Looming dangers for India’s handloom technologies

July 11, 2012

T. V. Padma

T. V. Padma
South Asia regional coordinator, SciDev.Net


Telling a story is an Irish way of life, and I got to hear several about druids, Celts, Vikings, and the ‘leprechaun’, a mischievous fairy in Irish folklore. So, here is mine – about a British textile loom that headed to India, but ended in Ireland’s Wicklow mountains.  I found it in a corner of Ireland’s oldest working wool mill in the village of Avoca.

The loom’s travel itinerary as it left England in the 19th century, was presumably altered by rough seas and would not have led to a ‘diplomatic incident’ as both countries were then ruled by England. And so, the old ‘Hattersley’ loom —  a power loom for textile weaving to replace hand weaving – came to Avoca.

I was curious about Avoca because I wanted to see how traditional weaving survived against the onslaught of sophisticated textile technologies, mass-produced goods and branded wear in these days of globalisation.

A man using a handloom in India (Flickr/jankie_SquareCrop)

Indian weavers, whose families for generations spun by hand some of the country’s best known (at home at least) products – from the famous Benaras (Varanasi) silk brocade saris to ‘pochampally’ (a typical bright hand-woven pattern) silks and cottons — were, and some still are, in dire straits. Their plight was highlighted by multiple suicides by poor, debt-ridden weaving families  a few years ago,  as their modern power looms took over in India’s newly liberalised economy.

Avoca long ago switched to power looms, albeit the older ones, and has retail chains of its products that are now advertised as traditional crafts. The old loom operated by hands and legs, though working, is more of a ‘touristy’ attraction, than the norm.

Sadly, scientific studies on improving traditional, less energy-intensive technologies are few as they are not recognised as ‘frontier’ science, capable of finding a place in high-impact journals or boosting one’s one scientific career.

Or maybe some  leprechaun or fairy will, one day, help organise conference sessions on how innovation can help traditional technologies survive.

This blog post is part of our ESOF 2012 blog which takes place 11-15 July, 2012. To read news and analysis on themes related to the conference please visit our website.


Hilarious moments from world leaders at #rioplus20

June 23, 2012

Smriti Mallapaty
Freelance journalist from Nepal, SciDev.Net


Live captioning at Rio+20 is a testament to the successes and shortcomings of speech recognition technology today.

That conference organisers trusted the technology enough to let it loose on the plenary floor is impressive, but depending on it to document or report developments could get you into some trouble.

Let the text speak for itself on the difficulties it faces, when at a side event for the Sustainable Energy for All initiative it proclaimed: “The challenge will be how to do even wonderful string”!

Livetext in play at #rioplus20

At the plenary session today, it almost felt like the private sector – quite a prominent presence at this conference – was sending subliminal messages through the Serbian representative’s text, when he made “teleproposals” on the “strength to regional corporation system” and how “2015 can increase Porsche”. Even the “mime minister of Denmark” was culprit to subconscious lobbying, when in calling for “gene jobs and green business” she endorsed a “pro-Pound transition to green economy.”

Civil society may agree with the Iraq representative, when he told the plenary about being “grayed upon as the concept of a green economy, because this preen economy must be autists.”

“Let’s be oftenest”, in the textualised words of Hillary Clinton, there’s a difference between arable land and “airable land”. And the Prime Minister of Samoa may have scripted so, but it is questionable whether Rio is of any “spatial significance” to small island states.

Reading Clinton’s lines would have one believe that she thinks ‘when’ but not ‘whether’ to have kids is a woman’s right: “Women must be empowered to make decisions about Mr. and when to have children”. More to the point, though, was the Somoan PM’s comment on how satisfying everyone’s goals was elusive, and an “exercise in fertility”.

Sometimes subtext emerges in the text, like when Clinton described U.S. efforts “under the I don’t want initiative on urban sustainability”.

But other times it is just a jumbled mess, for example when “the holy seat” stressed the importance of “moving from a merely tech logical model of development, to an intest test test test grellerly human model.”

