Thursday, April 28, 2011

Review of Lego Energy Workshop

As we talked about in a previous post, Empower Design held a Lego energy camp during the Ann Arbor public schools' spring break. Being the first time our group had hosted the camp, it was a success. Not only did we raise a lot of money to send to the technical institute in Uganda, but we also garnered enough additional interest to start planning additional camps over the summer. Here are a few pictures from the camp.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Workshop: Technology Transfer Table

The technology transfer table is the most important part of the workshop, as it is crucial to ensuring that the local people can take control of the project once we leave. What makes this portion so important is because all of the work done in this section is completely hands-on. Basically, the technicians in the workshop are given simple materials and asked to build a model of one of the devices we are building in the area, such as a windmill. Once their model is built, they must translate the materials they used in the shop to what materials they would use to build the actual machine and the cost of the materials. Their work is then critiqued by professional, high-quality technicians. This not only ensures that the local technicians understand how the devices are built and work, but also that they are learning how to design the most cost efficient model. It is our goal that once this portion of the workshop is complete, the technicians will be able to become successful in carrying out the project and independent of our group. At the end of the course, those who complete it will be given a certificate showing they are certified to make and sell the devices covered in the workshop.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Workshop: Business Curriculum

The goal of our group is that once we leave the area, the local people will be able to successfully sustain development of the devices they have learned to make. That is why in this portion of the workshop, we help raise the awareness of different marketing methods. We challenge the local people to question to who, what, and how they would market the technologies. For example, the technicians may be able to go to a neighboring village and demonstrate how a bicycle generator is more efficient than a diesel generator because multiple people in the village can use this device. Hopefully this would lead to the village seeking an outside donation or money from a relative, and the money earned from this would go toward building more devices. While this section of the workshop might be more difficult for those without a business background, we try to give them the most hands-on education possible by forcing them to come up with marketing ideas and then critiquing them. This way, they learn from their own good and bad ideas in the boardroom, and it is our hope that this translates to success in the real world.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Workshop: Physics Curriculum

The physics portion of the curriculum focuses primarily with how the devices are built and run. It covers what materials are needed, how the fundamental parts of each device are built, and the physics behind the design and how each part actually works. This is probably the easiest section for people in the workshop, for most of them are trained technicians and easily grasp these ideas.

The following table illustrates our overall six tier curriculum on the physics of energy conversions. Each tier builds upon the next tier as well as introduces new physics concepts to better understand the fundamentals of energy.

Before beginning any of these devices (besides the bicycle or hand-crank generator), we make sure to build a model out of wood or plastic first. We have a model built for every design developed in Africa. After intense critique of the design and robust debate over which local materials should be used and how the device should be built (which may last several days), only then do we purchase the equipment and go to the garage to build. After building and testing each device, we then completely transfer to the Business of Energy curriculum to pilot each device. Here are some pages from the current draft of the physics curriculum, as written by Abigail Mechtenberg who has her doctorate in Applied Physics from the University of Michigan.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Workshop: Introduction

As we have stated before, what distinguishes our group from others is that we believe in empowering the local people to have complete control over devices that are implemented in their area. This means not only teaching them how to design different technologies, but also the physics behind it (so that they may maintain, repair, and improve upon the devices) and the business aspect of it (marketing the devices, raising money to obtain money to build more devices). This is achieved through a weeklong workshop that we hold for technicians at the local technical institute, and that will be the topic of our blog this week.

For further information and pictures of our actual curriculum, you can visit

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Lego Energy Workshop

This spring break, Empower Design will be holding a Lego energy camp fundraiser in order to raise money to travel to Africa. The camp is to be held for kids attending Ann Arbor middle and high schools.

The camp is primarily headed by Abigail Mechtenberg, faculty advisor for Empower Design and Research Fellow at the University of Michigan. In this weeklong camp, kids learn all about different renewable energy technologies and the energy transfer systems associated with them. Here is an example of a Lego guide to building a hydroelectric generator.

Just as these kids are building small scale Lego models of different devices, in Africa our curriculum involves a technology transfer table. This basically allows technicians to liken the small scale parts to actual building materials. The technology transfer table is the last and most essential part of our curriculum in Africa.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Hydroelectric - Beginning Microgrids

This video shows two technicians, Patrick and Gerald, testing the first
hydroelectric generator. It worked, but immediately the technicians
destroyed it and started to build a bigger version. Now that they went from
having the bicycle generator powering a light bulb and then a colored tv...
they want their hydroelectric generator run a tv! While they are doing
this, you can see in the background the vertical wind turbine (a discussion
left for another blog coming soon).

A lot of times when groups bring devices to developing nations, they simply
mass implement their machinery throughout the area. This is because they
have the mindset that if a device works from an engineering aspect, then it
will have success in the field. Our research, however, disputes this
approach, for it ignores the area’s social constraints and the ability of
local technicians. Once again, the philosophy of designing with Africans
versus designing for Africans comes up. When you design with Africans, you
design technologies that are needed in the area and utilize local resources
and geography, something that doesn’t happen when you design for
Africans. An example of this is the hydroelectric generator and something
Professor Debey will be immediately implementing in Liberia after they
successfully go through the bicycle generator knowledge.

