Embrace the supercomputer in your pocket to empower the developing world
09 January 2018
First fitting of an E-Nable 3D-printed prosthetic hand to a girl in Ireland, as her parents watch on. The hand was printed in just eight hours and the girl, Ella, actually preferred the bright colours and robotic look – over a more naturalistic prosthetic – because it was different and she thought it ‘looked cool’
Colin Keogh (29) was recently named as one of Forbes ‘30 Under 30’ in science and medicine for his work with the Rapid Foundation, which puts technology, such as 3D printers and low-cost electronics, in the hands of people who need it most. It’s an innovative model for spreading innovative technologies, but when I asked Keogh about the ‘innovation’ education most people receive, he was scathing.
‘It’s just Post-it notes,’ according to Keogh, an engineering PhD candidate at UCD’s College of Engineering and Architecture. ‘You fill a wall with a million ideas. You bring someone in and say here’s your time to “innovate”, now do some “innovation”. About what, on what, for what? You can have the best team in the world but if you don’t give them something to go towards, it doesn’t do anything.
‘Even if you look at hackathons, they’re 24 hours – this isn’t a huge amount of time to actually realise anything. So everyone ends up developing an app on a poorly-thought-out idea and then it’s not followed up and it doesn’t go anywhere.’
Keogh has long been interested in using low-cost disruptive technologies to help improve the world and has a refreshingly practical take on ‘innovation’. The Rapid Foundation (which he cofounded with Dr Shane Keaveney in University College Dublin) brings accessible technologies to people in the developing world, where they are actually put to use.
He also co-founded the Printastic Project in UCD, which is developing and promoting low-cost waste repurposing and recycling methods to enable local communities around the world to tackle the issue of marine plastic waste.
‘The innovation potential in the developing world dwarfs what we see here. You develop a certain sharpness when you have to fix an issue because it’s life threatening. You give them the tool and show them how to use the tool, and it becomes a way for them to realise ideas.’
New ways of delivering aid in Nepal
‘We’re preparing some projects in Nepal to build on the work done by other charities that do disaster relief. They moved into Nepal after the earthquake but it has been two years since that event and now the emergency period is over. They’re preparing to leave, but there’s still a huge amount of issues and damage left. The goal is to base our actions out of one of the universities in Katmandu, and send printer kits to rural locations and just let people develop and create themselves.’
Keogh explained that the demographic of farmers in Nepal has changed drastically since the earthquake, with most now under 40 years of age.
‘But all of them are online and have mobile phones with internet, and they’re all on social media. They’re a really technologically engaged group of people working in a very low-tech area, but they’re hungry for technology. So they’re looking at things like putting carbon additives in the soil because they read about it online and they just need a way to do it themselves.
‘And there’s some unique little problems such as circuit boards in houses with broken plastic clips from shaking during the earthquake – real fiddly stuff that nobody wants to go playing with, because it’s high voltage cable. All they need to do is print a little clip ring, but it’s not a thing that you buy and it’s not a thing that an NGO will give you or even finance.’
I asked, ‘Have other agencies not thought of delivering aid this way?’ Like all good ideas, it seemed so simple.
‘NGOs’ model of delivering aid is so archaic. We said, “How about we just send out the machine [3D printer] to you, show you how to use it and then support you from over here, and you make whatever you need? If you have any problems, let us know. If you need designs, let us know.” We wouldn’t be there, it’s their thing; it’s their technology and they can use it as they see fit.
‘The first one was in an AIDS orphanage in India. We put it in a place where it wouldn’t be expected and a part of the community a lot of people won’t interact with or go into, for whatever social reasons. But if they know the technology is available and there’s somebody to help them, the barrier to entry into an orphanage is a lot lower than, say, a university which is where you’d usually find these things.’
Practicalities of life in the developing world
Keogh told me that the developed world is often guilty of giving people what they think they need instead of what they actually need. This persists because the beneficiaries of the aid are reluctant to say otherwise.
‘In a place we’ve supported in Nicaragua, they have four schoolrooms in a village of a hundred people. They only use one and the rest are for storing stuff.’