But deciphering the meaning of the following beauty may be even more difficult than moving world leaders towards a truly sustainable future:

“The fixed number of the changes have corrupted image and is going to increase the number of cars, so the challenge is there, especially in the field of energy we have high energy in the functioning of the board and work that could be utilized.”

This blog post is part of our coverage of Rio+20: United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. To read news and analysis on Science at Rio+20 please visit our website.


Big voluntary commitments to Sustainable Energy For All ( #SE4All ) at #Rioplus20

June 23, 2012

Smriti Mallapaty
Freelance journalist from Nepal, SciDev.Net


It was only ‘noted’ in the final outcome document of Rio+20, but the Secretary General’s Sustainable Energy for All (SE4All) initiative was applauded on the sidelines.

Billions of dollars have been promised to make energy accessible to all
Flickr/Good Neighbors

At the final press conference and three-hour side event following it on 21 June, commitments to universal energy access, and to doubling both efficiency and the share of renewables by 2030 rained down on a packed room.

Over the last nine months, and culminating at Rio, the initiative has collected commitments that, if honoured, will deliver energy access to more than a billion people, mostly in developing countries, and private investment worth over US$50 billion towards all the three targets.

Some countries have made financial pledges, and others have agreed to regulatory reforms. For example, the US will leverage US$2 billion in grants, loans and loan guarantees for clean technology, and Norway guaranteed $140 million to projects in Ethiopia, Kenya and Liberia.

50 states from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and including small island developing states, have signed up to develop energy plans and programmes that would attract investment, some even setting themselves energy targets (Barbados is aiming for 29 percent renewable use by 2029).

A quick skim of the list (see the Cloud of Commitments online http://www.cloudofcommitments.org/commitments/byplatform/sustainable-energy-for-all) reveals that these are mostly an assortment of private sector commitments.

Large financial institutions and banks pledged to finance projects, like Bank of America ($35 billion for energy), and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development ($8 billion for projects in Eastern Europe and Central Asia).

Major companies assured steps towards reducing their own carbon emissions, including Microsoft (carbon neutral by 2013), Nike, Inc. (reducing CO2 emissions by 20 percent in five years), and Unilever (halve environmental impact of products). Some focused on education, like the U.A.E.’s Masdar High School Prize, and GDF Suez’s promotion of social entrepreneurs. And some simply vowed to continue ongoing work, like Statoil’s ‘no production flaring’ policy. The list also includes plans to set up a Clean Energy Finance University, share modelling tools and create jobs.

“This could be the biggest public private partnership of all time,” proclaimed Chad Holliday, chairman of the board of directors of Bank of America and co-chair of the SE4All’s High-Level Group, describing a “new approach of business and government working together for the common good.”

But given their voluntary nature, the challenge following Rio+20 would be to “track those commitments,” said Kandeh Yumkellah, director-general of the UN Industrial and Development Organization and co-chair of the High-level Group. Besides an open-access tracker, the initiative also plans to establish a baseline (set at 2012) and indicators for all three energy targets, similar the Human Development Index.

Some of the initiative’s success with the private sector can be attributed to the fact that renewable energy has become more competitive over the last 20 years. “The time is right for heavy investment in renewables,” said José Goldemberg, Brazilian expert on energy and environment. But “private sector commitment is the least you could ask for,” he added, referring to the failure of governments to commit to any quantitative energy targets in the final outcome document.

So while prize-worthy, the SE4All’s achievements feel more like “a consolation prize.”

This blog post is part of our coverage of Rio+20: United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. To read news and analysis on Science at Rio+20 please visit our website.


What the private sector could do for small farmers

June 21, 2012

Mićo Tatalović

Mićo Tatalović
Deputy news editor, SciDev.Net

Scaling Up: Global Food Security and Sustainable Agriculture’  was presented by the UN Global Compact at the Rio+20 Corporate Sustainability Forum this week (15-18 June).

“Sustainable agriculture will require significantly increased investments in research and application of available technology to improve yields and reduce losses, including bringing this technology to scale for poorer regions of the world,” says an analysis paper prepared for the forum.

