As we “look outwards” in our search for existing and potential products, processes and business models for humanitarian application – I find myself at the Small is…Festival. The 4th annual event hosted by Practical Action and Engineers Without Boarders UK bringing together inspiring individuals with a common passion and wealth of experience in "using technology to challenge poverty".

The festival held workshops, debates and demonstrations on a vast range of technological and social initiatives with application in developing countries. An opportunity to build awareness of the role technology has to pay in an international context and explore examples of appropriate technologies.

As I take part in the events ranging from setting up a solar panel to learning how the on-site compost latrines work, I am led to explore what these ideas could really mean for those living as refugees in a humanitarian response, or protracted refugees faced with longer term problems. Two examples are described below.

3D digital printing
Digital printing is a term used for printing from a digital image or design. 3D digital printing takes a digital image and prints the image in 3D using different materials. The example on show at the festival was this open source design of a printer that heated plastic and created 3D models by building up layers of the plastic.

Picture 1 - the 3D printer and bio-degradable plastic wire being fed in


Picture 2 - The cog made on the 3D printer

Could this idea be used in a humanitarian context?

This design does require some technical expertise to build and maintain, but it is a cheap and very accessible way to create parts that would otherwise need to be manufactured in large factories with dedicated machinery.

Could the technology be taken up by a local entrepreneur? Used for building cheaper spare parts for water pumps? So far there are no published examples of this application in a humanitarian context but discussions have begun by the engineers who have used this open source design on how it can be applied in remote areas with limited resources.

The open source design means that anyone can take the design and make it themselves. This is an important element in many new innovations that intend to reach a wide audience and have wide application in challenging environments.

The Simple Hand-Pump

This simple hand-pump was built in 30 minutes at the demonstration. It uses existing concepts of water pumps but is built of basic materials that can be found in most remote locations – some pipes, small blocks of wood and some rubber.

The simple mechanism is made up of one narrower pipe put into a larger pipe. The narrower pipe is moved up and down creating suction in the larger pipe and drawing up water through a wooden block at the bottom with some holes in it.  The wooden block with holes and a rubber cover (acting as a valve) stops the water escaping back through the wood once it has entered the main larger pipe. This pump has been used to pump water up to 5m.

Knowledge transfer of designs such as these is not formally in place – designs are replicated years later without any knowledge they have been made before.

Could this idea be used in a humanitarian context?

The simple design shown in the demonstration was developed in a refugee camp and has been used on many occasions to pump water out of water storage tanks. It is made of locally available materials and only needs simple tools to construct.

Clearly, the success of a technology is not only in its physical design. The term appropriate technology implies that the design must be suitably applied for the cultural, environmental and social context. Following the design, the application of a technology may take place informally and in many different ways - impacting local markets and the wellbeing of its communities.

Locally available materials play an important role in this case for the simple pump, but maintenance mechanisms are also vital. Maintenance options may include local government structures, community ownership or dedicated maintenance structures and business models.

Innovation using existing technology

Perhaps the next steps are innovating how available technologies are manufactured, applied, taken to market or maintained in new ways. Designs can be used as part of new social enterprise business models, or adapted by private sector actors to specifically meet the needs in a humanitarian response. What then are the barriers to entering the markets in refugee camps and areas having to respond to a humanitarian crisis? Perhaps these are some of the gaps that humanitarian innovation has a space to fill.

                                                                                                                                                                             Louise Bloom
25/9/2012 08:12:02 pm

Innovative ideas produce the new things to the business so each type of new target produces the human formatted actions to the people.

20/1/2013 08:41:59 pm

Really an informative article for this technology. You have shared an very useful information, i never forget your idea.

21/1/2013 02:54:52 pm

Technology makes it correct way of saving money and all.

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