19 January 2012

Fixing problems from the bottom up

I came up with this idea while leading a discussion in Bonn about "breakthrough" ways to help people in developing countries who are facing facing food and water problems.

After hearing a number of weak hopeful suggestions, I set a few ground rules:
  • You cannot solve problems with lots of money, e.g, vertical farms or build a first world sewer system.
  • You cannot assume cultural evolution, e.g., "act like the Dutch."
The crux (or Nexus) of the solution requires that we find a way to insert the sharp end of the wedge into a problem, as a means of creating some opportunity -- and momentum -- towards overturning an unacceptable status quo (e.g., sporadic, unclean water).

I have two answers to these problems. The small-scale solution is to make it easier for outsiders to understand the scale of the problem -- and the scale of the reward awaiting its solution. (I'll blog on the large-scale solution tomorrow.)

I suggest that each "block" of houses conduct a daily or weekly survey of how much time/money each household spent on gathering and preparing water for consumption. Those statistics could be posted on the corner of the block. That sign would make it easier for residents to understand the scale of the problem they all face, easier for entrepreneurs to understand the rewards awaiting their solutions, and easier for politicians and regulators to understand the scale of water managers' failure to provide good service to citizens.

Such a blackboard on the corner -- a device that allows any message to be broadcast -- could be used for a number of local community problems.

Bottom Line: We need to know the scale of the problem before we can make an appropriate response -- and sometimes "we" need help.


  1. through a mob phone app - nothing special - but needs to be managed (and financed).

  2. Or maybe even better - these data could be collected via text message, aggregated, and totals delivered back to the residents of each "block" at the end of every week.

  3. Maybe it's not about data either.

    We have sewers, etc., because the disease link became too great to ignore.

    Perhaps that's the link that must be highlighted to populations and a few solutions suggested that locals can choose and adapt, if they see fit.

    I just returned from India where many saw no issue with open defecation. I honestly never saw any poop, so I think they had a system in place. Nonetheless, if parents understood the possible disease link with this practice and were shown an affordable toilet system that produces big bananas, papayas, and bamboo stalks, they might be enthusiastic about adopting these.


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