Massive Small Change

Forgive the obvious joke

The Engineers Without Borders UK Professional Network (EWB-UK PN) held their first conference on Saturday 22nd June. And what a conference it was. It was titled “Massive Small Change“, here is the hash tag for the live tweets #massivesmallchange. (Ignore Ianrosmarin’s individualised V3 promotions, it gets good afterwards.) If I had to summarise it I would say it was about non-linear effects of intervention and how with changes of approach we can enact real, self-sustaining progress.

The idea of moving beyond community involvement to community investment remained strong throughout the day. The victim image limits the options we are willing to entertain. Despite perceptions there is a lot of money available in these communities, often tied up in other necessities. If we can provide the opportunity to invest in catalytic improvements, the same revenue stream can be re-fed into other investments and free up ever greater shares of ever growing income.

The talks were brilliant, particularly the ones I attended in the main hall. The topics broad yet on the whole focused, building upon and complementing one another without ever repeating themselves.

As with any event where wave after wave of brilliance crash against your mind as one vainly tries to remember it all, it has taken some time to absorb the messages, and in that time my interpretations and the actual presentations have mingled. Please let me know if you feel I have misinterpreted anything.


I walked in slightly late and missed the majority of the first talk. Kevin Campbell from Smart Urbanism was talking about how great spaces are the result of emergent properties. He used the example of Canary Warf,  an over planned and designed area that has very little value outside of working hours. It is a ghost town at night. Keeping things simple allows intelligent, interesting and complex solutions to flourish. In the urban environment, the result is vibrant spaces that benefit the community rather than corporate wastelands. ((This also applies to virtual space. As anyone who has played World of Warcraft over the years can attest, the community designed solution, whilst less effective, resulted in engagement and interaction whilst the well designed, efficient later fixes reduced playing to consumption.)) Ill suited regulations and anachronisms plague and trap our designs.

We have to liberate the planning profession from the tyranny of the system.

– Kevin Campbell

I did not hear how this related back to international development, but I was to conject, this view eases the deep rooted desire to hold control over every aspect of a project. Leave room for emergence. Over-designing restricts solutions and leads to convolution.

Slum Networking

Indore Street: Before and After

Next was the second keynote from Himanshu Parikh on slum networking. Near every city studied has slums along natural drainage paths. If we use these natural feature to build water and sanitation infrastructure, then health literacy and income become easier to improve. It acts like a catalyst. This infrastructure can be delivered at a third of the price of pit latrines, whilst being vastly more hygienic  Funding came from the community. Family investment in upgrading their housing was 5 times DFID’s investment in infrastructure. International aid does not make 5% of what communities need. Major investments come from communities themselves. The families already invest to improve their shelter, allow them to invest in their infrastructure. In Indore, as a result of one time £80 infrastructure investment per family, income went up 70%. 2.5% infant mortality down to 1.1%. Missed work down to 9 days a year. Medical expenses halved. School attendance up from 41% to 71% and private school 4% to 24%. ((Though either the gains have not been maintained or things were much worse before 73% kids in Indore slums malnourished.))

Sustainable as service

Azuri was holding a workshop on their PAYG Solar system. ((It gave me the wonderful opportunity to be corrected on things I was totally wrong about in public. I’ve got no problem with being wrong though I fear never being corrected. Echos of EWB Canada’s Admitting Failure movement.)) A large problem with sustainable tech is that whilst running the system may cost near zero, all the costs are upfront. Once basic needs are met, if indeed they are, there is very little extra money left to cover a wide range of other equally important costs. People are trapped into expensive service models. Lighting and mobile phone charging normally each cost an average of $76.80/year, sometimes over $200 each in certain regions. With the Indigo system, people are able to purchase a solar power system for $1.40 a week over 18 months. With kerosene, families have to limit usage, however, since the battery refills everyday and provides about 8-10 hrs, there is no reason to limit use. Student’s study an average of 2hrs mor a night and respiratory illness is reduced. The time and money saved move into food, nutrition, education and communication. The benefits are immediate.

The micro-payments are mediated through a box with a keypad which unlocks the system for use. The user texts the scratchcard number and the system serial number to Indigo and receives a number cryptographically coded to the control box. Thus the box can be authorised offline. After 18 months, people can permanently unlock the system for unrestricted use, or the investment can be transfered to a larger model. The idea of restriction grated with me initially, but the scheme is structured to make it near meaningless and indistinguishable from micro-payments for the system. It is hire-purchase scheme in a PAYG shell, since the scratch card system is well known and understood. There is the option for direct mobile payments and virtual scratch cards so even in the event of a broken supply chain people can still get unlock codes.

