collective investment model” and found one reference in a law journal; scholastically “collective investment” blows up so I returned to a broader Google search to try to figure out where this idea comes from. While Wikipedia is surely not the best source, collective investment schemes have at least one clear history in developed countries where investors pool risk. I started digging around a bit because I cannot imagine how this model would be successful amongst the world’s poorest because the financial lives of the poor reflect incredibly dynamic and social arrangements. The idea of an financial institution enforcing a group repayment system without having some way of interacting at individual level just seems like an absolute nightmare.

Moreover, it is very easy to be looking for the Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid apart from some key observations by C.K. Prahalad. Prahalad notes that businesses can be profitably while trying to eradicate poverty, but he also notes that the poor consistently pay premiums on services higher than expected. The poor already use these services. If a business can improve access to the service and while making it cheaper than the existing ad hoc options, then a business likely as a viable shot.

So while I can appreciate the suggestion that a group of poor persons might benefit from some access to venture capital, I’m not sure it makes a lot of sense to start with a biogas facility. The Field Guide to Environmental Engineering for Development Workers has but one mention of biogas in a section on air quality:

Biogas emits less particulate matter and can be obtained from crop residues, manure, and even latrines. However, biogas systems are perceived as being more expensive to implement, and they require a level of coordination and technical experience that sometimes restricts them to larger projects (p 496).

Sustainable Wastewater Management in Developing Countries speaks reasonably highly of biogas systems while proposing that sanitation technologies get evaluated along 6 dimensions according to 10 guiding principles. The system articulated for wastewater processing of a hospital comes reasonably close to the population density of the slums, but this system does not use biogas generation.

Asking the poor to assume financial liability for a biogas facility just seems absurd, especially if the advocates for the Collective Investment Model want the poor to come up with the idea for a biogas facility. With considerable historic NGO practice, it might be a reasonable starting point to ask why the NGOs left the slum. I am not suggesting to leave the slum to its own devices, but it does make some reasonable sense to get the lay of the land.

To be completely clear, I think there is value in cooperative ownership and new models for technology. The poor often make their livelihoods, processing the waste in the rest of the world; expanding opportunities for scavengers might be completely fitting. As an engineer, I think considerable attention must be paid to the right design for the job. Within larger asset transfers to create new livelihoods for the poorest of the poor, I do not think people could go wrong in  talking with BRAC. Acknowledging that there might be economic possibilities for a viable business does not mean that things unfold as planned.


E.F. Schumacher and Small is Beautiful

After reading Small is Beautiful by E.F. Schumacher this week, I think the book gets roundly misunderstood and misappropriated by various concerns. I read the book for its discussion around intermediate technology as Schumacher’s book established rhetorically the “appropriate technology” movement.What I found in the book is a much broader discussion about human concerns around production. His book is a rather scathing critique to advance an unpopular thesis: we have not solved the problem of production. For the clearest articulation as to where we have failed relative to production, I quote Schumacher:

To use the language of the economist, [the modern industrial system] lives on irreplaceable capital which it cheerfully treats as income. I specified three categories of such capital: fossil fuels, the tolerance margins of nature, and the human substance.

Looking at Schumacher’s thesis positively, Small is Beautiful positions production within a broader metaphysical argument. Specifically, Schumacher longs to see an orientation towards technology that embodies both non-violence and permanence. He differentiates between mass production and production for the masses. The articulation of production for the masses is likely the predecessor to “Bottom of the Pyramid” style businesses.  When you connect all three of Schumacher’s exhortations about tools and methods, the Bottom of the Pyramid connection becomes clear:

Cheap enough so that they are accessible to virtually everyone; suitable for small-scale application; and compatible with man’s need for creativity

Schumacher’s articulation that technology needs to be of a human-size is an important realisation. His discussion around long-term feasibility studies offers some value over forecasting documents. “Does this strategy have long-term feasibility given a range of conflicting demands on the resource base?” differs considerably from the forecasting question of “What will happen in 10 years?”

The book runs into some challenges around scale. Schumacher understands and appreciates that population density is something to celebrate in as far as it enables cultures to flourish. However, he also suggests that city size should not exceed 500,000 persons. He argues for a vision that makes rural life sustainable, simultaneously acknowledging that some communities might be suffering from too much migration to justify revitalisation. He discusses at length the necessary tension around a human need for order and a human need for freedom. Both needs establish a space for structured flexible thinking. Schumacher owns and embraces the paradox, but I am not surprised to see how Schumacher’s adherents have really focused on small-scale technologies in rural areas after reading the book.

Given that Schumacher wrote in 1973, I’m impressed to see a discussion of the human substance. Current frameworks about human well-being have some interesting things to learn. Arguably, Schumacher concludes that meaningful work represents a core component of the human substance.

