Tech4Dev 2012 wraps up

June 1, 2012

Naomi Antony

Naomi Antony
Assistant news editor, SciDev.Net


And so, three days of presentations and deliberations in beautiful Lausanne have come to an end.

Tech4Dev 2012 set out to boost the role of science and technology as an agent of social transformation and change.

It aimed to meet this formidable challenge by encouraging participants to share their experiences in the following areas: defining appropriate technologies that respond to social needs and realities; establishing cross-disciplinary partnerships; and improving technology transfer and supporting the co-creation of technologies.

Conference coordinator Nathalie Rizzotti said: “The aim was really to encourage dialogue among [different] disciplines in order that we reflect on how other knowledge, backgrounds, cultures and visions can support our work. We ended up with three intensive and very rich days full of many presentations, side events and debates”.

I had been looking forward to a finalised statement and the identification of 10 gaps and needs for field applications, both of which had been expected outcomes by the end of the three days.

However, Rizzotti said in the closing session: “For us it is too soon to really be able to summarise and realise all what emerged from the diversity of the participants. I think we all need to digest first … the amount of information that was exchanged here during these three days”.

She added that they hoped delegates would reflect in their everyday practice on the issues that had been discussed, and adapt what was presented to their own contexts and realities.

Arun Amirtham of renewable energy non-profit swissmango said the three days had been “tremendous”.

“It’s been inspiring – I’ve been able to tank energy into me from some of the keynote addresses we’ve had.”

“There have been examples of models that do work. It’s not easy – it requires perseverance, it requires stubborness to a certain extent. But it’s been very rewarding to see that there are models that do work.”

He urged the conference organisers to ensure that there is continuity. “How do we stay in touch? [We] need a little bit more prodding and facilitation … to keep us in touch with eachother.”

A summary and statement will be published on the conference website in a few weeks.

This blog post is part of our 2012 Tech4Dev International Conference coverage.


The paradoxes of technology – and how to avoid them

May 31, 2012

Naomi Antony

Naomi Antony
Assistant news editor, SciDev.Net


Few people would doubt the key role that technology has to play in alleviating poverty. But, as Pierre Rossel of the EPFL reminded us in a session on technology and innovation, paradoxes abound – and it is essential to be aware of them if we are to successfully harness technology as a tool for development.

Rossel presented three paradoxes that researchers and practitioners must cope with.

With an uptake of technology – leading to increased productivity and poverty reduction –  emerges the risk of an increased divide between the poor and the extremely poor.

Local innovation is just as important as state-of-the-art technology. Credit: Flickr/joanofarctan

“New divides are reinforced as not everyone has the chance to take up, or learn how to benefit from, the [technology],” said Rossel. “Accompanying measures need to be put in place for broader uptake opportunities.”

The development of local science is often seen as a luxury in poverty-stricken areas and is viewed as difficult to maintain, particularly because it is highly expensive to sustain – but not doing anything is worse. “Basic science training and research capabilities should always be sought after  … even at high cost,” he said.

Thirdly, aid, whether technology-centred or not, is continually is competition with a more entrepreneurial approach to development. At the same time, this entrepreneurial mindset is a fundamental dimension of both the uptake and effective deployment of technology.

Rossel suggested measures for dealing with these paradoxes.

Firstly, he said, researchers and practitioners must be prepared to do several things at the same time. “Even when it seem obvious that technology will solve the problem, several co-factors have to be taken care of, such as continuity, expertise, and social uptake and balance.”

He also urged technology implementers to think beyond imitation. “Local players have their own innovation capabilities, building on local peculiarities or working with scarce resources.” He said that doing it “one’s own way” is always best, and that might mean by-passing or leapfrogging technology to avoid pitfalls.

“Local technology is an important as international state-of-the-art technology.”

Any technology drives must be anchored in receptive and multiplicative contexts, he said. Undoubtedly the first candidates will be cities – however they have concerns of their own and their improvements must not occur in isolation from their surrounding environments.

He added that the costs of technology transfer, knowledge, sharing and more should also be taken into consideration, as well as provisioning for longer-term impacts.

