PopTech Blog

PopTech Editions II: Sameer Kalwani on Sarvajal's clean water micro-infrastructure

Recently, PopTech launched its second Edition, Small is beautiful: The micro-everything revolution. Our Editions explore an emerging theme at the edge of change from the perspective of some of the remarkable innovators shaping it. In the coming weeks, we’ll highlight pieces from contributors who are exploring the dynamics of the micro-everything revolution, from design and engineering for radical affordability to overcoming hurdles to distribution. Today, we’re excerpting a piece from  2011 PopTech Social Innovation Fellow Sameer Kalwani who developed the technology platforms for Sarvajal.

From telecommunications to transportation, India has made rapid advances in its infrastructure. At Sarvajal, we hope to be on the forefront of India’s next technological evolution – basic services infrastructure — as we strive to meet our mission of providing high-quality drinking water to every denizen. Previous water distribution models relied on large-scale production and would often take years to implement, not to mention costly transportation system and high maintenance expenditures. On top of that, poor infrastructure would lead to severe product losses. For example, in New Delhi, up to 40% of the treated, clean water is lost through pilferage and cracked pipes. But Sarvajal has worked to alleviate some of these issues; a new decentralization of the filtration process allows us to distribute water for a fraction of the previous cost and get to every nook and cranny of a population.

Our micro-franchise solutions get high-quality, low-cost solutions to those who are marginalized by the lack of better infrastructure support that’s typically in urban slums and rural villages. Bottled water and other private solutions are usually available in these areas, but are often quite costly, keeping a necessary resource out of reach for the poor. Our micro-franchise solution in the town of Churu, in Rajasthan, brought the price of private drinking water down to less than one cent per liter. Now more people can afford clean water who didn't have access to it before. Over the course of the past year that Laxmangarh, Rajasthan has been an active franchise, we've seen the number of customers more than double, so people are actually adopting the solution and getting their friends to use it as well.

In many small rural villages there are no solutions for their contaminated water. For example, in Mundawar, villagers knew they had an issue with their water system, but without public or private sector attention they had no alternatives. With Sarvajal in their village, they have a solution, and it has encouraged more people to drink clean water. For example, a 43-year old woman named Laxmi had been bedridden for five years and was asked by her doctors to drink clean water, but she had no financial means to do so. In an effort to permeate previously unreached villages, Sarvajal partnered with a local entrepreneur in Mundawar to provide a solution to the villagers’ water-based health problems. A year after Sarvajal entered Mundawar, Laxmi and others can use and afford clean water, providing them with improved health both short- and long- term.

Read the full article and check out the complete Edition.

Image: Sarvajal

This week in PopTech: Possible cures, potential failures and definite cuteness

There's always something brewing in the PopTech community. From the world-changing people, projects and ideas in our network, a handful of this week's highlights follows.

If you'd like to receive a stream of these updates (and more) throughout the week in real time, follow us on TwitterTumblrFacebook, sign up for our newsletter, and subscribe to the PopTech blog.

Image: ntr23

Peter Durand paints a picture of PopTech Iceland 2012

Graphic facilitator extraordinaire and long-time PopTech friend Peter Durand came to Iceland to do what he does best whenever PopTech hosts a conference: he sketched and sketched...and sketched some more. The outcome, portraits of each speaker and performer who took the stage, paints a captivating, colorful picture of the two-day event in Reykjavik. Have a look at our slideshow of his work:

Who needs refrigeration when we have silkworms?

Supporting innovation in healthcare is a key part of PopTech's agenda. We highlight the work of amazing people in our community like Raj Panjabi, and his efforts to build scalable health solutions for war-stricken countries, Matthew Berg and Josh Nesbit’s work to revolutionize health services through mobile technology, architect Michael Murphy’s buildings that heal, and Hayat Sindi’s use of tools micro-fabricated in paper to make diagnostic care available to people living far from medical infrastructures. Every so often, a piece of innovation comes along that broadsides everyone, knocks our socks off, and--hopefully--changes the game forever.
Researchers at Tufts University School of Engineering have discovered a way to maintain the potency of vaccines and other drugs that otherwise require refrigeration for months and possibly years at temperatures above 110 degrees F, by stabilizing them in a silk protein made from silkworm cocoons.

