Name one act or invention that can radically increase an entire nation’s Gross National Product with only a modest rise in effort or spending? One that does not involve the massive construction efforts of a World Bank-financed hydropower dam or a USAID road-building project? It’s a mobile phone. According to independent economic research sponsored by Vodafone, a developing country that experienced a 10 percent increase in mobile phone penetration between 1996 and 2003 would have enjoyed per capita GDP growth that was 0.59 percent higher than an otherwise identical country. That equates to $15 billion added to the GDP of China or $5 billion added to that of India — created from the Access embodied in a phone. “The mobile phone build-out has been more beneficial than all the development of the last 10 years,” says Dr. Allen Hammond, vice president for Special Projects and Innovation at the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank that promotes sustainable development all over the world.
The mobile phone revolution is a leading case study of a bold new path to innovation and development that combats poverty with sustainable growth. Although the terms “developing world” and “developed world” have replaced “Third World” and “First World,” they still contain an untenable assumption — that these countries are merely trailing the rich world on the same track. The poor world simply can’t reach economic security by building the same heavy, complex, capital- and energy-intensive systems that were the powerful drivers of economic growth in the previous century. The future isn’t in more hard infrastructure — it’s in the phenomenon known as “soft infrastructure.”
“Soft infrastructure” innovations are more modular, scalable and portable than industrial-era inventions, enabling greater flexibility and efficiency and faster adoption while also being much more affordable. They are the mobile phones, home solar power systems, biofuel cooking stoves, $100 laptops and pedal-powered water pumps; the materials, processes and technologies that promise to create greater connectivity, boost emerging economies and provide energy self-sufficiency while preserving the environment.
They may be introduced by local social entrepreneurs, international nonprofits, international companies, or with help from microfinanciers. Taken as a whole, they have the potential to dramatically transform telecommunications, financial services, transportation, power, energy, water, healthcare and more — not only in the developing world, but globally.
The Designer and the Leapfrogger
Two different sets of technologies fall under the “soft infrastruc-ture” rubric. The first are so-called “appropriate” technologies, designed with expertise from either developing or rich countries but specifically intended for the cultural and logistical challenges of the developing world. Amy Smith, an instructor at MIT, created the D-Lab class, in which engineering students worked on designs for a sugar-cane powered stove for use in Haiti and a pedal-powered peanut sheller for the Philippines, and other tools tailored to developing world needs. Her students must live on $2 a day for one week to better understand the conditions under which their designs will be used.
“[You don’t want] parachute technology: This is what they need, we’ll drop it on their heads,” cautions Timothy Prestero. His organization, Design that Matters, which also emerged from projects at MIT, connects students and professional designers working pro bono with social enterprises that have identified needs on the ground in developing countries. “It all starts with the client,” he says, meaning that the development of solutions is driven by climate, lifestyles and societal norms. They are working on projects such as a low-cost infant incubator, an easier-to-use IV drip regulator and more, with an emphasis on portability, ruggedness and local practices.
The second class of soft infrastructure involves so-called “leapfrogging technologies.” Alex Steffen of worldchanging.com, a site which covers sustainable solutions around the world, defines leapfrogging as “where you take something that’s already the cutting edge in the global north, but in the south creates whole new possibilities.” Cell phones are the best example of a leapfrogging technology, as they increasingly spread in regions like sub-Saharan Africa and southeast Asia, where a dispersed rural population and rugged terrain make conventional phone lines prohibitively expensive.
In the many regions where mobile phones are the first means of telecommunication, their impact has been explosive and multidimensional. Phones connect people with job opportunities, and they connect those who have commuted to the big city with their families remaining behind in the countryside. With the addition of a cell phone network (rather than the prohibitively expensive construction of a landline network) people in remote areas can summon a doctor if ill, or the government in the case of a natural disaster. And farmers and fishermen can find out the prices at different markets to get the best return on their goods.
Innovation Flows Both Ways
Hammond of the World Resources Institute is currently involved with a pilot project to install a new kind of mesh Wi-Fi in the highlands of rural Vietnam, where it can provide both Internet and phone service. His mandate is to convince the telecoms that rural parts of emerging markets can indeed be profitable.
A related leapfrogging technology is mobile banking, which has already found markets in Kenya and the Philippines before it has been adopted broadly in the United States or Europe. Again, the ability to make payments or receive deposits via mobile handsets will be especially valuable for millions who don’t have traditional bank accounts.
As a development expert, Hammond persuades multinational corporations to invest in emerging markets. Soft infrastructure, he says, can often build prosperity while being profitable for foreign companies, producing a win-win.
But as Alex Steffen also points out, innovations in soft infrastructure have much to teach the rich world as well. “If poverty is the defining issue in the global south, lack of sustainability is the defining issue in the global north. We can’t just swap out wind farms for coal plants and call it good — there need to be changes in the way we distribute energy, the way the power grid is built, the way we use energy, the pricing, et cetera.
