Third world problems don’t need first world solutions

If a system of education for a given school is categorically failing, the solution would certainly not be to give all the students iPads. That’s a direction that is expensive, misses the point, and unlikely to address both the seriousness and the root of the problem. That is however what has been done here by the Ryan Jongwoo Choi’s ES Pipe Waterwheel, a device that acts like a mini hydro-electric dam you attach to a faucet to generate power for specially designed lightbulbs. The sentiment here is sound: The wish to provide a higher living standard to impoverished societies using a hands off-means but the technological hubris of the execution is what makes this truly Flawesome.

Given a more contemporary first-world setting, this idea might not be so bad (although largely meaningless) but the desired setting tries to solve a tangent to a real problem with a wrong-headed approach.

The Wrong Approach:
It’s common for many designers to tackle problems by throwing technology at it. Technology is revered and with sufficient technology, any problem is solvable. But this approach actually runs counter to the purpose of good design (and to technology itself) which is to create better solutions faster and cheaper. The ES Pipe Waterwheel fails on all grounds. The product is relatively complicated, requiring the manufacture of what is essentially a small water-powered electricity generating turbine compact enough to fit inside a 2 inch water-tight hose fixture while efficient enough to charge specially designed light bulbs. The device would also need to fit various faucet types, operating under the assumption that the it can be attached at all, without disrupting the water pressure or causing blockage of the water. It would also need to operate under the assumption that hard-elements and other polluting elements would eventually accumulate inside the Waterhweel, rendering it inoperative; or otherwise requiring it to be replaced on a semi-regular basis.

These design constraints can be overcome but ultimately translates to one serious problem: exorbitant costs. For a product meant to serve the plight of the poor, this is a bad direction that even wealthy humanitarian groups would likely scoff at; but that’s partially of the next critical flaw:

The Wrong Problem:
Poor societies around the world face a variety of challenges, but insufficient powered light bulbs is unlikely to be chief among them. If you’re looking for a better approach to lighting homes, the Liter of Light project is a superior design solution (though admittedly it wouldn’t work at night). While having lights that turn on when the power goes out (or when there’s no power at all) can both be a major convenience and a boon to productivity, the lack of electrical power extends to much more real and important problems such as refrigeration and essential electronics (such as the case would be for hospitals). These societies would find more utility from getting power for machines, not lights, and affordable power can either from scaling (the reason we have large power plants rather than small ones in every home) or at least inefficient low-cost power generators (such as gas power generators or even human power generators). The confluence of high cost as with the ES Pipe Waterwheel and low efficiency dooms it to failure.

The Lesson:
This idea can probably go down as good intentioned flawed by poor execution and little understanding of the user. It’s a classic throw-technology-at-a-problem approach. Instead of a cheap way of solving a serious issue with impoverished cultures, it creates an expensive way to solve a unimportant problem. This also reveals that designers have to think much harder when creating product solutions for users outside of their general comfort zone (which is typically 20-30 something affluent first world citizens) and that we cannot simply use the same methods and technology and expect the proper results.