Sympathetic Stupid

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

A Useful Invention!

Australians probably only remember the Segway from those funny-for-five-seconds Friday Night Games on Big Brother last year. It's the ultimate nerd product, effectively a self-balancing two-wheel scooter. Apple billionaire Steve Jobs said that "cities will be built with these in mind". Probably important to note that he had some skin in the game.

The inventor is genius/nutbox Dean Kamen. He's got a record full of impressive inventions, his own island and a lot of important phone numbers. And he fits the geek archetype to a T - you just know he dances like Napoleon Dynamite.

Whether the Segway ever really catches on or not, he's got cred no-one can touch. So that's why it's so good that his new thing is power and clean drinking water for developing countries, especially in small rural villages. This could provide a great example of leapfrogging.

(Thanks to Dave at Gristmill for the link.)

There's two machines. The Stirling uses anything burnable to produce about one kilowatt of power - cow dung is the obvious one. The Slingshot takes dirty water and separates it into clean water and sludge. Simple as that. Good especially because this allows developing countries to skip the monolithic infrastructure we take for granted, and go with a more failure-tolerant decentralised system. (The power requirements of the Slingshot aren't documented here. Hopefully these are modest, or the purpose is defeated.)

The more interesting part, though, is the proposed funding model. Cause these machines, in an absolute best case, will cost thousands of dollars. It's based on the way Grameen Phone sells mobiles in Bangladesh: "(V)illage entrepreneurs (mostly women) are given micro-loans to purchase a cell phone and service. The women, in turn, charge other villagers to make calls." This creates small-scale rural entrepreneurs (with possibly the added benefit of empowering women in traditionally repressive developing countries). The same method is planned for these machines, though broken up into smaller portions.

There are plenty of risks before this becomes reality - manufacturing and cash most notably - but it sounds like it could be a transforming idea.