Design Woes

As many of you know, working on a design project is always more complex than the technical design involved. There so many human factors which influence the use and perception of a device. This is especially true when working on a water quality design project. So many people have grown up drinking what the WHO considers highly contaminated water. Daniel, my roommate, told me a story about this. When babies are born in his village, they are immediately washed with river water. This rinse water is collected and poured through some thatched roofing-type material and collected again. It is then given to the baby to drink as their first taste of water. Their bodies grow used to the microorganisms and other contaminants from day 1. Many Ghanaians are very proud of this tolerance. So, why would they want to spend a little extra time and resources to disinfect their water with chlorine? I’m not being sarcastic.  If I had been raised in one of these villages, I would think the same way.


A very provoking and interesting lecture on Ghanain culture by a local professor

In general, all of the teams are having trouble moving from the idea generation to conception selection and model building phases of design. There are so many issues swarming around our thoughts, and it seems that they all cannot be accounted for in any single, elegant design. Amy gave us an awesome pep talk yesterday morning which made us all feel like we are in this same boat, together. She is awesome!!

Last night we had a little pool party which was great fun. Later today I leave for my second village visit (Offuman) to try to start the process of co-creation. We would really like to play around with some concept models of possible designs of the chlorine production device with people who would be using it to get their input and innovative thoughts on how to make it perfect for them. This is the spirit of IDDS. Yeh!

The IDDS familyhas  gone way out of their way to make me feel special on my birthday.  While I really don’t enjoy celebrating my birthdays, it always does feel nice after the fact.  Each person here expresses celebration in their own way; it is so interesting and so much fun!  I can’t wait to celebrate their special days with them.

Have a wonderful Sunday!



I have found myself some free time, so let’s have a go at a real blog post for once. I’ll begin with my general take of this whole experience and approach to development and engineering service.

In short, the approach is co-creation: to assemble a diverse group of innovators, especially from developing communities who hope to serve their own communities, to collaboratively create new technological solutions. The aim is to invent novel technologies and cultivate new technologists in the process. So, what the heck am I doing here considering I am not from a typical developing community nor do I need to be pushed to be transformed into a technologist? Brilliant question. I still don’t know the answer, but am starting to get an idea. Please comment on what you think about my niche at this summit.

In seriousness, there is no other effort like this one. Our purpose is not to implement these technologies. The people of developing communities are more than capable of implementing appropriate solutions for themselves. This realization alone would solve innumerable problems currently being faced by engineering service-learning projects and groups like Engineers for a Sustainable World and Engineers Without Borders. [It would also make most of these projects and organizations fairly obsolete – which is why they will never change.] But there already exists so many technological solutions appropriate for people in developing communities, so why aren’t more of these people implementing these existing technologies themselves? My answer is that they either don’t know such technologies exist, or they don’t feel confident enough to invest themselves and their communities in trying such new technologies. IDDS works to solve these issues. [For better or worse, it is encouraging me to implement my previous knowledge and these new technologies in developing communities in the States, viz. Native American communities.]

Another important aspect of IDDS is to develop prototypes and not papers. We are here to invent new technologies appropriate for rural areas in extreme poverty. Doing so requires actually building and testing these devices with the people they are for. This is what we are doing. [And sometimes papers come out of it all anyway: Ste was awarded a U.S. patent, a $100K Gates Foundation Grant, and a $100K Cambridge University Grant for his project from last year’s IDDS!]

This ties nicely into my time spent living in the villages. So far, I have visited New Longoro, Dwere, and Gomboi. All of these villages are about a six hour drive north of Kumasi in a very rural area. New Longoro is at the center situated next to the main road (which goes from Accra north all the way into Mauritania!). It has very limited access to grid electricity as well as a community water well. Dwere and Gomboi are much more isolated. They have no electricity and no water except for the stream that flows nearby. I spent most of my time in Gomboi (and stayed in the Chief’s hut).


The beautiful village of Gomboi


Some friends from Gomboi

We spent a lot of time talking with the people of this community. There were only ten to fifteen families who live there. Ste, my teammate (Ph.D. student in ChemE from Cambridge in UK), and I went to the river with the women and girls to fetch drinking water. I carried a small bucket back on my head. I was soaking wet by the time we made it, and all the kids were having a great time with me. The kids really loved my arm hair and the hair on my head. I found out later that I was probably the first white person many of them had ever seen. In a few days I will be heading out to another village (this one is more like a small town) to get another perspective on our design challenge (localized chlorine production from table salt).

