One of the first tasks in new product development is to research prior art. What exists in the space, what works, what doesn’t, and why. It’s a task that is frequently skipped within the development community to the detriment of funders, organizations, and those who were supposed to benefit from the product. A frequently used (but poorly credited) statistic states that 95% of technologies intended for developing countries fail. This 95% represents hundreds of millions of dollars of aid money wasted annually. Many of the organizations that make up that statistic fail because they are reinventing (unsuccessful) wheels.
You can blame these organizations for not doing their research, but to their credit, few tools exist that bridge the knowledge gap between the realities on-the-ground and development professionals. Appropedia and Practical Action do a wonderful job of documenting a wide variety of open-source appropriate technologies. Kopernik does a great job of showcasing existing products and technologies in the market. And a variety of specialized organizations developing technologies in the areas of food processing (e.g. Compatible Technologies International) or agriculture (e.g. Open Source Ecology) offer free how-to guides for each technology they develop. But it’s challenging to find these sites and an aggregated database doesn’t exist.
Enter Engineering for Change (E4C). In 2009 the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) invested in a website that would attempt to bridge the gap by aggregating information, hosting a technology library, and providing tools to enable collaboration amongst teams worldwide. The beta site was released in early 2010 to select users. IEEE and EWB-USA then joined as partners for the public launch of the revised site on January 4th, 2011. Users can search for general information on specific sectors: water, energy, health, agriculture, sanitation, structure, and info systems. They can search for projects in their region or sector of interest. Or search the solutions library for an overview of established products and technologies. Anyone anywhere can create a workspace and engage an international audience of users for new ideas, technical information, or concept feedback. A low-bandwidth version is in the works to facilitate engagement in places where accessibility is challenging.
Eager for input, E4C is touring select cities hosting feedback sessions in an effort to get organizations and individuals aware of the site, engaged, and to provide users a voice for a tool that is ultimately intended for them.
Call it a catalog, database, research or collaboration tool – with the accessibility of the internet worldwide, a tool of this capacity is what the design and development sector has needed for decades. You can anticipate the launch of similar sites later this year from prominent non-profit and for-profit entities in the design and development space. But now the challenge lies in ensuring the “success” of these sites. Will people and organizations join? Add to the databases? Will they attract the host of multi-disciplinary professions involved in the development of these solutions? And will the rise of too many sites at once negate the impact of the efforts? Stay tuned.