Greenhouses, like this low-cost modular design from the Affordable Greenhouse Venture team at Penn State, represent both the benefits and challenges in community-owned property. Photo courtesy of Arianna De Reus / Affordable Greenhouse Venture
Welcome to The Big Design Questions, a weekly series that tests and challenges design principles that we promote for creating techologies that meet basic needs in uderserved regions. Khanjan Mehta, a contributing editor at E4C and head of the Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship (HESE) program at Penn State, and his students first posed this week’s question in a paper published in the IEEE Technology and Society Magazine. Khanjan offers his thoughts below and we’d like to put the question to the entire community if you would please share your comments at the end.
Should we design technologies for individual or community ownership?
Though the local community can implement, and benefit from, water reservoirs, schools, bridges and similar infrastructure projects, community ownership of certain technologies is not practical.
Consider greenhouses as a case in point. A community can share a greenhouse by giving each member some kind of access. The users can also pool their resources to buy expensive technologies to complement the greenhouse.
However, shared ownership can be difficult to negotiate and enforce. These common questions arise and can cause problems: How is space within the greenhouse allocated? Who can receive the crops grown within it? How will maintenance and repair requirements be handled? How are theft and destruction prevented? Who enforces the rules?
For a fair group ownership that meets everyone’s needs, the community must tap into trusted relationships to clearly define an operational model.
Group ownership takes trust
The need for trust is evident in the business model of Husk Power Systems, a rural electrification company in India. Husk uses renewable energy sources to generate electricity and sell it at a daily rate at low cost. The company tracks each customer’s usage through community monitoring. People’s homes are open and everyone can see what appliances are being run. Neighbors are billed together, so everyone watches one another to ensure they are each paying for what they use.
Greenhouses and Husk Power Systems are two examples that illustrate the myriad issues to consider when deciding what level of community involvement to pursue. More expensive technologies may require households to pool their resources. Highly location-dependent ventures, such as infrastructure projects and healthcare services, might benefit from a participatory approach with direct involvement from the community.
Tip: Which communities are suited to each kind of ownership
A general guideline might be that tight-knit, open-home communities will likely be a better fit for community ownership. Open-home communities may be more amenable to central management or cooperatives than a more individualist culture with single-family homes and self-contained technologies. At the same time, some of the most successful technologies like cellphones, solar lanterns, and radios are designed for individual or family use.
Do you have other insights or guidelines, or a different point of view? Please share in the comments below.