There is so much more, but I should try to keep these posts reasonably short. Sleep well.

Local Chlorine Production

E cho!

I now have wireless and mobile access to this blog which means more frequent short updates.

Last week, before our village visit, we all voted on project interests and were grouped into project teams. I am on the local chlorine production team (more details to come in the Design Project page). Basically, our task is to take well-known science which converts table salt and water into a concentrated chlorine solution and create a small-scale, very inexpensive product appropriate for treating water in a typical Ghanain village. There are some commercial available products, but they are definitely not appropriate for this context. Our team of six had a long discussion with Paul Polak last night which was not very encouraging but very informative. We spent most of yesterday brainstorming ideas about the true problems involved here, and today we move into idea generation of solutions! We have quite a long way to go.

Jam jam,

Life at IDDS: days = weeks

I arrived in Accra a week from Tuesday. I have spent four days on the KNUST campus in Kumasi and three days in a remote village named Gumboi. At KNUST I am staying in a Morril Tower-esque dorm sharing a suite with 5 other men and a room with one other. My roommate’s english name is Daniel. He is in his forties (my guess) and from a small village in northern Ghana (near Gomboi). He has a wife and one son. We talk alot and always shake hands which usually turns into him never letting go and us holding hands for long periods at a time. He is so very nice. I’m glad to have such a wonderful roommate (like I could have really had a bad one).


Timothy and Daniel beginning to make charcoal from agricultural wastes! Amy happily observes in the background.

The others in my suite are from different parts of India, Singapore, and L.A. Overall, there are over twenty organizers here and a little over sixty design team participants. Of the participants, most are skilled craftsmen, professional engineers or designers, international aid organization workers, and activists. The others are students (mostly graduate or just graduated like me). MIT, Berkeley, and CalTech are representing. I am known as the Ohioan. 🙂


Some fellow IDDS participants and organizers

We are already on a whirlwind pace. Amy Smith has not slept more than 2.5 hours any night except for the past two in the villages, and most of the other organizers are the same. We are being very well taken care of by the IDDS staff.

Off to my Twi lesson.

Some details

We usually start our days fairly early, and if we don’t, a group goes out to play football fairly early. There are several participants (mostly an Englishman, Ste, and an Irishman, Niall – the “lad” who writes the IDDS blog) who are absolutely obsessed with the sport. Niall played varsity for his university, and is exceptionally good.

Each day is different, but we usually come together for at least one large lecture and discussion with several blocks of time for breaking out into smaller groups. We work on small design challenges, learn about cultural and socio-economic aspects of rural Ghana, and head to the shops to learn to build old technologies produced by IDDS participants/organizers viz., humdinger windbelt, charcoal press, solar lantern, hacksaw from bicycle parts. Today, after returning from three days in a rural village, I am back at KNUST in Kumasi and am about to go to a lecture by Paul Polak, Founder of International Development Enterprises and Author of Out of Poverty! This is a wonderful book, and I hear Paul is a very jolly old man. I am excited! …Holy crap, he just sat next to me in this computer lab!!

Next post, some of the people here, our village visit, and my project!

Hope you are all doing well.


Hi Everyone! I am sorry to have not updated you until now. Amy Smith kids that every day here feels like a week, and I agree. There is way too much for me to fill in and way too little time. I am about to jump into a truck to drive four hours to a small village to stay the night with the family of one of the Ghanain participants. Then, we will get up early to go another two hours to another village to stay for two days. We will be living with families there and beginning to co-create some new technologies with them!! More to come!


Akwaaba! (Welcome! in Twi)

This is the personal blog of my work at IDDS 2009. Some background information is below and much more can be found within the two “Official IDDS” links to the right (the official blog is very fantastic!)

I leave my Ohio home in less than nine hours. While I do not plan to be near a computer very often, I will attempt to post pictures and messages as frequently as possible. Please check out the official blog for more frequent and detailed updates.


Picture 2