This weekend I went to a course at Engineers Without Borders, an organisation for helping engineering students and recent graduates lend assistance in the third world. We built a Hexayurt (a hexagonal shelter), built some furniture, added some solar panels to the Hexayurt’s roof and got some low power computing going inside. It’s actually thrilling watching a computer powered by nothing but the sun. Thrilling in a quiet way; we didn’t light cigars or open champagne – that would be unsustainable – more like the ‘free energy’ frisson you get from wind surfing or sailing.
It’s probably overused, and it’s certainly not particularly beautiful, but the following Thomas Jefferson quote expresses the idea at the heart of all technological utopianism, and, I think, the spirit of the weekend:
“He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.”
70 years after Thomas Jefferson died the modern standard barer for this concept was born: Buckminster Fuller. In a world of finite resources (‘Spaceship Earth’ as Bucky put it) he believed that the only way to satisfy human wants was to be very smart about how we use our resources. Buckminster Fuller himself contributed some gems to our stock of ideas for making efficient use of the little we have.
Perhaps his two most successful additions were the octet truss and the geodesic dome. The octet truss is a design pattern that we see holding up roofs and the like all around us, while the geodesic dome has become a symbol of modernity.
Vinay Gupta, designer of the Hexayurt, is a child of Buckminster Fuller in two senses. Firstly, he apparently contributed a tiny correction to Bucky’s specification of the geodesic dome after a counter-cultural community invited him to have a look at why their domes always came out a bit wonky. An error in the 4th decimal place of a measurement was the culprit. Geodesic domes are very sensitive to small errors, it’s a testament to their symbolic power that they continue to be built – I’m told they frequently leak if not put together with 4th decimal place accuracy.
Vinay has a more conceptual link with Bucky in the hexayurt project: the desire to share a design idea which makes people’s lives better. Hexayurts are a cunning design pattern which describes a way to take 12 standard 8 x 4 sheets of plywood (or another material) and turn it into a waterproof hut with no waste. It’s a direct response to another draw back with the geodesic dome – manufacturing it from rectangular sheets of timber always wastes at least 20% of the material.
It’s intellectually appealing to come up with a design that requires only 6 cuts to turn 12 standard sheets of timber into a shelter. However, In a third world disaster context, which I think is the primary intend use of the Hexayurt, I’m not sure that this imperative to minimise waste is actually a primary concern. As one of the other participants in the course pointed out to me, in such a scenario there is never any kind of waste – any material not used in the shelter itself would be put to use elsewhere, or burned as fuel.
Perhaps this is one of the potential pitfalls of conceptually beautiful design; it’s easy to fall in love an elegant solution and lose sight of the messiness of the real world. If Buckminster Fuller’s frequent failures can be summarised, this is problem I would point to. I hope the Hexayurt doesn’t inherit this property from its forebares.
It’s interesting to on reflect how complimentary each of these things is. For example, it’s easy to dismiss (as Bill Gates has) the desire to get computing into developing countries. However, as Thomas Jefferson points out, any vector for ideas can have profound, cost-free impact on standards of living. A great example of this is the Literacy Bridge project in Ghana, which gives users access to information about effective farming techniques. The Hexayurt, as a design pattern, can be spread at any scale for free to anyone who has Internet access. Again, Grid Beam is another “open source” design pattern that can be used by anyone who has a means to find out about it. In both cases the designs are such that it they are agnostic about the material used to make them and can be adapted to suit local needs.
It’s an optimistic picture, and perhaps one that should be tempered with a knowlege of how hard development actually is, and particularly with Africa’s obstinate stagnation despite a surfeit of good intentions.
If the weekend was anything to go by the do it yourself, open source, low energy, sustainable approach has massive appeal in the west – so whatever it’s fate in the developing world at least among nerds their will be lots of home made furniture made in solar powered sheds.