The book is dated in a few places, but I think that many people citing from this particular volume do so at the expense of the overarching argument. Schumacher acknowledges that accepting the triad nature of his argument is not necessary. While each place of his argument stands firm on its own, I would like to see an increased pick up on the tolerance margins of nature apart from raw ecological takeback


Following the money

In a follow-up from my post on Tuesday about the role of the government, I stumbled upon an article describing how the German government functions relative to spending.

I found the article compelling on several points and thought it made sense to see how some of the observations I made on Tuesday might play out in a case study. I suggested that the first role of the government is to follow the money, starting at the national borders.

Leonhardt offers another starting point in stating the German government has been “more ruthless about the wasteful parts of government” while making the observation that German economic growth “has not been concentrated among a small slice of the affluent.”

Tellingly, the German government looked expressly at their unemployment benefits systems that discouraged work. Specifically, the story Leonhardt portrays includes, “The able and healthy were matched with potential employers.” I generally dislike passive voice constructions, and here I have the honest question: matched by whom? And how? From the looks of the article, I would hazard a guess the government followed and tracked people into the job market because provisions were made to allow people to take work below their current benefits level without penalty. The time to gain skills in the workplace likely created a step-up effect where the previously unemployed could take on more responsibilities.

Additionally, the German government coordinated educational reforms, particularly geared around math, reading and science. The skills gained in these disciplines have immediate utility in a technologically orientated economy. [Some historians of ideas recognise that the US conceptions of technology build on a strong foundation of German philosophy and thought.] With the proper training, educated Germans could move into the economy more effectively, reducing the overall need for a later step-up effect.

Yet, then the article goes into the place where I think most Americans would want to turn a blind eye. Leonhardt claims that in a market economy, the central role of government is regulation.

Regulation has a rather nasty image, but I would like to offer a different starting point for thinking about regulation: the regulator worn by SCUBA divers. The regulator worn by SCUBA divers directs and controls the flow of air so the diver can breathe. If the air can’t flow, then we have a problem. Similarly, if money doesn’t flow, we have a problem. If money doesn’t flow, then we call that problem “poverty.”

In Germany, it seems as though regulation concerned principally the people at the bottom creating spaces for them to participate more fully in commerce. Preserving labour unions represented a big part of the government’s regulation, but actually making sure that the labour unions are functioning requires continuing to follow the money. The German government observes that wages for the middle class have risen in parallel with the wages of the top earners.

I’d also like to posit this observation: if the government places meaningful efforts to help its citizenry develop professional skills, then it makes sense that the government might want to ensure that its workers are able to move those professional skills across the borders in a global economy. After all, that’s where I contend that we start following the money anyway.


The Missing Middle

An unfortunate truth, things in the middle (be they children, book chapters, schedule of the day) tend to get overlooked. We often concern ourselves with the extremes, modulating towards beginnings and endings. If things start out right, we assume that they are well on track for a good end. But we’re not very good at seeing the mundane, ho-hum aspects of daily life. After all, daily life happens in the middle of just about everything else.

This year marks 100 years since the birth of EF Schumacher. His main work is entitled, “Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered.” But as I read a piece in the Guardian today, I was struck by how easy it is to assume that small is simple.

Schumacher’s emphasis on what he called “intermediate technology” (neither basic nor large-scale) as the solution to many of the world’s problems led to the creation of the Intermediate Technology Development Group, now Practical Action, which recently hosted a celebration of his life. “A crank”, he said, “is a piece of simple technology that creates revolutions”. Nice.

“Intermediate technology” or really the technologies in the middle of the complexity scale. If we consider a crank, we’re not talking about installing a shelf, or bridging a small creek with a fallen log, or re-purposing a table as a chair. A crank, and other technologies like it, requires intentionality and consideration. The crank has a vocabulary of use that is slightly constrained by what the crank desires to achieve. When I think about my own experience with cranks, sometimes they are in challenging access points because of what motion they want to produce. When we start talking about cranks, we have to consider mechanisms.

I think that engineering and business complement each other nicely in this occasionally confusing middle space. After all, these technological challenges go just slightly beyond the materiality that everyone takes into their own hands. Someone might see problems of trying to ride a bicycle at night. Trying to rely on a massive infrastructural system where we install various sorts of beacons might not actually get at the core issue of riding a bicycle at night. A middle solution might be looking at how to attach and power a light on the bicycle itself.

The middle space requires deep knowledge of circumstantial particulars. Because the particulars constrain the available options, these middle spaces almost have the allure of compelling objective reality. The middle space creates choice because it zooms in on particular needs.


