Winter Lectures and Thesis-minded-ness

The month of January seems to be flying by, and without even realizing it I am one fifth through the winter term. With the unusual exception of yesterday, it has been snowing every day and usually for the entire day. The snow has meant treacherous roads (at least three students have been involved in accidents due to snow, but luckily no one has been injured), increasingly dramatic scenery as well as the urge to hibernate in the warmth of my bed. I fight this battle every morning, and I generally win.


This term, being our second to last, has also entailed frenetically attempting to finish my thesis. I’ve settled on a research question which allows me to pursue a couple of African case studies as examples (specifically Mozambique and Niger). I’ve also attended a few interesting lectures on campus recently, including a talk on Community-Based Renewable Energy in the Developing World by Anna Garwood (Executive Director of the non-profit Green Empowerment) as well as a presentation on Nintendo and the Future of Gaming, given by Daniel Sloan (a Senior Correspondent for Reuters) in conjunction with the start of his book tour.

They were both interesting lectures, but of course it was the presentation by Anna Garwood that was particularly aligned with my interests. While Green Empowerment mainly operates in Latin American and South East Asia, a lot of the issues and challenges, as well as the possibilities she talked about are applicable in Africa (and in fact there are international as well as domestic NGOs working for similar ends in Africa). During her talk, I brought up the playground generator project that I had run across sometime last year where children’s playing generated electricity in their schools, but I couldn’t remember the details. Garwood informed me that there are also projects that use merry-go-rounds to pump water, which I think it awesome. After a bit of googling, I found the original merry-go-round project I had been thinking of, as well as another playground generator in the form of a see-saw as well as the merry-go-round water pump project mentioned in the lecture.

During the course of this search this search, I revisited a link I had filed under my bookmarks folder for “interesting articles,” titled Innovation Tips in Africa. This blog entry written by Dave Tait, is an aggregated list of innovation tips inspired by various entrepreneurs, teachers, bloggers, activists and innovators. As I followed their internet trails back to read the original source documents for these tips, as well as interviews with those who originated the advice, I was overwhelmed by a few different feelings.

One was the excitement of standing still and being able to see the path ahead; knowing there will be challenges, many of which will be unexpected, but also realizing that everything is surmountable. It is an invigorating feeling to be reminded that the problems faced by people the world over can be solved, and that they may only need the simple solution. (By the way, Amy Smith is definitely a hero of mine.)

The second feeling I had was the way it has been lately on some of these winter days as I go about my day in the mist, the fog and the snow of winter, only to suddenly clearly see the contours of the mountains as the fog has lifted. They were there all along, immovable and true, but I couldn’t see them for the life of me. The reason they must be said, and we must be reminded of these obvious principles is that it easy to forget. We can sometimes forget that the mountains are there, and likewise that reality is not always readily apparent. We forget that the weather and perspective make such a huge difference in our understanding of things we view from afar.

white on white

But perhaps the most powerful feeling I had while reading up on these topics was that a ha moment. It just clicked. The obvious simplicity is that we need human solutions for human problems. We need people, communicating, sharing and responding to each other.

“Innovation (often) comes from constraint (If you’ve got very few resources, you’re forced to be very creative in using and reusing them.)”

Necessity is the mother of invention, as the saying goes, and being constrained to limited resources or limited terms both engages creativity as well as careful use and conservation of those resources available. We use this concept to ‘teach’ our children about creativity, but as adults it is easy to forget.  When we were children we invented elaborate games and stories in our play lives, but as adults in this modern world of amazing technologies, plentiful amusements and luxury, how can we still find ourselves bored?!

This point about innovation and limited resources reminds me of the story of WIlliam Kamkwamba from Malawi. He’s been in the news a lot over the past year or two, and a book has been released about his innovation. This boy’s family could no longer pay the some $80 per year to send him to school, so he taught himself out of library books, and he used ‘garbage’ and old bicycle parts to make a windmill that generated power for his family, and his village.

The point here about reuse is very close to my heart. Recycling, both in the traditional sense and in the non-traditional sense are passions of mine. Some classmates of mine I sure thought I was crazy when I would dig through public trash bins to rescue any recyclable materials “mistakenly” thrown out. Recycling bins and a student based recycling program is now thriving on my alma mater’s campus. Maybe people felt guilty for how dirty my friends and I would get when we went trash-can diving, but regardless of the reason it is now painfully easy to recycle there. I absolutely hate throwing things out, and recycle everything I can in both practical and aesthetic ways. I make art from scraps and mail packages in reused boxes. Let’s just leave it at that and say I love recycling. It is very personally satisfying to extend the life of any material. This is another reason why I love the story of William Kamkwamba so much.

I can really relate to the idea of constraints enhancing the creative process. Of course, it is very important because any ‘solution’ that does not address there existing realities, taking in to account the existing culture, infrastructure, ability to pay, and people’s needs is useless. But even simply in terms of the creative process, working within limitations fuels the breadth and depth of the way we think, and the most astonishing and original ideas will be borne. And ultimately also the most viable solutions, as we piggy-back off of these ideas, exponentially branching away from the norm further and further. In terms of innovation, this is a very fruitful process.


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