"Silk protein has a unique structure and chemistry that makes it strong, resistant to moisture, stable at extreme temperatures, and biocompatible, all of which make it very useful for stabilizing antibiotics, vaccines and other drugs,” says David Kaplan, leader of the team.

The trick happens at the molecular level. Silk protein fibroin is composed of interlocked crystalline sheets with numerous tiny hydrophobic pockets. The pockets trap and immobilize bioactive molecules, protecting them from the decompositional effect of water and preventing them from unraveling. It’s like enveloping a fragile material in what’s being called “nanoscale Bubble Wrap”.

It is currently necessary to keep bioactive drugs refrigerated all the way from manufacture to use, wherever that may be on the globe. Health experts estimate that nearly half of all global vaccines are lost due to breakdowns in the "cold chain”. The potential for off-infrastructure healthcare, including in war and disaster zones where electricity is unavailable, is enormous.
But here’s perhaps the most remarkable thing. The team believe it will be possible to construct shapes and forms out of the pharmaceutical-infused silk, such as microneedles, microvesicles and films, that allow the non-refrigerated drugs to be stored and administered in a single device. Watching this design story unfold will be fascinating, and no doubt biotech visionaries like artist Daisy Ginsberg will be grabbing themselves a front row seat.

via Tufts University

Image: thanatic

Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back

After three years of work, Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back, which PopTech Executive Director Andrew Zolli co-authored with Ann Marie Healy, is available through Free Press. The book explores a new framework for understanding resilience: why some systems, people, organizations and ecosystems are able to persist, and even thrive, amidst disruption. Zolli elaborates:

We live in this world that has been dominated by shocks and surprises....How do we deal with that kind of world? That question has driven a new conversation about resilience. It's a conversation about how to build organizations and communities and nations and indviduals that can maintain their core purpose with integrity under the widest variety of circumstances and can deal with disruption no matter what it looks like.

Update: Zolli has also penned an opinion piece in the New York times exploring this theme in the wake of the devastation left by Hurrican Sandy. 

The resilience frame speaks not just to how buildings weather storms but to how people weather them, too. Here, psychologists, sociologists and neuroscientists are uncovering a wide array of factors that make you more or less resilient than the person next to you: the reach of your social networks, the quality of your close relationships, your access to resources, your genes and health, your beliefs and habits of mind.

For a visual explanation of a few themes covered in Resilience, have a look at the book's trailer.

To learn more, check out the book's site or this great review by Morgan Clendaniel on Fast Co.Exist.

PopTech Editions II: Nigel Waller's Movirtu is micro-izing the mobile phone

Recently, PopTech launched its second Edition, Small is beautiful: The micro-everything revolution. Our Editions explore an emerging theme at the edge of change from the perspective of some of the remarkable innovators shaping it. In the coming weeks, we’ll highlight pieces from contributors who are exploring the dynamics of the micro-everything revolution, from design and engineering for radical affordability to overcoming hurdles to distribution. Today, we’re excerpting a piece from Movirtu founder and 2009 PopTech Social Innovation Fellow Nigel Waller.

I wanted to see firsthand who owned cell phones and who did not. It was 2006 and I was near the border of Zimbabwe and South Africa. Driving between villages with my two local guides, pushing further north, at first it was hard to find people without phones. To my untrained eye, there was little difference between a village housing people earning $2 a day and those earning $1.25 a day. Once I became aware of that, I asked the villagers directly about their earnings. I was quickly able to map the poorer villages and found that mobile phone ownership levels dropped once the person’s earnings went below $2 a day. If you’re earning $2 a day, a $25 handset is 10 months savings for the 2.5 billion people worldwide who live below the poverty line. There seemed to be a huge opportunity, not only for a low-cost mobile phone, but also an opportunity to make a difference for these people without access.

Because I’d been involved in the mobile phone industry since its birth in the late 80s, I immediately started thinking about designing a low-cost handset.