Why We Pray Together

Some of my friends on Twitter have noticed a new hashtag that has appeared on my feed: #ourfather

It’s my attempt to share a basic commitment to pray with a friend. We’ve set out to pray the Lord’s Prayer three times daily, recognising that this prayer forms the basis of the Christian life. The observance comes from the commands of the Didache, an ancient Christian document.

Neither pray as the hypocrites; but as the Lord commanded in His Gospel, thus pray: Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, as in heaven, so on earth. Give us today our daily bread, and forgive us our debt as we also forgive our debtors. And bring us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one; for Yours is the power and the glory for ever. Thrice in the day thus pray.

Additionally, this prayer is fundamentally a corporate prayer that joins us together with all of God’s children on earth. When we pray “Give us this day our daily bread” we pray just as much for our own material needs as we do for those who starve. As a student studying poverty, the global relevance of this prayer means a lot to me.

This morning, I came across a fantastic set of intercessions that I wanted to share:

Almighty Father, the heavens cannot hold Your greatness: yet through Your Son we have learned to say, “Father, may Your kingdom come!”

We praise You as Your children; may Your name be kept holy in the hearts of all mankind. Father, may Your kingdom come!

Help us to live in the hope of heaven today: make us ready to do Your will on earth. Father, may Your kingdom come!

Give us this day the courage to forgive others: as You forgive us our trespasses. Father, may Your kingdom come!

Father, be with us in all our trials: do not allow us to fall away from You. Father, may Your kingdom come!

I’m always amazed at how God takes a small commitment and multiplies it. As we prepare to begin the Lenten season, I hope you connect with others that encourage your faith. If you’re on Twitter, you are free to join into our small effort of saying the Lord’s Prayer three times a day.


The Inconsistency of the Ciderhouse Rule

The Ciderhouse Rules premièred when I was in high school. I know I didn’t see the film in the cinema, but I remember watching it shortly thereafter. The premise of the plot is the quest for a young doctor to come to terms with questions of abortion rights. The film tracks through a variety of elements, but the convincing argument comes near the end as our young doctor must contend with a woman suffering from a botched self-induced abortion.

The Ciderhouse Rule is that we should establish proactive measures to ensure that women have access to abortion services because women will seek the procedure anyway. Because people will go to desperate measures to access the procedure, medical doctors have an obligation to provide safe, reliable access to the procedure.

Increasingly, this particular justification of abortion strikes me as totally odd. For instance, we do not typically argue that youth violence needs a safe, reliable outlet. We do not focus on trying to convince a person engaging in cutting behaviour to cut more safely. These behaviours fall into a category of behaviour that we would like to see stop. Humans engage in all sorts of activity that is both dangerous and problematic. We don’t direct our energies into making things safer. We try to address the broader problematic.

Recently, I read about a woman so desperate for an abortion that she paid someone $150 to beat her until she miscarried. I’m struck not by the context of abortion in this story, but rather by the woman’s willingness to be beaten. This woman’s willingness to be beaten might have come principally from an emotional imbalance that lead to risky behaviours to seek validation. Was this woman not, in effect, screaming out, “I’m worthless!” with her choice of mechanisms? Might not that view of self-worth influenced what drove her towards a sexual encounter? It does not take much for me to see that the presence of a child is a symptom of a much deeper root cause.

Having a child occurs amidst an interconnected web of causal factors. Some of these causal factors are distinctly biological. But I also think these causal factors are influenced a great deal by social realities. It is much more difficult to parse the differences between young poor women unexpectedly pregnant and partnered professional women inconveniently pregnant at the “wrong time” in their career. Encouraging girls to pursue their education with a healthy self-esteem and regard for the integrity of their bodies requires a very different approach than addressing the need for financial stability in the midst of an insanely paced professional world.

It’s much easier to cite the problem with a lump of unwanted cells in a woman’s uterus and remove those cells surgically. Because if those cells just go away, then everything will be better. After all, routinised technology solves everything.

But we can also fall into a huge trap of embracing a technological solution. I cannot for the life of me understand why some people treat abortive surgeries as minor procedures. The people I’ve talked to regarding the procedural aspects of an abortion are absolutely shocked to learn that I stayed awake for my wisdom teeth extraction. They could recite danger upon danger of wisdom tooth extraction and didn’t differentiate between exposed and impacted tooth. But I think there is also something that when my doctor extracts my wisdom teeth, he has to look me in the eye. Dental surgeries are uniquely human in that regard.

Acknowledging the uniquely human dimension means that yes, doctors will need to be prepared to support women with a myriad of pregnancy implications. Some of these implications may come from self-induced procedures. Yet, acknowledging the human dimension means looking beyond the technology while serving the full person present before you.