Monday, 1 October 2012
by Julian O’Shea
In his book, Material World: A Global Family Portrait, photojournalist Peter Menzel coordinated an international team of photographers on a unique photo project. Spanning thirty countries, photographers took images of statistically average families in front of their homes with all of their worldly possessions. As you’d expect, the variance was extreme: in some cases families posed with little more than basic clothing and cooking supplies, and for others they filled the street with furniture, electronics and multiple vehicles. The imagery provides a striking visual illustration of the different access to resources around the globe. The book aims to also explore our relationship with ‘stuff’, and to better understand the differences, as well as similarities, that exist across countries and cultures.
In a planet of seven billion people, we should give serious consideration to how we can live sustainably, while also improving the quality of life for all. The issue is one of social justice – the poor are simply missing out on new technology and innovation. Founder of International Development Enterprises, Paul Polak, claims, “90% of the world’s designers spent all of their time addressing the needs of the richest 10% of the world’s customers”. The change he is advocating for, is more emphasis on designing affordable and useful products for the bottom of pyramid, those living on $2 a day or less, instead of more consumer products for the richest few.
One contributing approach is that of “humanitarian engineering”, applying technical expertise to improve the quality of life of people in disadvantaged circumstances. This is a shift to serving people most in need, rather people that are most able to pay. Fortunately there are groups and individuals who are taking on the challenge.
I’m privileged to work for Engineers Without Borders Australia (EWB), one such organisation contributing this movement. My role involves coordinating the organisation’s research program, engaging local students and researchers to work collaboratively with our community partners across Asia and in Australia. These innovative projects are making a real contribution to outcomes on the ground in areas including renewable energy, water access, sustainable infrastructure and education. Projects include the development of a maintenance-free rainwater harvesting system in Cambodia; prototyping a low-cost dust mask for stone quarry workers in India, and improved pipe design for landslide-affected areas in Timor Leste. The projects are what I call, “real innovation”: innovation measured not by its commercial value or number of patents produced, but rather on their impact on people’s lives.
Should there be a future edition of Material World, I’d love to see families around the world proudly showing off new products, systems and technologies that have been specifically designed for their own needs. That would be real innovation.
Julian O’Shea is the Director of the Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Institute and was awarded an Innovation Leadership Scholarship for the 2012 Creative Innovation Conference.
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