“Technology indeed can work – there is no intrinsic evil in it,” Rossel said. “But there is no such thing as an absolutely appropriate technology. Low tech and high tech features and devices can be mingled and recombined at will.”

This blog post is part of our 2012 Tech4Dev International Conference coverage. 


From R&D to innovation

May 31, 2012

Naomi Antony

Naomi Antony
Assistant news editor, SciDev.Net


For the past couple of days we have been hearing about appropriate technology. This morning it was all about appropriate innovation.

Belgian economist Luc Soete (‘sweaty’ or ‘sweetie’ depending on whether your mother-tongue is French or English, he wryly informed us) discussed the idea of “innovation on the move”, and gave us a brief history of economic growth and its impacts on research and development.

The social aspects of research are often more important than the technical. Credit: Flickr/IICD

We are seeing big changes in the 21st century, Soete said, with the combination of increasingly global aspirations and the new macroeconomics – where part of a nation’s economic growth is sacrificed in favour of stability – leading to a shift in economic growth from the South to the North.

“I like to think of it as [the] world upside down,” he said.

Taking place alongside this is a move from industrial research and development, typified by its high scientific content and its extent of professional specialisation, to innovation, which consists of undetermined outcomes, and trial and error research.

“Traditional industrial R&D is strongly cumulative, it’s replicable. It has agreed-on criteria and we are able to evaluate it,” said Soete. “Innovation is marked by flexibility, it’s hard to replicate, there are trial and error elements due to continually changing environmental conditions.”

Co-creation is also a new part of the game, he said, with users of technology playing an increasingly important role in the R&D process. There is a growing recognition and scope for mutual learning – “innovation by cooperation.”

This sharing of knowledge moves away from the merely technical aspects of research and also considers the economic, social and organisational aspects – which are often more important to innovation.

Soete warned that this knowledge exchange is hindered by the over-concentration of research expenditure in the North, where most research carried out rides on existing infrastructure. “So far we have been focusing on easy research,” he said, but there are new research challenges to tackle.

He called for multidisciplinary research programmes on appropriate innovation – rather than appropriate technology – that focus on solutions that are unwired to high-quality infrastructure and, thus, tailored to resource-poor settings.

This blog post is part of our 2012 Tech4Dev International Conference coverage. 


On the benefits of science shops

May 30, 2012

Naomi Antony

Naomi Antony
Assistant news editor, SciDev.Net


Science shops have been around since the 1970s, when they were first introduced in the Netherlands. But at a lunchtime session led by two passionate advocates from France and Germany, they came across as a fresh, novel concept – so much so that a slide detailing their long history almost took me by surprise.

Science shops link scientists to civil society organisations such as farmers networks.  Living Knowledge, the international science shop network, defines them as providing independent participatory research support in response to concerns experienced by civil society.

Science shops open doors to participatory research. Credit: Living Knowledge

They have no dominant organisational structure – how they work depends entirely on context. They are usually established as part of a university or faculty, but some are independently run.

Speaking on the importance of participatory research with civil society organisations, Claudia Neubauer of the Fondation Sciences Citoyennes said: “Participatory research integrates diverse forms of knowledge – professional, local, traditional – acknowledging that scientific and technological knowledge is necessary but not sufficient for solving current problems”.

Participatory research forces researchers and practitioners to reconsider the notion of scientific excellence, she said.

Her words mirrored the sentiments of this morning’s panel on appropriate technologies. But despite its potential to contribute to a more just society, such research remains marginal and marginalised, says Neubauer.

“We must shatter the myth that only highly complex and cost-intensive technologies can create employment, well-being and sustainability. And we must ensure that [the] concept of innovation includes locally adapted and social forms of innovation.”

“The research and innovation that is prioritised and funded today will have a decisive impact on the future of our societies and our planet. It depends largely on underlying principles and values, how it is governed, and by whom.”

It seems to me that science shops would find an ideal home in the developing world.

Korea and Malaysia started science shops in the 1990s, but these failed to take off. China jumped on board in 2006, followed by South Africa the following years, and both countries have experienced success. But science shops have yet to make further impact in the developing world.