‘Why don’t the local people tell the NGOs this?’
‘Well, in one of the trials we did in India, which involved 3D-printing prosthetics, there was a guy who needed a leg brace because the one he had was metal – a real 1920s steel-frame thing. So we said, “Look, we’ll make you a new polymer one.” We showed him what it was like and he said he didn’t want it. And we just couldn’t work out why.
‘It turned out that the metal underfoot brace made a specific clanging noise on the ground, and his main source of income was begging. So if you couldn’t hear the clanging as he was dragging his foot – as you couldn’t with plastic – he would reduce his income. It didn’t matter how much it helped him physically, that was his income.
‘It only came out over a couple of weeks because the prosthetist knew this guy quite well, but if it was Concern or the Red Cross, for example, he might never have told them that in a million years. He’d be very concerned that any support would disappear if he did. That’s real life. And the prosthetist was telling us that in India, real life is the missing bit. You can’t really think up the challenges that people in India need when you’re in an office in Switzerland.’
Mechanical mindset and accessible engineering
‘So where does this practical bent come from in you?’ I asked.
‘I grew up [in Bray, Co Wicklow] as a car mechanic. My father was a mechanic and I worked with him every summer and most weekends. I was always fixing things. He massively influenced the way I think and solve problems. So then I studied engineering to get the academic and science background.’
‘But your engineering education wasn’t very practical. Did you find that frustrating?’
‘Oh, hugely. Hugely. But not as much as I’d imagine other people found it, because I could just finish at 5 o’clock and go straight into fixing stuff. I had a workshop at home and I was building and machining everything. I know a lot of graduate engineers who don’t know which way to tighten a nut on a bolt because they’ve never done it.
‘Then when I finished, I worked on some FP7 [European] research projects, which were all well and good, but they weren’t the most fulfilling things to do…spending tens of millions generating a report that nobody is going to read, made for governments that ignored it because it was too complicated and for a future that changed immediately after it was published.
‘But then the 3D printing came along and to me it was the golden key technology to get people into engineering. It’s something everyone is really interested in – even if you don’t like technology, it’s still a really interesting thing to see and everyone can find a use for it, be it a clip on your key or a broken catch for your door. It was like the gateway.
‘Very quickly I got expertise, and then I was thinking: it’s a bit unfair that this technology is so cheap and it’s not being used by everybody for these really impactful applications. You’ll see it in loads of universities: they’ll have maker spaces and maker labs with banks of printers that do very little most of the time.
‘If you can 3D print and cut sheet material [with a desktop laser cutter], there’s very little that you can’t prototype. The technicians shouldn’t be wasting their time and skills on stuff that students can do. If there is a really good idea that needs to be prototyped, then they could take over and machine something, and make more effective use of the spaces and facilities that are currently available.’
Embracing technological opportunities
‘So what does the future hold for you?’ I asked. ‘How will you make a living out of this work?’
‘To be honest, I don’t think about it. These are the things I wanted to do anyway and hopefully by the time I’m finished the PhD, they will be up and stable. Some of the investors I’ve spoken to have a huge issue with people, students in particular, wanting to turn everything into money straight away. Just do something good and worry about that stuff later. Especially when you’re early stage – unless it’s a really good idea, you’re probably better off just sharing it with people and getting the attention and kudos that goes with that.’
Keogh is certainly optimistic and open-minded in this respect. His philosophy seems to be: if you give an idea away or it doesn’t work, just think of another one. He also seems incredulous that people don’t embrace these opportunities.
‘You’ve got a super computer in your pocket that people use to take pictures of their food. It’s better and better technology used for worse and worse things. Think what could you do with that.’
Something for us all to think about.
Barry Brophy is an engineer, lecturer in technical communications at UCD and writer. Email: Barry.firstname.lastname@example.org For more, please see the Tech Comm page on the UCD website. His new book, ‘Awful Presentations‘, looks at the unconscious biases that lead technical presenters to communicate very differently in presentations to how they would in conversations. It focuses on the use of powerful presentation tools such as images, infographics, videos, stories, examples, analogies and audience interaction.