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Open Source design: Accessing “Design Space” for Achieving Environmental Sustainability and Accelerated Poverty Reduction
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Accessing “Design Space” for Achieving Environmental Sustainability and Accelerated Poverty Reduction

Demotech Research Memorandum Concerning the Concept of Design Space 1/2006 (Rough Draft Version)
By Jaakko Kooroshy, based on a personal exchange with Reinder van Tijen on Sept. 18, 2006.

Demotech concept of “design space” emerged in the 1980s together with the successful experiences with the Demotech Rope Pump (for an extensive discussion see 1986, Rope Pumps, a Review of Ten Years Experience). At the time of the development of the Demotech Rope Pump, a number of alternative designs for pumps were in circulation among Western NGOs that were aiming at developing techniques of rural water management suitable to the conditions in low-income countries. Some designs were oriented at traditional pumps, sometimes in use already for centuries (e.g. different types of chain pumps). Others hand pump brands used modern principles of manufacture.

The Rope Pump design took an other approach. The key contribution by Demotech to the development of the Rope Pump lay in the avoidance of peak loads in the construction by choosing a rotating crank movement instead of an oscillating lever drive. As high loads on constructional elements where thus prevented, local manufacture from locally available materials became possible. This design process asked for unusual solutions, innovations were needed and only gradually found. Systematic evaluation and gradual improvement of the design through trial-and-error in meticulous fieldwork resulted in a quality level superior to existing hand pumps in regard of delivery capacity and endurance. While being an innovative product with truly extraordinary characteristics in terms of cost-benefit ratios, the Demotech Rope Pump is thus the product of a perplexingly intense, albeit time-consuming, design procedure.

The two central questions arising from this observation are obviously: First, why had the Rope Pump not been developed earlier or independently by one of the large number of teams of professional engineers with lavish budgets working on the same problem at the time; and second, even more astonishingly, why, once confronted with the product, its adoption by these professionals was slow at best and often was rejected altogether (reference needed). In this context it should be remarked that this experience contrasted markedly with the adoption among the intended users: After initial cautious skepticism, the product, once put into use, was enthusiastically endorsed and diffused rapidly from community to community (reference needed).

The Demotech experience in sustainability and poverty reduction research and experiments over the past decades has shown over and over again that the Rope Pump is no isolated anomaly in this regard, but rather a particular example of a generalizable pattern that has systematically impeded and rendered ineffective efforts to reduce poverty and to achieve sustainability worldwide. Analyzing this pattern and developing effective remedies to it has henceforth become the central aspect of Demotech’s efforts, as an transformation into a more productive and rational dynamic in R&D in this field could indeed become key in alleviating poverty and achieving sustainability at previously unimagined speed.

In conceptualizing these issues, the notion of “design space” has played a key role. Design space could be understood as the entire range of possible solutions to any given problem in a given material context. This design space is thus structured by the necessity of fulfilling the needs which define the problem, the relevant time span that is available for coming up and implementing this solution, the entirety of the physical environment and materials available, the laws of physics and so on. Not included are however our cultural and social constraints such as habits and power constellations, our limitations in terms of knowledge and experience, patterns of problem solving, our fears, imagination etc., i.e. something that contemporary sociologists would perhaps describe as the dimension of the ‘discursive’ or the ‘mediated experience’ (reference? Perhaps Mouffe & Laclau?). In our actual life experience, the latter factors obviously lay very real and often severe constraints on our use of the design space, this however does not change the fact that the design space itself is typically unimaginably large or perhaps even infinite.

