One of the most seductive forms of open innovation is to recruit the best minds in the world to work on really tough problems. Often this is done in the form of competitions. And, when the goal of the competition is to make the world a better place by solving a tough social problem, they tend to attract world-class talent as well as considerable press. What’s great is when the people who are attracted to address these challenges have a lot of local knowledge, because without that local knowledge and context, the designs are often fatally flawed.
Two such competitions caught my eye this month:
* Local Motors Goes International: Still Time to Vote on Five Great Vehicle Designs
Shell is sponsoring this competition with Local Motors for the design of appropriate vehicles for five different cities in the world. Each vehicle is supposed to be able to be built from locally sourced materials, be environmentally friendly, and to address a social issue that is specific to the city. It’s really fascinating to look through the entries and to read about both the problems being addressed and the local materials being promoted. It’s also great that in each case, the competitors include designers from the local regions who are familiar with the local traffic and road conditions as well as with the local materials.
Among my favorite designs are:
Romain Chareyre’s “I Love Bangalore” 4-seater diesel/solar-powered on road/off road Rickshaw replacement.
Paulo Enacana’s LM Urban.Pod for Sao Paulo — a gas + electric 2-seater made out of bio-plastics (including sugarcane).
Cosmin Mandita’s Basra Red design of an ambulance designed to get help to people in need in Bara.
You can sign up on the Local Motors/Shell Game-Changer site to vote and comment on the designs for all 5 cities (including Houston and Amsterdam) up through March 4, 2012.
* Recruiting Global Experts to Design a $300 Home for 3rd World Residents
The second competition is the one that the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth ran which resulted in two prototypes for homes (one rural and one urban) that could be built out of local materials for $300. These homes are planned to be built in Haiti as the first test site. You can see the winning entries on the 300house.com blog. This first-prize went to a young woman, pstouter, for “a natural stress-skin panel building system of light fiber and clay upper walls on a heavy earthbag or masonry base.”
As I think about the considerable talent and brain power that has been drawn to these competitions (and others like them), I am reminded of a memorable visit I made to the MIT D Lab a few years ago, with my colleague Mwalimu Musheshe who runs both the Uganda Rural Development and Training Institute and the Ugandan National Agricultural Advisory Services (NAADS). Our host was a remarkable engineering professor, Amy Smith, who runs an amazing program in which she travels with students around the world, finding engineering problems that need to be addressed and combining the talent of her students with the local talents of local craftsmen and inventors to come up with really useful solutions to real-world problems—solutions that can be designed and produced locally—in Latin America, Africa, or Asia.
Amy proudly showed us a series of metal corn-husking tools that had been developed and improved for different types of corn grown around the world. Amy explained that the problem being addressed was that girls and women in poor villages were the ones who were saddled with the task of removing corn kernels from corn cobs in order to prepare the meals every day. She showed how much faster the task was when you used one of these purpose-built metal rings to remove the kernels quickly. Musheshe listened and watched and then he picked up two ears of corn, rubbed them against each other and removed all the kernels faster than the metal device had done. It was a great lesson in context-gathering! Make sure the problem you’re addressing is one that really needs a technical solution!