After reading about the endeavors of Motorola and other handset vendors in that space and the very low product margins they had to endure I quickly backed off. Village pay phones was another model I investigated, but without a capability for users to have their own phone number and keep private calls and messages, the pay phones only provided a limited outbound calling service. Let’s create a pay phone with an external SIM card slot‚ I thought, but then after a little research, I understood the prices of such devices would be well over $700 a piece.

The scope of this opportunity kept churning in the back of my mind. Two years later I had the spark! My oversight was taking the product I knew, the mobile phone, and trying to find a way to make it cheaper. What I needed to do was rethink a new technical solution. Linking the mobile phone number to the handset was the mistake. Why not put the identity in the cloud and allow people to log in and log out of any shared or public device that was nearby, just like accessing your email through a web browser? I would use standard signaling technology that was available on any basic handset to provide the "Internet link" and access a phone in the cloud that would cost the user 20c a pop, instead of $25. I had managed to turn the problem on its head, and micro-ize the mobile phone.

Read the full article and check out the complete Edition.

Image: Movirtu

This week in PopTech: Contextualizing Iceland

There's always something brewing in the PopTech community. From the world-changing people, projects and ideas in our network, a handful of this week's highlights follows.

If you'd like to receive a stream of these updates (and more) throughout the week in real time, follow us on TwitterTumblrFacebook, sign up for our newsletter, and subscribe to the PopTech blog.

Image: Trollbäck + Company

PopTech Iceland in photos

We came, we saw...and we took hundreds of photos. PopTech Iceland 2012, which wrapped up this past weekend, couldn't have been better! Speakers presented from all over the world, musicians collaborated for the first time on PopTech's stage, hundreds of balloons surrounded us, Reykjavik enthralled us, and attendees shared in meaningful conversations with one another. Here's a peak at PopTech Iceland 2012 through photos. We look forward to sharing more with you soon!

For more, head over to Flickr where you can find PopTech's full set of photographs from our time in Iceland.

The energy and beauty of Iceland

Nesjavellir geothermal power plant
This past weekend, to round out PopTech’s time in Iceland, we went adventuring outside the city. Of course we’d heard about Iceland’s geothermal wonder as well as the beautiful landscape that lies outside of the city, but we wanted to see it for ourselves. Extremely knowledgeable husband-and-wife tour guide team Gretar Ivarsson and Anna Dis Sveinbjornsdottir provided 15 of us with a jam-packed excursion and accompanying narration. As we drove away from the city center, Gretar kicked off the tour with a fun fact to ponder: “5,000 years ago was the last known occurrence of lava flowing over Reykjavik. But, it could happen again.”

We took a scenic drive to the Nesjavellir geothermal power plant, which is located in the heart of Iceland’s largest geothermal areas in the Hengill area. Along the way, Gretar directed our attention to the pipeline running alongside the road. Hot water is channeled into these pipes from the power plant and gravity takes it the 16 miles to Rekjavik -- in about seven hours -- to bring energy to the city. He also directed our attention to the topography, reminiscent of images of the surface of the moon, which was formed from post-glacial lava flow from about 100,000 years ago.

Once we arrived at the plant, Gretar, also a trained geologist who happens to work at the plant, took us on a tour, tinged with the smell of sulfur, to wells covered by geodesic dome-like structures, murky-looking, steaming geothermal pools, and retro-futuristic structures with steam billowing into the sky. As we walked from the power plant to the water tanks, he explained the technological and engineering feats involved to harness geothermal power, breaking it down into three phases: the collection and processing of steam, the heating of cold water, and the production of electricity.

From there, we hopped back on the bus and headed to Þingvellir, a UNESCO World Heritage site and stunning place to boot. Þingvellir is well-known as junction between the American and Eurasian tectonic plates, a part of the mid-Atlantic Ridge. It’s also the site for the largest natural lake in Iceland. Because of its central location, it was also the first place where Iceland’s parliament gathered once a year beginning around 930 A.D.

