Archives for category: Design

— 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.

A few months ago, I did a story on a group of students from IIT Kharagpur who had designed a clean energy/water technology and were working on creating a business out of it.  At a recent conference organized by MIT in Bangalore, Manoj Mandelia, the leader of the team, who built the innovative technology, was conferred the Global Honour as one of MIT Technology Review’s TOP 20 Innovators of India.

Canopus India, as they are known now, addresses the two most pertinent problems in the society today – “Clean water” and “Green energy”. Waste is often considered as a linear system of usage and disposal. At Canopus, waste is seen through an overall prism of sustainability. They couple waste management with energy generation to tackle the existing environmental challenges of CO2 emissions and also simultaneously provide a solution for low cost wastewater treatment.

Canopus is the name of the brightest star in the southern constellation of Carina (named Agastya in ancient Indian astronomy). Agastya is said to be the ‘cleanser of waters’,  since its rising coincides with the calming of the waters of the Indian Oceans.

In the class I cities in India, 35558 MLD (Million Litres per Day) of sewage was generated in the year 2009. Of this, the installed capacity of the sewage treatment plant was 11553 MLD, which is only 30% of the volume of sewage generated. Thus, there exists a pressing need to install new infrastructure and facilities to cover this deficit. The total wastewater market in India as of 2009 is pegged at around $4 billion.

In a developing country like India, the energy requirements are huge, and it is increasing exponentially over the years. India is currently the world’s 6th largest energy consumer, accounting for 3.4% of global energy consumption. The economic boom in India has seen the demand for energy grow at an average of 3.6% per annum over the past 30 years. Canopus India provides solutions which aims to achieve a dual-purpose. It aims to identify sustainable technologies, develop innovative engineering design and delivery solutions to address the issue of wastewater treatment making it sustainable in terms of energy usage.

Canopus aims to achieve the highest standards in environmental safety and create value by employing green technologies and help our customers make the best use of their resources.

They are committed to:

  • Delivering reliable, cost effective, environment friendly solutions for maximizing returns for our customers, while expanding our domain of operations globally.
  • Reducing the pressure on non-renewable sources of energy by providing economical and renewable alternatives in terms of scalable and paradigm-changing technologies.
  • Recognizing that people are our strength, and hence develop a work culture that realizes the potential of each individual and improve the quality of their lives and the society at large.
  • Sharing values of integrity, professionalism, innovation and customer orientation.
  • Reducing costs of operations for waste management by making them self sufficient in terms of energy.
  • Improving public health with better disposable mechanisms.

    A success story of Canopus India is the identification of Microbial Fuel Cells as a technology for decentralized wastewater treatment with electricity generation to address the above issue. They have developed a product, named LOCUS which stands for “Localized Operation of bio-Cells Using Sewage”, where they integrate a Microbial Fuel Cell with sewage treatment systems to treat wastewater and simultaneously generate electricity.

    Technologies like LOCUS which focus on waste to energy conversion have a very important role to play in developing nations like ours. The delivery model of such systems emphasizes on taking into account the size of the industry or the population it is catering to. They first study the problem in depth ; analyze it deeply with the team of experts they have; identify the technologies which would solve the problem and then work diligently on cost cutting measures to make it affordable and easier to adopt. With such business models, they will be able to serve the small and medium scale industries which most often do not have facilities and expertise to solve the issues of waste management. They aim to use decentralized wastewater treatment plants at point of use, in residential and housing complexes in cities and urban villages to make the water reusable and recyclable for irrigation and other uses. In the end, they wish to make this technology cheap and affordable at our innovation centre – Cano-plex so that it can impact the bottom of the pyramid.

    To commercialize their technology, Canopus has found that engineering design and scale that they want to achieve were very important issues. They need to think how to make it attractive for customers to use and give them value for their money. To achieve this, they have a model where each such solution is designed based on specific use of the customer. They include innovative pricing models like revenue saving sharing scheme to ensure that they earn, only when their customer saves. In domestic sector, the need itself is the biggest driver. If they have to solve the water issue; they must look at decentralized models of treatment and include technologies which are sustainable. Sustainability is their mantra for success.

    Their solutions are applicable in other industries like pulp and paper industry, sugar, textile, food processing, oil and petroleum industries where wastewater is produced. Their end consumers are also municipalities who want to upgrade their infrastructure and housing complexes who want to have the clean tag, by taking measures to prevent water pollution.

    Canopus is through the product conceptualization stage and they are now actively pursuing product development and are aiming to have the product tested at a commercial scale by May, 2011.

    On behalf of Acara, I wish them all the best and hope they will success in their social business!