I asked Norbert Steinhaus of Living Knowledge if he had any thoughts on why this may be the case.

He said that he was unsure, and that it was difficult enough spreading the idea throughout Europe and the United States, let alone the developing world. He said that he plans on getting in touch with Tech4Dev delegates presenting research at the conference when he goes back to Germany.

“I’ve been going through the programme and noting down their contact details. I am hopeful that, if they are interested, we could look into setting something up in their home countries.”

This blog post is part of our 2012 Tech4Dev International Conference coverage. 


Neuroscience, theme parks and a Brazilian named Albert

May 30, 2012

Naomi Antony

Naomi Antony
Assistant news editor, SciDev.Net


According to Miguel Nicolelis, it is a common misconception that the Wright brothers invented controlled flight.

They may have invented the aeroplane, he says. But controlled flight? That was discovered by a Brazilian named Alberto Santos Dumont.

What has this got to do with science, technology and the poor? Everything, says Nicolelis, a Brazilian neuroscientist based at Duke University in the United States.

Santos Dumont was an unschooled coffee planter who simply wanted to fly – and through him, the aeronautics industry was born.

“Imagine how many Santos Dumonts there are, waiting to bring their ideas to fruition,” Nicolelis told an enthused audience. “Human talent is everywhere – it can be found in any corner of the world.”

“Brazil has lots of people and lots of creativity, but it has stayed near the bottom of the innovation curve for years – even though its science budget has doubled in the last 8 years. So what is going on?”

Miguel Nicolelis. Credit: Flickr/UnB Agencia

“We have the 3rd largest IT market in the world right now, but we don’t make the technology, we merely consume it. And it’s not for a lack of potential – look at Santos Dumont.”

It was this idea of hidden, untapped talent that inspired Nicolelis to build a neuroscience research institution, a hands-on science school for children and a women’s health centre in the Brazilian northeast, one of the country’s least developed regions.

At his sprawling site, known as the ‘Campus of the Brain’, the mandate is education for life.

A child’s education begins with their first ultrasound and the prenatal care of mothers. When the health centre first opened, 87 out of 100,000 mothers in the region were dying in childbirth. In 5 years this has fallen to 4 out of 100,000, and the centre now has 12,000 appointments a year.

At the school, there are no classrooms – only laboratories. Children learn about science by doing it; by “becoming a scientist”.

They trialled the school with 1,500 children from some of the most deprived areas in the region. Nicolelis showed us a picture of some of the recruits. All had grins a mile wide.

“You see that? They are smiling. These kids actually like to go to school – they arrive an hour before the school opens and sit there waiting to go in.”

“To them it is the best entertainment park they have ever had – and this is the education model we need for the 21st century. We need to educate people to think and to revolutionise the market place. And you only think if you enjoy what you are doing. Most scientists remain scientists [despite the] low pay because it is a lot of fun.”

Children learn astronomy, computer science, physics and robotics, as well as geography and history to encourage them to study their culture and appreciate their heritage.

Everything used in classroom experiments, except the most technical equipment, is built by the children. Nicolelis quipped that there are no longer any electrical fires in the communities because the children fix any bugs themselves.

The drop-out rate is just 2% – compared to the usual 56% before secondary school and 42% of the remainder before university – and many of the students are being accepted into the country’s best universities. Graduates students are catered for too, at the research institute, where top lecturers from around the world come to teach for two months at a time.

Nicolelis was so enthusiastic, so delightfully eccentric, and his talk so inspiring, that it was very easy to get swept away.

Thankfully, one member of the audience brought me back by pointing out the potential difficulties in scaling up a “21st century theme park” where the excitement lies in tangible, hands-on activities. Nicolelis said that they plan on creating virtual labs that simulate microscopes, telescopes and so on so that anywhere – even a bathroom or a garage – can become an environment of learning.

Not quite the same. Still, I know many people who wouldn’t mind being 12 again to have a chance at an educational experience that doesn’t involve rote learning.

This blog post is part of our 2012 Tech4Dev International Conference coverage. 


