February 3, 2010

Life-Changing Contraptions, Colbert and Composting

Update Nov. 12, 2010: See the video of Emily Pilloton’s TED talk embedded below.

There are dozens of little-known inventions that could change lives around the world. Some are simple, like a water barrel that rolls on the ground like a push mower, so people can haul more water. Others are ingenious, like funny-looking eyeglasses with an adjustable prescription that you dial in with your fingers.

Many have been compiled in a new book, Design Revolution: 100 Products that Empower People.

The author, Emily Pilloton, is founder of a non-profit group of creative problem solvers, Project H Design. We know Project H as one of Engineering for Change’s early users when they were looking for a better compost bin for the Alemany Farm in San Francisco.

Last week, Pilloton gave Stephen Colbert an excuse to play dress up on the Colbert Report (watch the clip here). He called her the “Bionic Mother Teresa,” and clomped from his desk to the interview table wearing “spider boots.” As Pilloton explained, the four-pronged footgear is for landmine detection crews and was designed to dissipate the shockwaves from an explosion.

She calls the inventions in the book examples of “humanitarian design.” The term also describes Project H’s work.

“Humanitarian design is really about taking design as a creative process and putting it to work on some of the biggest social issues that we’re facing today,” she told Colbert. Her description of a business model that puts people and the planet before profits drew cheers from the studio audience.

More than just a product

“For the most part, everything in the book is a great example of how a product can be more than just a product – how it can transcend its form and function to actually have an impact beyond just its use,” Pilloton wrote in an email to Engineering for Change.

Many of these inventions need additional engineering to put them over the top. The Hippo Roller, the water barrel that you push like a lawnmower, is an example.

“It has such potential for real social change in the communities that have it, yet the actual object is fairly flawed (it’s expensive, and not perfectly engineered),” she wrote. Project H partnered with Engineers Without Borders to improve it. They have cut the cost and hope to put the Hippo into more homes.

“There are a lot of devices like this that are good but not great. If we really took a critical eye to some of these designs for the greater good, we would find our impact to be measurably more widespread,” she wrote.

Kids counting tires

Meanwhile, Project H is growing. The coalition includes hundreds of designers and builders with nine chapters in the United States and Europe. Their mission is to find simple, effective solutions for those who need them most.

A major project underway now is the Learning Landscape. It’s an on-the-cheap playground made from reclaimed tires where kids can play and learn math skills at the same time.

“We’re trying to figure out how to build a community around the system so that it can continue to grow,” Pilloton wrote. “Teachers create new games all the time, and we want to be able to share those games with other teachers.”

A better way to compost

The Alemany Farm is 4.5-acre organic farm near a highway in southeastern San Francisco. Volunteers, city officials and neighbors work in the field and manage the farm. They called on Project H to help improve their efficiency.

“We sat down with the team that runs the farm and came up with ways to improve the production,” explained Ryan Duke, who heads the project. He figured that the three main ingredients that crops need to grow are sun, water and soil. “You can’t really control the sun, so the water and soil are the things we can improve,” he said. To improve the soil, his team is overhauling how it composts organic waste to make fertilizer.

Now, they store composting material in stacked boxes, which makes turning it while it decomposes into a time waster. Instead, Duke’s team is testing a rotating compost bin made from a reclaimed water barrel. With a barrel on a roller track, turning the compost is a cinch. “It’s way less labor intensive because you’re not flipping the compost manually,” Duke said. Even better, it takes only four to six weeks to decompose, instead of the four to six months they had to wait before.

Photos of their prototype and some other inventions are on our Flickr page. When the design is perfected, they will post the schematics to their site for anyone to use. Check their site for updates. And Project H will likely come back to E4C with its next challenge, Duke said.

Emily Pilloton: Teaching design for change

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