“We’re seeing things that absolutely must change in mind-numbingly short timelines. The fact is we’re finding everything is up for grabs, and we need innovation just as badly as desperately poor people do in Africa.” Steffen envisions a time, not far off, where the conduit of soft infrastructure innovation runs both ways — where a photovoltaic LED lighting system, a household stove that runs on yard clippings or a solar-powered water purifier might soon be on its way from an Indian village to you. A look at some recent soft infrastructure solutions
Soft Wares for Hard Problems
All over the world, top designers, students and entrepreneurs are creating and perfecting the next soft infrastructure solutions. This still-cresting wave of innovation promises to deliver access to education, energy, medicine and other crucial technologies in a manner that’s more resilient, less expensive and more flexible than previous efforts. Here are some recent prize winners and successful inventions. —Anya Kamenetz
Almost a billion adults worldwide are illiterate, 70 percent of whom live in the developing world. The lack of access to books and lighting is a major factor. Books are heavy to transport, bulky to store and susceptible to rain, mold and insects. Design that Matters, a volunteer-driven nonprofit in Cambridge, Mass., has created an alternative. The Kinkajou “portable library” consists of a rugged, lightweight, low-power projector powered with LEDs. A single, $6, durable plastic microfilm cassette can store 10,000 pages of information much more cheaply than paper books and in a fraction of the space. USAID and World Education have implemented Kinkajou Projectors in dozens of literacy centers in Mali.
The Portable Light project combines traditional weaving techniques with nano-science to create fabric that doubles as both a solar cell and a reading lamp. The nano-tech in question is copper indium gallium diselenide (CIGS), which can be sprayed or printed onto textiles. That, combined with standard lithium batteries like those used in cell phones, make for a lightweight, flexible, portable “lamp” that charges outside during the day and sheds enough light to read by at night. The designers, Boston-based firm Kennedy & Violich Architecture, have taken an unusual interdisciplinary approach, with a team including anthropologists, to help bring their technology to nomadic peoples in Australia and Mexico.
Hygiene, in the form of clean hospitals and sterile needles, remains one of the biggest roadblocks to accessible public health in the developing world. Aerovax eliminates the need for needles when it comes to vaccinations by transforming injections into a fine spray that’s inhaled instead. The all-in-one portable unit combines an individual, disposable face mask with on-board storage and cooling for multiple doses, an inventory-control system, and GPS to connect workers using the devices. Compared to needles, Aerovax is safer, easier to administer and more cost effective, since it doesn’t require a medically trained healthworker to administer doses. The first application is a measles vaccine, with the goal of building a single platform for delivering multiple drugs and vaccines in rural areas.
BIOTECH, a social enterprise in the Indian state of Kerala, addresses two needs at once. Its biogas plants convert food waste, garden waste and in some cases human waste into cooking gas, electricity and fertilizer. Since 1998, BIOTECH has built and installed 12,000 domestic plants, 220 institutional plants and 17 municipal plants that use waste from outdoor markets to power generators. The ingenious system reduces dumping, contamination from badly disposed-of sewage and methane production from uncontrolled decomposition, and replaces about 3.7 tons per day of fossil fuel use, which in turn saves 3,700 tons a year of CO2 from the atmosphere.
Household Energy Systems
SELCO, a private company based in Bangalore, provides household solar energy systems to low-income people across South India. It partners with microfinance banks to help people acquire financing for the systems, which use photovoltaic cells and a battery sufficient to run two to six compact fluorescent bulbs, plus a radio, TV or small fan, for several hours. Street vendors attach the lights to their carts; other systems power sewing machines, soldering irons and even silk looms. SELCO also fosters local businesses that charge solar batteries. The solar system pays for itself over time, especially in areas where blackouts can run six to 20 hours a day — and millions of rural families are unconnected to the grid, forcing them to buy expensive backup diesel-powered generators and kerosene lights.
More than 1 billion people live without clean drinking water, making water purification a top target for soft infrastructure designers. There are many approaches to purification, whether chemical or solar — all meant as long-term solutions. The Solar Bottle is a household version: a flat, stackable four-liter water container with one reflective side and one transparent side. Place it under full sunlight for six hours and UV rays plus increased water temperature destroy the pathogens in the water. This method of household water purification is known as SODIS and is being promoted in more than 20 countries worldwide, where it reduces incidence of diarrhea. The Solar Bottle won a 2007 design award from the nonprofit Index, which honors life-improving innovations in design.
The basic principle behind the Stair-Master has been remastered to create a low-cost irrigation device that can lift water from wells as deep as 25 feet below ground. International Development Enterprises (IDE), a nonprofit helping farmers, refined a local invention in Bangladesh to market a treadle pump that is lightweight and gentle enough to be operated by men and women alike, and allows farmers with small holdings to cultivate a greater variety of crops year-round while dramatically increasing yields. In India, Bangladesh and Zambia, where IDE has underwritten commercial production to stimulate local business, the pump has boosted annual farm productivity between 25 percent and 33 percent.