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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

What?s GOOD: Incubating, Disseminating and Commercializing Appropriate Technology at the BoP

By Tayo Akinyemi

appropriatetechI am sure that few of you are strangers to Amy Smith?s work at MIT?s D-Lab. After all, the D-Lab has been profiled several times here at NextBillion, most recently in an article featured in the news room via GOOD magazine. The article aptly describes D-Lab?s current crop of appropriate technologies, developed with the needs and constraints of the end user in mind.
"Designs are more likely to be successful if they?re not complicated and requiring all sorts of support and infrastructure," says Smith. "But simple doesn?t mean easy. It?s a challenge to get to those ?simple? solutions."
(Read the full article)

The five innovations profiled: a water chlorination controller (to reliably regulate the addition of chlorine to a stored water supply), a screen-less hammermill (to churn grain into flour), low-cost water test (to test drinking water safety), phase change incubator (low-cost incubator), are definitely simple, rugged, cheap, and replicable. But are they scalable? The answer is "they could be."

"We?re not as well-equipped to do dissemination as we would like," says Smith, who notes that D-Lab only has about 30 students at any one time. "We?re interested in finding the right partners to move the technologies forward." Scale and dissemination determine where "the rubber meets the road" in a university-based system of innovation.

One has to wonder what the best mechanism for sharing these innovations is. Should development projects be built around them? Can they support small businesses like the ones conceived by the Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group? Or might they spawn full scale enterprises, like d.light design, which grew out of the class project at Stanford? Regardless, I truly appreciate the notion of starting a "design revolution" that will encourage engineers to create strictly for challenging environments, and expand the field of appropriate technology design. However, after finishing the article, a slightly more pressing question popped into my head. "Where are the d-labs of the developing world?" I wondered. Fortunately for me, I only had to scroll down ? on the NextBillion home page that is ? to Shatajit Basu?s guest post on the L-RAMP Innovation Awards to find a clue.

These awards are made possible through a collaboration with IIT Madras, the Rural Innovations Network, and the Lemelson Foundation.? All three of these organizations subscribe to the "inside out" philosophy of technology innovation ? they disseminate technology that is developed in the field, rather than import it from the outside.

To that end, it is critical to acknowledge the efforts of institutions like IIT Bombay, which does just that through initiatives like SINE, the Society for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. SINE administers an incubator that supports business like Agrocom Technologies Pvt. Ltd., whose mission is "to strengthen Indian farmers and growers by using new green technologies as a catalyst...to compete in global markets?"

Although initiatives like D-lab and SINE often receive university and/or government funding, I can?t help but wonder how cool it would be if the private foundations of for-profit companies, like the UBA Foundation or the MTN Foundation augmented their already-impressive stable of CSR projects with investments like these.

If this is already happening, I?d sure like to hear about it. Otherwise, it?s just a suggestion.

Until next time?
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