Therefore, we believe in creating micro-grids where we first test each
individual device success in a small area and then all the devices together
in the same area. While this may take longer and is less efficient, it
ensures that all of the local constraints are satisfied and increases the
probability of our endeavors having success - it is therefore more
effective. Once our micro-grid shows that our devices will work, then we
plan on expanding them throughout the entire area. Since few will believe
this, we will start talking next week about our curriculum including
building a small scale microgrid.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Industrial Designer about "Design for the Other 90% Paradigm"

Like many design students in the U.S. I fell in love with the idea of using design to help developing countries. This career path seemed to align with my two chief interests: designing stuff and helping others. I soon found a small project I could sink my teeth into, and with the support of my professors I began working tirelessly, with the passion and vivaciousness that comes from working with a purpose.

The goal was to design a low tech dirt mixer for use with Dr Moses Musaazi's (our colleague at Technology for Tomorrow) interlocking soil-stabilized block (ISSB) press. This ISSB machine is a simple, lever-operated tool which compresses a mixture of soil and concrete into an interlocking brick shape. As I used the machine on a mission trip I found most of my energy went into mixing the elements of soil and concrete(which was done by hand with shovels), whereas the compressing phase was quite easy. Hence my training in design dictated this mixing process needed improving upon. The first design that I sent over was a goliath of a machine, which was designed to never break and mix a very large quantity of soil as fast as possible, via hand cranks and gears. This mixer was doomed from the beginning. It was a product of the wrong approach to aid: ambitious people going to a foreign country and trying to crank out a "life-changing difference" as fast as possible. Needless to say, this project failed. The people who received it didn't understand how to use it, they had no respect for it as it was simply dropped upon their feet so it fell into the disrepair that I so desperately wanted to avoid. Despite the simple design, fixing the device was understandably more trouble than it was worth. Utter failure. Ouch.

On my second trip to Uganda, I had the privilege of working within Dr. Musaazi's company, Technology for Tomorrow Ltd, as an intern. No making the same mistakes twice, I told myself. This time, the mixer would be designed from local materials alongside local craftsman to ensure we created a machine that was easier to use, easier to fix and cheaper to make. The resulting design was an eclectic hodgepodge of parts found in nearby markets: car parts, an oil drum, scrap steel, among numerous other repurposed components. Despite being far more affordable and user friendly, this project also became an unused piece of the landscape as well and it certainly wasn't built for aesthetics! Though it addressed numerous failures of its predecessor, it fell to scrap for the same fundamental reason. It was not driven and invested-in by Ugandans so after the foreigner's work was done, it stagnated. Finally I truly understood that I was my own worst enemy.

My passion for design and for improving lives blinded me from the true situation. I saw problems that I wanted to fix, and I wanted to see that fix as soon as possible. What I missed was that Ugandans don't just need designs, they need to start designing. Abigail Mechtenberg once spoke of design as bread; design has the ability to tangibly improve peoples lives, but to dedicate a career to designing for the other 90% is just as unsustainable as spending a lifetime donating food. Certainly there are times when relief work is absolutely needed, in times of emergency and crisis. But spending a lifetime donating food to people that have the ability to farm, is no worse than designing for people that have the ability to design. Should foreigners design to fix problems or should we instead empower design?

- Blog Written by Daniel Morgan, an amazingly talented industrial designer whose humility in this blog is to a level which at times is not completely accurate. He co-designed many devices in Uganda and left a legacy and friendships in Uganda which will continue throughout his lifetime. As he goes back to school, he has dreams of co-founding a Design School at Makerere University. He shared what few ever learn... globally, we need to move beyond aid or the perfect imported technology/idea and into Ugandan research and development (R&D). An imperfect device with the backing of Ugandans is MUCH better than a supposedly perfect device with no backing. Note: a device will be backed-up by Ugandans IF it is affordable and most importantly repairable!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Designing With Africans

Chelsea Ransom is a dual-degree master’s student at the University of Michigan, and part of our Empower Design team. She has had previous experience in Africa, as she helped bring clean water to a small Malian village as a member of the Peace Corps. She recently applied to and received the prestigious William Davidson Institute Student-Initiated Summer Internship Grant for an internship in Uganda under Dr. Moses Musaazi, a colleague of Dr. Mechtenberg. Bellow is an excerpt from her application, which details our research team’s philosophy of designing with Africans as opposed to for them:

“Many well-meaning organizations and companies are unsuccessful in Africa when it comes to the sustainability of their projects. Often this is due to the processes used in development of their technologies or concepts. I personally experienced frustration living in Africa over and over again, especially in the technological realm, with new, unsustainable medical, energy, or water devices. Sometimes these “sustainable” devices are purely western in nature, such as photovoltaic solar panels, which were designed for the western world and imported into Africa. Other devices like the solar oven I owned in Africa are designed by westerners for Africans. Frequently, these devices are too complicated to repair, impossible to manufacture locally, too expensive for the majority, or simply impractical. Unfortunately these projects are the ones gaining recognition (Rosenthal 2010), while locally designed, more sustainable projects are not. Many of these organizations are failing to grasp the underlying elements of success. In my experience, the difference between unsuccessful and successful projects lies in the difference between designing for Africans and designing with Africans. Organizations often design and implement projects but never return to evaluate its sustainability. If they did return, they would likely be disappointed to find their expensive gifts broken and in disrepair. Furthermore, there are many technologies being designed by Africans to meet their own needs, and these technologies are often not brought to market as discussed [in recent articles].”