A simple thought experiment can illustrate this concept. Consider an arbitrary person, lets call her Lisa. We also consider an arbitrary problem for her, say crossing a small river in a forest, with the relevant time span being the remainder of her life (assume Lisa is in her twenties right now) and lets further assume that an extensive toolkit is laying around at the shore of the little river. Now the design space gives us a virtually unlimited range of possible solutions: Lisa might start to build a boat with the tools and row over the river, she might dive into it and swim to the other side, jump over it (with or without somersault), chop down a tree and walk over it, build a hang-glider, drag it to the nearby mountain and fly over it, or even (assuming the laws of physics theoretically permit) beam herself to the other shore like in Star-Trek and many, many more…The point should be clear by now: all of these infinitely many options taken together make up the design space for the solution to Lisa’s problem. Nonetheless, the design space could look very different under other circumstances: If Lisa was an old man instead, jumping over the river would perhaps not be an option, if she’s in a hurry (say because she must reach a house on the other side of the river before dark) the would be no time to build a hang-glider, or if the small river was a torrential stream swimming might not work, thus every given situation creates its own distinct design space.

It should be equally clear that for a given design space, Lisa will be able to access only a tiny fraction of it: She most certainly will have no idea about how beaming works. Perhaps nobody has taught her how to build a boat or she might not be self-confident enough to build it. Her religion might also forbid her to chop down a tree or it could be that she hates it to go swimming. All of these factors will lead to limitations in Lisa’s use of the available design space but that doesn’t make that space disappear. In fact, these limitations on the use are all malleable, even if that might sometimes cost a lot of effort. Lisa might think about physics very hard and invent a way to beam herself or push herself to dare to build a boat. She also might reject her religion or ignore her hatred for water, particularly if she’s highly motivated or the case is an emergency, Lisa is likely to expand her use of the available design space.

Returning to the discussion above, it should be mentioned that social problems like widespread poverty or the lack of sustainability create much more complex design spaces than that our little thought experiment. Equally, the limitations on the collective use of the design space are likely to be much more expansive and are likely to be politically or economically motivated. Another important fact that to remember is that the vast majority of the design space is not known to us and exploring it might be quite a risky enterprise. Taken together, these factors under normal circumstances lead us to stay well within the limits of our normal use the design space even where other solutions would be available.

Concerning poverty and sustainability, Demotech is firmly convinced that solving the problem of abolishing poverty and achieving global sustainability in the very near future, including an simultaneous increase in the quality of life, are well within our design-space. However, our collective ‘beaten paths’ attitudes and beliefs, or if one wants the ‘prevailing discursive structures’, concerning poverty and sustainability simply do not allow us to make use of this design space. We are thus trapped in a self-imposed “collective mental cage” (reference) which keeps us from simultaneously increasing our quality of life, mastering the challenge of sustainability and combating global poverty effectively.

Evidence supporting this strong claim does not only stem from the successful results in implementing Demotech designs. A closer look at a few examples in recent history clearly show that given appropriate institutional and sociopolitical configurations, a sustained expansion in the use of design space is not only possible but can produce the most astonishing, previously unimaginable results. The examples used here are the continuous growth in computing capacity in the microprocessor industry in the post WWII era, economic growth in China since the late 1970s and the genesis of a strong biotechnology sector in Cuba, but others could be named like for example the Manhattan and the Apollo programs in the US or the strong development of Open Source software over the past decades.
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All three examples clearly show that societal structures that support the continuous expansion of design space can lead to redefining realities within very short time spans. If one would be able to engineer growth rates in the improvement of cost-benefit ratios of Technologies within Poverty to levels comparable to those prevailing in the microchip industries, the dream of an environmentally sustainable global eradication of poverty could become reality in less than a decade!

Creative interaction, brainstorming for innovation, or else ... In an interview Van Tijen described working within design space as follows: "You see creativity in a different perspective: you never generate an idea, neither do you get one, nor do you ever invent anything. Instead you realize that the looked-for solution just does exist, most probably more than one. You trust design space and you know it is just hard work to find your way trough mistakes, not recognizing, looking in the wrong direction, not properly understanding and working your way through the many options that need to be researched".

Open Source design: Accessing “Design Space” for Achieving Environmental Sustainability and Accelerated Poverty Reduction
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