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  1. dZed says:

    I continue to enjoy the projects that are coming out of this MIT project, and thank Make for taking the time to produce these excellent videos. I was particularly excited to hear about this project, since unlike the pedal powered thresher that I took many uncomfortable pains to be constructively critical about, I had not heard of a similar project before. The wikipedia page for paraffin wax does mention its talents as thermal mass (including an interesting use for it inside drywall — who knew?!). All in all, a very interesting project.

    BUT, yet again, I must take issue with the idea that these folks will be able to take this undoubtedly useful technology and, seemingly by saying “woosh! bang!” create a sustainable business model in the Himalayas. Paraffin wax is a petroleum byproduct, and comes from the refining of petroleum products. If they had petroleum products to begin with, or paraffin wax for that matter, they would be burning them instead of animal dung. Further, these things are enclosed in plastic shells, so now these Himalayan dwellers will constructing a plastic manufacturing facility on the side of a peak?

    It’s just that sustainable business models, as far as I understand them, don’t generally mean tying a people to supply chains that cross the globe five or six times before producing a product that they’ve been doing amazingly well without for a few thousand years.

    Still, a good first go at it, team. Local sources or substitutes for materials would be a great place to look next.

  2. DanYHKim says:

    Here is a link to an article on designing for social good.

    http://tech.ashoka.org/when_technology_flops

    It touches on some of the issues brought up by dZed.

    1. dZed says:

      Thanks for the link! Pitfall #1 (“Starting with invention.”) was especially interesting — I wish I had some formal schooling in design work, so maybe that’s all something a freshman would learn (customer pull versus inventor push?). At first I thought that was one that the students above fell into, but they seemed to have found a problem and a need in a specific community first, instead of developing the product first. #6 Clogged Supply Chain seems like it might be the real problem eventually.

      From the article: “Tim says it’s disappointing to see great social product designs coming out of Stanford and MIT – but ultimately not going to market because the designers can’t find an affordable producer.” — Uh oh!

      Here’s a similar thing, in the form of a checklist, to determine the sustainability of your technology:

      http://www.akvo.org/wiki/index.php/Appropriate_Technology_checklist

      There’s a million versions of things like this, most of them written in 1977, but as a general outline it’s fairly standard. Who knew there was so much to think about whilst tinkering!

  3. Gareth Branwyn says:

    Awesome input, dZed. You, again, raise excellent points. Reminds me of some of the stories in Victor Papanek’s Designs for the Real World (I think it was) and what happens when you design technologies for other cultures and don’t take into account available resources, sustainability, cultural contexts, etc.

    I’ll see if we can get some of the students from the project in here to discuss the reasoning behind their designs and if they thought of some of the issues you raised.

  4. dZed says:

    Hey, now. Let’s slow down a bit. I’m not sure I can handle actual dialog! I’m much better as an anonymous coward!

    I kid, of course. I’d be glad to join in a conversation with any of these students. The students involved in the projects featured so far seem like fantastic people, and are no doubt intelligent. It’s just that sometimes engineers and other technical types don’t really consider the back end of their work. Groups like Engineers Without Borders (EWB) and any number of technically-based NGOs work towards rectifying that, but (despite the popularity of EWB) I think that type of thinking is still very much in the minority, even among people intentionally working towards solutions in less technologically imbued societies.

    If you like Papanek, you surely must’ve come across E.F. Schumacher’s ‘Small Is Beautiful,’ which is a great discussion of the economics of these types of situations. Economics, in a very general sense, being what I think really prevents ideas like this from taking hold. Schumacher was really the one who proposed the idea of intermediate technology, which sort of morphed into appropriate technology in the 70s, ala Whole Earth Catalog, Radical Technology, New Alchemy Institute, etc. Ah, you’ll get me started if you’re not careful…

    I’ll keep an eye on this page to see if any students reply. Thanks!

    1. Sloan Kulper says:

      Hi TZed,

      I’m one of the members of this team. You bring up some excellent points, especially regarding the the flaws of a top-down approach to complex and interconnected problems in communities. Our approach differs in that we’ve been working with communities in the Himalayan region for about five years now and the idea for this project did indeed, come from our nomadic community partners in the region. The choice of technology is the direct result of our work to design a backend supporting the implementation of the project, from supply chain through to marketing and sales, that benefits our partner communities directly on their terms.

      You are right that petroleum products are, in general, not widely available (people use dung as their primary fuel source). Parrafin wax, however, is locally available in the form of candles (not a good heat source burned as such, especially for mobile heating while herding).

      Paraffin was just one of several materials we were considering. The other materials are rural household waste products that we have found to have surprisingly high heat capacities, which our design reuses rather than expending them.

      Finally, as for plastics, these materials that locals call “white wastes” have become ubiquitous in recent years and many yaks and sheep have died from ingesting them. This project aims to use these waste products to co-develop a sustainable personal heating technology along with local nomadic groups.

      Thanks all.
      regards,
      Sloan Kulper

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