Flickr/ Peter Casier

Fiscal constraint means the private sector will have to be “significantly involved” and innovative public-private partnerships will be needed, as well as incentives for private sector involvement, it says.

But so far large-scale commercial farms have benefitted from technology, leaving smallholder farmers behind, the new report says.

Success stories, highlighted in the report, include the RIICE project, which aims to forecast rice production and provide crop insurance for small-scale famers using satellite technology. It targets 5 million smallholder rice farmers in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam and is spearheaded by Allianz Reinsurance and sarmap, a Swiss-based remote sensing company.

Another example is Enel, an Italian energy company, which partnered up with the World Food Program (WFP) to reduce their carbon footprint by supporting high-efficiency cooking stoves and solar panels for WFP’s work including on sites in Ghana and Panama.

There are “islands of success” but the challenge is now to “scale up our best efforts” said Jordan Dey, principal of HKS Global who chaired the session.


This blog post is part of our coverage of Rio+20: United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. To read news and analysis on Science at Rio+20 please visit our website.


If only sustainable development had moved as fast as ICT

June 19, 2012

Smriti Mallapaty
Freelance journalist from Nepal, SciDev.Net


Reminiscing about the quaint information communications technology (ICT) used at the last Earth Summit, Nitin Desai, former Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs at Rio +20, was speculating yesterday what life would be like now if sustainable development had changed in as radical a way.

Flickr/ Fora do Eixo

Desai described how in 1992, the World Wide Web was still an emerging technology, with the web browser Mosaic, credited with popularising the World Wide Web, only launching a year later. Although conference organisers “were quite ahead” and used the Internet two decades ago, it involved using a huge computer with servers occupying half the room. “If you caught connection speeds of 14.4 you were doing wonderfully,” he added, and document transfers would go on through the night.

By those standards, technological transformation has been extraordinary.

At the same venue today, and locations across Rio, 67,000 users can simultaneously access the wifi network set up by the Brazilian company Oi, the official sponsor and supplier of telecommunications services for the conference.

Oi have also installed 1800 broadband access points, 180 internet kiosks to access the conference, and the latest 4G mobile internet service is on demonstration at a side booth. The company also equipped organisers with cloud computing, smartphones and tablets – not that this would distinguish them from the tech-loaded conference attendants.

Paper is on the decline, with PaperSmart services printing only ‘essential’ documents, and only by request. More often than not, it’s easier just to browse through the five official websites dedicated to communicating the latest discussions.

“If sustainable development had moved at the same pace as ICT had, we probably wouldn’t even need this conference,” said Desai, suggesting that sustainable development hitches a ride with speeding technologies.


This blog post is part of our coverage of Rio+20: United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. To read news and analysis on Science at Rio+20 please visit our website.


Football provides electricity to children living off the grid

June 18, 2012

Mićo Tatalović

Mićo Tatalović
Deputy news editor, SciDev.Net


Apart from the high-level discussions, side events at Rio+20 showcase interesting innovations – one of them, that caught my eye, is a football that turns kinetic energy into electricity: SOCCKET.

A 30min football game could power more than 3 hours of light, and a two-hour game will charge a mobile phone, Jessica Matthews, CEO of Uncharted Play, which produces the SOCCKET football, told SciDev.Net.

The ball is built of durable materials with a patented technology packaged at the center of a little black box inside the ball. The ball also lasts for at least three years – much more than an average football, said Matthews.

She was promoting the ball to business people gathered at the Corporate Sustainability Forum, hoping to strike new partnerships to custom-make and distribute the ball to children in poor areas of developing countries.

So far, the football has been distributed to children in Brazil, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, Nigeria and South Africa, but Uncharted Play is looking to expand and reach more of the 1.6 billion people who are currently without electricity.

But at a price of around US$40 it may prove a tough sell.


This blog post is part of our coverage of Rio+20: United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. To read news and analysis on Science at Rio+20 please visit our website.


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. 


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