Change Alley

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Innovate Or Die

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AquaductThe winner of the Innovate or Die Pedal Powered Machine competition is the Aquaduct, a pedal-powered vehicle that stores, filters and transports water. Intended for use in developing countries where clean water is scarce and obtaining it is challenging, the Aquaduct comprises a storage tank, filter, peristaltic pump, clean tank and clutch, mounted within a tricycle-like assembly. As the rider pedals, the pump draws water from the storage tank, through a filter to a 2 gallon clean tank, which can be removed on arrival. When more water is needed, the tank is replaced, the clutch engaged and the Aquaduct can be pedalled while stationary. Videos of all 102 entries to the competition can be viewed here.

ROSSSome of this sounds a little familiar. In December 2007, the BBC’s Dragons’ Den featured a team from Red Button Design, a Glasgow based speculative design company, seeking funding for a product called “Reverse Osmosis Sanitation System” (ROSS), “an innovative water transport, sanitation and storage device designed to bring relief to the 1.2 billion people across the world without access to safe water.” See their pitch here.

The core principles behind both devices are very similar, using the energy from the circular motion of the wheels to pump water through a filter, but the implementations are very different, with the Aquaduct designed to be ridden while ROSS is a tank pulled by a pedestrian.  The Aquaduct won a competition sponsored by Specialized, the cycle company, so the form of the solution was pre-determined by the entry rules. “The answer’s a bicycle, now what’s the problem?” The ROSS team, on the other hand, used the problem as a starting point, and this shows, as does their awareness of issues such as simplicity, robustness, maintenance and cost of ownership. I’m sure that both devices could do a worthwhile job, but on cost grounds alone ROSS wins hands down, at around £20 a pop. Where can you get a customised tricycle for £20 nowadays? Which is more likely to be stolen, a bike or a water tank?

There’s some amazing snobbishness about technology for developing countries. One of the Dragons wanted to compare costs between ROSS and a conventional standpipe/purification plant, as if to suggest this was the only ‘proper’ solution to the water problem. When Freeplay wanted to push Trevor Baylis’s clockwork radio out in the developing world, people got very sniffy about fobbing Africans and Indians off with ‘primitive’ technology. The idea that leaving a plastic bottle of contaminated water in the sun for a day would kill nearly all the microbes was scorned across the board because it would be seen to remove the urgency for providing wells and standpipes. Never mind that thousands of lives could be saved.

Back in the 70s and 80s, there was a brief attempt to move away from the term ‘alternative technology’ to ‘appropriate technology’. These two devices are undoubtedly appropriate, not just for the task they have to perform, but for the environment in which they will be put to work.


3 Responses

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  1. Nothing surpasses the mysteries of science.


    G3 Creative

    G3 Creative Scotland

    January 31, 2008 at 1:02 pm

  2. A bicycle like that won’t last over pot holed and muddy village roads Pete. Stand pipes are far more civilised. Africa shouldn’t be a play ground for Western inventor’s toys.


    January 31, 2008 at 5:51 pm

  3. Exactly my point. The tricycle gizmo was aimed at winning a competition for pedal-powered gadgets, while the pull-along ROSS has been designed from the ground up in conjunction with NGOs to address a specific problem.
    As for standpipes, did you watch the Dragons’ Den video link? The team pointed out that conventional purification plants and pipes can’t be relied on to supply safe water without continued maintenance and supplies of chemicals. Like all fixed infrastructure they are also vulnerable to disruption from war and civil unrest.
    Only one of these devices is a “Western inventor’s toy”. Can you guess which one?

    Pete Smith

    January 31, 2008 at 6:39 pm

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