Looking beyond the technical

May 30, 2012

Naomi Antony

Naomi Antony
Assistant news editor, SciDev.Net


Today, at the session ‘Research that Considers the Real Needs of the Forgotten Poor’, I got to hear about the rich discussions on appropriate technology that had taken place in the rest of yesterday’s workshops.

Workshop chairs were given the unenviable task of providing us with 5-minute summaries of the proceedings and, in the process, attempting to pin down what exactly an appropriate technology is.

Anna Crole-Rees of agricultural organisation CRC4change offered a potential definition – a technology that is “socially, culturally and economically accepted by beneficiaries”.

Cultural preference are a key factor when developing technologies for the poor. Credit: Flickr/orange tuesday

“We have a pool of solutions, but we need to think about how to disseminate them and customise them for various geographical settings,” she said.

There was knowing laughter around the room when she called on researchers to think not only about accumulating a list of publications but also about how to turn their invention into an innovation.

“We must value the innovation [rather than] the invention. Innovation is an [invention] that has been implemented and is creating impact.”

Pierre Philippe of the organisation Terre des Homme, which works to boost the living conditions of children around the world, echoed her sentiments with a plea to researchers to remain humble and never lose sight of the project goal – acknowledging that the balance between self-interest and the interests of the poor can often be a difficult one to strike.

He reminded us that technology is still mistakenly regarded as a magic bullet, and that this bullet often responds to needs that are not designed by or for the poor.

“Technology must be context-specific and user-specific. It must take as many cultural particularities, demands and needs into account as possible,” Philippe said.

Other discussions emanating from the workshop sessions included calls for transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary research, the development of local research capacity, feasibility studies that include beneficiaries from the very beginning, business models for implementing new technologies, and training locals in the use of new technologies to help ensure sustainability.

I do not personally think it is possible to provide a textbook definition of an appropriate technology – it’s just too context-specific to be narrowed down in that way.

However, I did leave the session feeling encouraged that, despite the wide range of topics covered, from climate change and energy to water and sanitation, Tech4Dev participants are, for the most part, on the same page, calling for holistic approaches to the development of new technologies for the poor that look beyond the mere technical and create a transparent dialogue with beneficiaries.

Bring on the manifesto.

This blog post is part of our 2012 Tech4Dev International Conference coverage. 


Technological innovation in the Francophonie

May 29, 2012

Naomi Antony

Naomi Antony
Assistant news editor, SciDev.Net


At this morning’s plenary we had the opportunity to hear about some of the research taking place at EPFL (the Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne) ­– UNESCO Chair for Technologies in Development and our conference host.

One project that particularly piqued my interest was RESCIF – the Francophone Network of Excellence in Engineering Sciences.

Launched last year, the network harnesses French-speaking culture as a tool for innovation in technology.

RESCIF has fostered partnerships between leading research institutions in Francophonie countries around the world, including Cameroon, Haiti, Sengal and Vietnam to name a few, forming joint laboratories, educational programmes and internships for young engineers, partnerships with industry, and solidarity action in Haiti to help rebuild two universities that were destroyed in the 2010 earthquake.

Its chosen areas of focus are food security, nutrition, and energy and water in the context of climate change.

RESCIF is putting the spotlight on Francophone research. Credit: ILRI

In its own words, RESCIF was created on four assumptions:

  1. That emerging countries will increase in number over the next decades;
  2. That science and technology will play an increasingly important role in their future development;
  3. That new forms of partnership with the universities of these countries are therefore possible and desirable;
  4. That these partnerships are the best means of curbing the brain drain currently penalizing their development.

Philippe Gillet, EPFL’s vice-president for academic affairs, told us this morning that the goal of the network is to develop innovative technologies that are most essential for developing countries.

Sometimes, what developed nations with good intentions define as “essential” is far removed from the real needs of the poor. So I was relieved when Gillet went on to clarify that such technologies must be affordable to acquire and maintain; durable and sustainable; adapted to the context (cue silent “hurrah” from yours truly); and scientifically valid.

There must be real vision on how any proposed technologies will be implemented in the field, he said.

Now that’s research I can get on board with.

This blog post is part of our 2012 Tech4Dev International Conference coverage. 


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