Good ideas and new inventions arise as an epiphany. It’s a wonderful, eye-opening moment you can’t wait to share with others. You’re sitting at your desk, sunlight hitting your face, tapping your pen against an unreadable inked-up page, and all of a sudden, you’ve got it! A unique, no-one’s-ever-thought-of-this, idea. Perhaps this moment comes out of nowhere. Perhaps you’ve had it before, just not in the same exact thought. Steven Johnson (2010) comments, “We have a natural tendency to romanticize breakthrough innovations.” Maybe there are no new ideas. Maybe they’re ‘new’ only in so far as I, the inventor, haven’t yet realized they are based in historical scientific and cultural intricacies.
In 2008, MIT professor, Timothy Prestero, was struggling to find ways to tackle the high infant mortality rate in developing countries. His organization, Design That Matters, was studying the use and maintenance of incubators – neonatal intensive-care devices that are key for the care of premature babies in developing countries. Prestero and his colleagues were perplexed by the repeated breakdowns of these sophisticated incubators which they encountered in a small Indonesian town. They realized that, despite having these top-notch machines, locals were not accustomed to using incubators and therefore often misused them or did not trust the technology. Worth more than $40,000 each these incubators failed to produce better care of infants. Simply supplying these was not enough to affect change.
These incubators did not translate to local communities as an ‘invention’ that was necessary to reduce the number of infant deaths. Furthermore, these devices could not hold against power surges, high humidity levels, and they repeatedly failed due to lack of understanding on how to maintain them properly. In the end, locals ended up misusing and under-utilizing them. In this Indonesian community, a lack of understanding coupled with insufficient guidance on how to properly maintain the devices meant their purpose, to reduce infant mortality and improve neo-natal care, was never properly translated. The potential benefits of these devices were never localized to the community in order for them to understand the value. Therefore, these devices were never taken up as an invention that could reduce the local infant mortality rate.
Fascinatingly, what Prestero and his colleagues noticed was although these “towns might have lacked air-conditioning and laptops and cable televisions […] they managed to maintain their Toyota 4 Runners and keep them on the road.” This made Prestero think. What if the solution to the problem of misunderstanding and underutilizing the incubators was to find an alternative using machines and their parts whose use was already understood by the community. He thought, let’s make this machine localized to the context. Why not create an incubator out of automobile parts?
How was this to be done? Headlights could act as sources of heat, a cigarette lighter could be a powerhead, and dashboard fans mini-circulation systems! These were called ‘NeoNurture’. If a local knows how to clean an air-conditioning fan in a car, Prestero determined, he or she can fix an incubator.
What’s the Takeaway?
For Prestero’s experience, its becomes clear that invention must build on something. In the above example, it is upon the knowledge of the culture when the invention is to be used and whose lives’ it is to transform. Whatever the context, it is unproductive and will often lead to unintended consequences, to impose a thought, or in this case thought and machinery, onto a people. Ideas that last must be understood in full for them to be upheld successfully. Localizing or translating technology to fit into a local context can mean the difference between the uptake of that technology for its intended purpose or it being left on the side of the road to fall apart.
Aspiring entrepreneurs can take advantage of local resources, already understood and utilized technology, including the skill sets of local workers, and adapt their products to the needs of the community the invention is intended to impact. This shows a strong awareness by the entrepreneur of the local context and the market opportunity. It can mean the difference between success or failure. The example of the ‘Neonurture’ shows how invention doesn’t necessarily need to use new and modern parts, it can be a rearrangement of existing parts and tools towards new purposes to bring about change.
‘NeoNurture’, incubator built from car parts by Design That Matters.
Contextualizing Invention – An Example
One inspiring example of innovation tailored to a specific context is that of Mahmud and Massoud Hassani, two Afghan brothers who fled their country during war and settled in the Netherlands. The nightmare that haunted them most throughout their years away from Kabul was hearing of the growing number of people injured and killed by land mines in war-torn countries. They criticized the lack of technological innovation which is used to detect landmines.
The brothers created a wind-powered dandelion made of plastic and bamboo, called the ‘Mine Kafon Ball’. It consists of a core engine that allows it continue rolling in order to trigger four to five landmines before it needs repairing. The ‘Mine Kafon Ball’ was shortlisted for the London Museum’s 2012 Design of the Year Award. Judges stated the Ball was ingenious, offering an inexpensive tool for the many families who have been unable to move freely because of the constant fear of land mines. The Mine Kafon Ball offers parents peace of mind that they’re children can play safely in many parts of the world which have been ravaged by war and remain dangerous.
Fig. 2: Mine Kafon Ball
Searching for Inspiration?
If you are searching for inspiration similar to that experienced by Prestero and the Hassani brother, check out ‘Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation’ (2010). It offers a historical path to innovation and takes the reader through innumerable small and big inventions over time. It shows how inventive ideas – business models – don’t merely arise in vacuum. Innovation is a process accumulative of many experiences, even unnoticed ones, that lead to a product which caters to people living unique cultural and political lives.
Prestero found a solution using car parts to a rural Indonesian town’s high rate of infant mortality, while the Hassani brothers used easily workable tools to create a device to tackle a common threat in Middle East and across war zones. Both produced their inventions from abundant materials that perhaps seem too obvious to make a change. But when these ordinary parts are rearranged they can be transformed into something extraordinary.
So, if there’s a pressing issue in your environment, look for ways to creatively resolve it using resources and skills that are already around you. The solution may not seem obvious but with a little repurposing, an innovative young entrepreneur can turn the mundane into a life changing invention!
Nahal Shiekh is a guest writer for the Ye! blog. She is a graduate of the University College Masstricht where she studied Liberal Arts. She was previously the Chief Editor for the Maastricht student publication 'The Bell,' and is currently working with TEDx Amersterdam.