Today I attended the Seattle Interactive Conference, a gathering of designers, artists, and other creative types. There were also a few of us left brain folks. I spent the day participating in the Design Swarm, where six teams put together proposals to speed deployment of the MSR SE200, a device that can make enough chlorine out of salt water to provide clean drinking water for an entire village. To understand the importance of this, all you need to know is that there are four billion cases of diarrhea world wide leading to 2.2 million deaths per year—mostly of children under the age of five. Even if the ideas that came out of the swarm only helped a little, this could still have an enormous impact, given the size of the problem.
Each team worked to study the barriers to wider use of the SE200 and possible apporaches to increase the number of people who would benefit from the technology. To help us understand the problem were staff from Mountain Safety Research (MSR), who developed the SE200, and people from World Vision and Operation Blessing, who have deployed the SE200 in countries around the world.
Based on my team’s conversation with Bill from Operation Blessing, my team chose to focuse on cultural barriers to acceptance, especially resistance by men who are concerned that the SE200 is part of some nefarious government plot. As you can see, the process involves lots of post it notes.
After six hours we had a story board to describe our approach:
- A pop song by a national artist that discussed the important of clean water
- The song would spark conversations around the country
- A program in the schools that leveraged the song and taught that clear water is not necessarily clean
- Working with local leaders to have them discuss the importance of clean water and introduce the SE200 to the community, including a demonstration.
I think this is a solid approach to overcoming the cultural barriers, which is what my group was addressing, but doesn’t address the biggest barrier to entry: the lack of capital to build and distribute the tens of thousands of the devices needed to really provide access to clean water. It also doesn’t address the lack of the distribution networks needed. So here’s what I think we should do in addition to what my team presented.
The approach should be modeled more on Pepsi and Coke than charity. MSR (the manufacturer) and PATH (the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health), which helped fund the development, would look for partners in target countries with capital and looking for a new business. These business would commit to a volume large enough to allow MSR to ramp-up production and drive the cost down to $100 per unit wholesale. In turn, these in-country companies would lease the devices to local entrepreneurs, who would operate the device and either sell chlorine or clean water.
The business would get a region where they would have exclusive rights, just like a Coke distributor. In exchange for that, they would have a fixed price of about $0.50 a day that they could charge the local entrepreneur. The local entrepreneur can make enough chlorine to purify 10,000 liters of water by operating the SE200 for nine hours a day, which should be enough to serve multiple villages. He would be restricted to selling clean water for about a penny for five liters. This would allow for revenue of $20 a day, six times the national average for Kenya. Even factoring in the cost of power and labor, this would be a tidy profit. Anyone caught charging a higher rate would not be allowed to continue in the program, which is a strong incentive not to cheat.
None of this is to criticize the organizations that are currently deploying the SE200. They’ve proven the device works in real world situations, which will make getting the private sector business on board easier. In some cases they will need to keep doing what they’re doing. For instance, Operation Blessing has a focus on disaster relief and that work will continue to be valuable.
Participating in the design swarm was lots of fun and a great learning experience. I have a tendency to jump to trying to solve a problem and the design process forces one to slow down and think more deeply. It was great to hear the thinking of the more right brained in the team and to withhold judgement until we all had a chance to digest the problem. I was very impressed with the MSR team and the really cool and important device that they created. I’m hoping that some of the ideas that came out of the swarm helps them make it the huge success it should be.
If you’re interested in helping get more of the SE200s out in the world saving lives, there’s a Indiegogo campaign to raise money to build and deploy more of them. For $160 you can provide clean drinking water to a village for years to come.