April 26, 2013

Lessons from a Rusty Metal Bookshelf

It was the morning after we had finished installing a 10 kW off-grid solar photovoltaic array on the roof of Maison de Naissance, a birthing clinic in rural Haiti. I went around back and discovered a rusty metal bookshelf turned backwards against the tool shed that served as our energy system’s control room. On that morning in May 2009, I assumed the clinic staff had just been rearranging their furniture; as it turned out, that bookshelf ended up rearranging my perspective on sustainable development.

Upon closer inspection, the bookshelf was positioned in front of the clinic’s only exterior electrical outlet. As I pulled the bookshelf away from the wall, I was both delighted and mildly appalled to find its shelves laden with three power strips, each sprouting a bouquet of cell phone chargers. The chargers apparently belonged to the ever-growing line of patients waiting for their morning appointments.

My delight at the resourcefulness of our Haitian partners, who had immediately adopted a technology they had never seen before without any training or instruction, was tempered by their apparent lack of concern for the uncontrolled energy demand this arrangement was putting on the new system.

Whose priorities were more important?
As I learned that day, my engineering notions of rigid load forecasting and energy assessment were fundamentally at odds with the immediate needs of rural Haitian mothers. Our primary engineering design objective had been to produce sufficient energy for a medical lab, pharmacy, ultrasound machine, and battery storage so as to ensure that no baby would have to be born in darkness. But on that morning, those Haitian ladies had their own objectives in mind. A vital resource was available right there, free of charge. Whose priorities were more important? How could these priorities be aligned?

In my seven years with Engineers Without Borders-USA as a student, a practitioner, and advisor, it has been tremendously inspiring to watch the growth of a passionate community of over 12,000 people working directly with developing communities to design appropriate technologies and put them into practice. EWB-USA and its members have built a network of students and professionals committed to transforming engineering education and practice from the inside out— re-orienting our skills in partnership with communities in the developing world. It has also shown me the truth of one of the unofficial mantras of our organization, “engineering is the easy part.”

Let’s face it: the developing world is littered with the remnants of failed experiments and contextually inappropriate technologies: busted solar panels repurposed as kitchen tables; newly-built latrines used as storage sheds; abandoned, non-functional water pumps, and so on. History shows that technology is not always a blessing. Indeed, technological interventions may cause more harm than good if made without careful consideration for equitable distribution, environmental impact, debt burdens, local health consequences, and possible disruption of the social or cultural fabric of a community.

By tracing the movement for appropriate technology beyond Gandhi and Schumacher, and applying these methods to present-day case studies and design methodologies, we can begin to understand the subtleties of participatory sustainable development and the risks inherent to disruptive technology deployment.

A Long-Overdue Conversation
On that bright morning in 2009, as we unplugged those bouquets of cell phones and removed the exterior outlet from the solar energy toolshed, we began a long-overdue conversation with the health clinic’s staff and community stakeholders about collaborative energy conservation and common needs from the photovoltaic energy system. Four years later, I am eager to extend that conversation to colleagues and collaborators in the appropriate technology movement by offering a discussion-based seminar in collaboration with Village Earth and Colorado State University.

Whether you are a college student traveling abroad for the first time or a seasoned non-profit veteran, a grassroots community organizer or an aspiring social entrepreneur, everyone can benefit from improved research, training, and dialogue about community-driven technology. Using case studies, videos, presentations and group discussion, this course will explore some of the practical and ethical challenges faced by communities and well-intentioned partners in their efforts to develop or introduce new technologies to enhance human well-being.

My hope is that engineers and community advocates can align our skills to improve the quality of life for our brothers and sisters around the world. We engineers must have the humility to recognize that communities are not laboratories. Few of us have studied community dynamics as thoroughly as we have thermodynamics. We must learn and employ inclusive planning and design methods to build community trust and commitment just as durable and sustainable as any bridge, pump, or structure. Until we do, we will not be able to deliver the results that our local partners expect and deserve.

After all, engineering is the easy part.

Learn More
For more information and to register for the online course, please visit the page “Technology and Community-Based Development.” Note: Registration Deadline is April 28, 2013. The course will run five weeks, from May 3 to June 7.

Related resources

Video: Building upon failure

In this webinar recording Bridges to Prosperity shares some valuable insights learned the hard way – through failure.

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