Incredibly, we hiked into the rift that had been formed over thousands of years (and that continues to shift about 3 mm each year). We had to take a detour because a plate shift, which had taken place only a few months ago, destroyed the direct route to the hiking trail! As we hiked through the valley, Anna directed us to the site where the parliament first convened and to the “Drowning River” where Vikings, for a time, would drown women who became impregnated out of wedlock and for other female-specific offenses.

Can you spot the troll(s)?

She gave us a lesson on the difference between Icelandic trolls, elves and hidden people in Icelandic lore, pointing out, as we walked through the ridge (passing a waterfall, no less!), where trolls had turned to stone when they’d been exposed to sunlight.

The tour wrapped up at a locale along the crystal clear river where visitors (including many of us on our tour) make a wish before tossing a krona or two into the coin-infused glittering water.

PopTech Iceland: Day 2 recap

The second and final day of our conference in Iceland has drawn to a close and yet again, it was quite a day! Today, we heard from a whale anatomist, a computer geek, a Sugarcube, an activist poet, and a risk assessment expert, all of whom spoke about resilience as it relates to their respective fields. PopTech’s Andrew Zolli kicked off the morning by posing a modquestion about the kind of resiliency that’s required when circumstances don’t present us with meaningful choices, but instead only have us considering our default options or what’s right in front of us. The audience truly responded to the eclectic group of presenters including:

Joy Reidenberg, a fast-talking, energetic anatomist captivated the PopTech audience with her talk, “Why Whales are Weird.”  With one amazing fact after the next (Whales evolved from deer-like creatures! Their spinal movement is more like galloping in the water! They don’t actually spout water! They have mustaches!), she took us through the story of evolution using whales as a model. She explained that evolution is the process to mediate resilience and thus, survival.

Geek extraordinaire Eben Upton founded Raspberry Pi as a way to get kids “lured into” programming again. Once he and his team realized that kids weren’t exploring computer programming the way he and his peers had back in the 1980s, which he foresaw as “a kind of slow motion disaster for the entire society,” they created ultra low-cost, compact computers that are competitive with other devices. His premise: If we don't provide children with the education or tools needed to become interested, they will not become empowered by technology. Raspberry Pi seems to have hit on something that’s meeting that need: In just a few months since they launched, the not-for-profit organization has already sold 100,000 computers and is well on its way to selling a projected one million computers by the end of the year.

Economic commentator and author Tim Harford presented a refreshingly creative, albeit somewhat depressing, perspective on financial systems, which he’s deemed are complex and tightly coupled. He drew upon numerous anecdotes (oil rig explosions, nuclear disasters, etc.) to make his point. He said, “If I really wanted to understand how to prevent crisis in complex systems that exist in the financial world, I realized I should be looking at engineering systems and the triggers that lead to terrible accidents.” But, he goes, on, “Banking is more complicated than any nuclear reactor I’ve ever studied.”

Silja Bára Ómarsdóttir was one of 25 people who helped rewrite the Icelandic constitution. She took the PopTech stage to explain how the citizens of Iceland responded after the banks collapsed in 2008, protesting politely outside of Parliament to a louder, angrier outcry, which the government eventually acknowledged. The government then suggested that Iceland's citizens should rewrite the constitution to understand who the Icelandic people really were, especially since the Danish had originally written the constitution. Ómarsdóttir explained the process by which those 25 elected citizens broke up into committees and, with considerable public input, worked for four months to overhaul the constitution.

Margrét Pála gave a no-nonsense, impassioned and entertaining talk about the Hjalli method, the approach she’s taken to children’s education for 22 years. This specific approach includes sex-segregated classes, natural play material instead of conventional toys and a long-forgotten belief in discipline as a way in training social skills. In addition to providing details about Hjalli, as well as her own upbringing, Pala described how the 2008  “economic change,” as she called it, made her feel like “We reclaimed our own Iceland.” When it comes to the financial crisis and its impact on the 2,000 children she teaches, she explained, “My greatest fear is that children will not have a chance because of lack of adversity. We need adversity to be the best people we can be.”

Before performing his final song, musician Alexi Murdoch said, “I’m going home to dream of water temples and whales.” We’d expect nothing else; this is PopTech after all.

Top panoramic image: Emily Qualey
Stage images: Árni Torfason for PopTech