In Uganda, I learned first-hand a lesson that is laid out as a broadly applicable framework in Kentaro Toyama’s new book, Geek Heresy.
The person who drove that lesson home is Spiridon Atukunda, the man you see explaining our purifier to a rapt audience in this picture, while I sit nearby and come to terms with how much better things are now going because he stepped in. The context is a refugee camp in Uganda, where moments before I was struggling to communicate, but now was watching understanding register on faces.
This brings me to Toyama’s thesis, which is so simple that it’s nearly self-evident: Technology is only an amplifier of human effort, and does not constitute a pre-packaged, transferable, or scalable solution on its own. If this sounds non-controversial, the utility of the book becomes apparent as soon as he begins pointing out the hypocrisies in how technology is applied to aid and development work, both abroad and in the US. In the context of international aid and development work, that means technology’s success depends on leaders, implementers, and beneficiaries.
At the end of the day, our Smart Solar Purifier is simply a tool that can allow effective aid organizations to amplify the outcomes of their safe water projects, by offering external validation of the results of their work. We offer fast, reliable data on usage where before there was none. Similarly, for end users (beneficiaries) who are motivated to treat their drinking water, we’re offering a tool that lets them do so with much less effort and much higher certainty of success than their existing alternatives.
Understanding and appreciating the appropriate role of technology in aid and development work allows us to make intelligent design decisions, and to take an appropriate role in working with our customers: that of empowering already-effective institutions and individuals to amplify the positive results of their efforts.