Archives For author

— By Vikash Singh (Acara Corps Fellow)

Design Thinking

Technology Transfer is an idea which keeps culminating in the minds of the champions of ‘Sustainable Business Development’ (SBD). Climate Change discussions are filled with ideas for technology transfer and are discussed as potential solution to SBD.

From decades of attempts at building sustainable development, one can be only so sure that technology transfer is, at best, a mixed blessing. Too often it is based on an old idea that has not yet been retired as it should have – that technology is good and will bring economic growth and development and that technology is transferable. But technology is not always transferable. And that includes ‘renewable energy technology’, a favorite among Sustainable development folks.

Let’s take the example of cooking stoves. Rural communities in India chop down trees (or gather dead wood if it’s available) for fuel to cook food, especially those for whom other cooking energy sources are too expensive. This contributes to deforestation and, when the cooking is done indoors, it can increase respiratory illness. Not a great situation for people or planet. For the past decade, there have been various attempts to change this pattern to enhance sustainable development. They have been successful but not to the required extent.

Most of these ‘technological fixes’ have come from the West, designed in American or Dutch laboratories and then taken down to Third World Countries. There are problems of uptake, problems of usefulness, of familiarity, and of countless little things those who designed these new stoves didn’t think of. People prefer the taste of food made with fire. The new designs (there have been several of them) break easily, or take more time, or are not suited to other aspects of the culture.

So what does work? One really had to get to the heart of sustainable development. Technology should not be designed far away and then assumed to work. It needs to be designed with the local people as much as possible. The answer somewhat lies in Design Thinking- Simply put as a set of principles, from mindset to process, that can be applied to solve complex problems.

As IDEO’s CEO Tim Brown begins to frame this within the opening pages of his book Change By Design:
What we need are new choices – new products that balance the needs of individuals and of society as a whole; new ideas that tackle the global challenges of health, poverty, and education; new strategies that results in differences that matter and a sense of purpose that engages everyone affected by them.”

The outcome of the application of Design Thinking to create Design Models, to create actual solutions for a social cause, is not been explored much. Being in a country like India, where there is a certain amount of Social Innovation happening at the Base of the Pyramid, we stand a good chance to see the applicability of Design Thinking and its measure its success.

Design Thinking however need not be culminating in Social Innovations in the form of products only. The outcome could be an interface, it could be a service that is designed, it could be a model etc. Because Design Thinking itself tends to see its application in different areas, the outcomes vary.

— By Vikash Singh (Acara Corps Fellow)

“About one-third of the world burns wood and other biomass for cooking, heating, and lighting, accounting for 13 percent of global energy consumption. When burned in traditional cooking stoves, the toxic emissions result in 1.6 million premature deaths each year, according to World Health Organization estimates. Children younger than five account for half of the fatalities.”

Last year at the end of December, India launched the National Biomass Cook stoves Initiative (NCI) to develop the next-generation cleaner biomass cook stoves and deploy them in all Indian households that currently use traditional cook stoves.  The initiative has set itself the lofty aim of providing cleaner energy services like clean sources of energy such as LPG but using the same solid biomass fuels commonly used today.

This initiative by the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy has been envisaged to be structured differently from the earlier National Program on Improved Chulhas, although it builds on the several successes of that program while also drawing lessons from the experience gained from its implementation.

The socio-economic and health implications of this form and scale of energy use are enormous. The starting point of the current exercise is the user. The solution on offer should, first and foremost, be easy to use and maintain and conform to local cooking habits across the country. Its adoption must make economic sense to the household. The program is conceived not as a handout to poorer households, but rather as an economically sustainable business solution.

This new initiative is also based on the recognition that that cook stove technology has improved considerably in the past few years. But further advances are still possible and, indeed essential. The aim is to achieve quality of energy services from cook stoves comparable to that from other clean energy sources such as LPG.

And on the climate front, many products of incomplete combustion that are emitted from traditional cook stoves have greenhouse implications—while each household might emit only a small amount, together these cook stoves can add up to a relatively sizeable contribution, although still only a fraction of the emissions from fossil fuels that supply energy for wealthier people. (There also remains some uncertainty about the exact global warming potential of black carbon, a greenhouse pollutant emitted, among other sources, from biomass combustion that recently has received increasing attention. But it is clear that shorter-lived pollutants from biomass combustion contribute to atmospheric heating on regional scales—and, therefore, their reduction will result in tangible national benefit.)

The approach that is being envisaged by this initiative focuses on all elements of the innovation chain, not only emphasizing development of cleaner combustion units and improved biomass-processing technologies, but also focusing on issues such as innovative delivery models. By partnering with academia, the private sector and non-governmental organizations, the program draws upon the strengths of these various groups. Such an approach, hopefully, will increase the likelihood of success of this initiative and also allow the development of technologies and delivery models that would find applications in other parts of the developing world.

The program, therefore, has the potential to serve as a flagship model for how to meet sustainable development and climate goals simultaneously. And this is exactly the kind of initiative that the government should be emphasizing in the global climate arena—one that puts sustainable development centre stage instead of focusing merely on “targets and timetables”, as our recent constructive position has done.

This promising new cook stove initiative, therefore, must be seen not only as an initiative that can help improve access to clean and high-quality energy services for the poor and the vulnerable, but also contribute to climate mitigation.