After the presentation we broke up into small groups and brainstormed on how to deliver other services, refrigeration, internet, and stoves, with a similar customer overhead reducing approach.

In the other room, Tiziana Meciana was speaking about improving the seismic safety of hospitals in Nepal so I have no idea what was happening. At this point we were heavily off schedule so the timetable was reshuffled and we went straight into lunch.


After Lunch was Mike Kang from EWB-Canada: Influencing the Malawi WASH Sector as a Complex Adaptive System. This was my favourite talk of the day. Development in any location is highly complex with many different organisations. They all have individual strategy for sustainability but, when taken as a whole body, no coherent strategy. Learning efforts are diluted and they contribute to problematic systems of behaviour. There needs to be strategic alignment of policy and action at all levels of government and NGOs. Complex system have non-linear effect, sometime these happen accidentally. We want to do it intentionally, so we have to  to move from an undirected complex adaptive system, like a herd of cats, to a directed complex adaptive system, like school of fish. “We have to consider  the possibility we are a negative actor in this complex adaptive system.” Ask “What is our broader influence?”

“We have to consider  the possibility we are a negative actor in this complex adaptive system.”

– Mike Kang

90% of money in WASH in Malawi is project tied, but our purpose should be be to deliver systems and infrastructure, not individual projects. Projects should be in service to an over arching strategy. You don’t want diseconomies of scale with hundreds of individual measure of success. This strategy should come from local government and support community needs and goals. Such goals are not supported by fragmented system. NGOs should work in service of local government goals and projects not for themselves. The continual undercutting and exclusion of local government diminishes their relevance, capacity and capabilities. They end up conditioned to wait for NGOs to give them a system. We must change that relationship. How can we enable Local government to use their assets and networks to deliver services? NGOs are setup to perpetuate their own existence, however we should be aiming to build within local governance robust systems with adaptive capacity to that last long after aid dries up. EWB-Canada worked with the local governance to think in systems, and develop heuristics and strategies. This left the civil service with the knowledge and mindset to direct the NGOs in service of local goals, rather than to the individualised NGO strategies.

They highlighted a campaign “Sponsor and African spreadsheet, not a child“, in Malawi they worked with local government and created a spreadsheet based on existing data flows instead of expensive pie in the sky GPS implementation. It was very incomplete, but immediately useful. It was bringing in the big data approach so often associated with futuristic cities and applying it to development. The tagline was, “It’s not sexy, but it works.” Oddly it was the most “sexy” aspect, there were more mundane things with great impact in background.

Key Takeaways: (thanks Tadaz)

  1. Learn to “see” systemically: think about patterns, not tools. iterate around problems, not solutions. See your organization’s role systemically.
  2. Understand what it takes to support the capacity to adapt, and what’s undermining it
  3. Work and partner at various levels of the system and have genuine value propositions at each
  4. Read these.

Post-CSR ((CSR: Corporate Social Responsibility))

Next talk was Matt Parker from WSUP, Water and sanitation for the urban poor. We need to ask what drives the people who sets the rules who give the money? As much as we criticise NGOs we cannot blame them if the money they have is restricted. They have a legal obligation to use the money as per the conditions set by the donor. Are funder dreams at odd with reality? How do we align them. In no other sector are the organisation not accountable to the beneficiaries.
WSUP is a membership organization. How does one hold multiple organizations around single objective?
For long term partnership success, is is necessary to understand the self interest of each organization. It took a year to come up with something everyone wanted. Each organisation had to do something core to own business or it is just CSR. CSR is not sustainable. If a company faces any financial issue CSR is likely to get cut if, market opportunities on the other hand get expanded. The best way to sustainable solutions is to convert urban poor to low-income urban consumers.

It is not in any business’s interest to harm its customer base. This makes them have a stake in development.
In Ghana they worked on bringing utilities to the urban poor. The mandate of utility is to ensure everyone receives. It should really concentrate on the poor since serving the rich is pretty much assured. The barriers to serving poor customers include land tenure, vested interests, city planners, cartels and a lack of voice for the people. They identified 17 different models for bringing water to the slums and reaching low income consumer. For each they performed a cost/benefit analysis, and identified the various pay-off level. Each model looked at a different scale, getting closer and closer the individual household. So they created a pay-off cascade by making sure each stage of delivery was appropriate to the situation. The combination of expertise necessary to deliver water to the urban poor is not held by any single organisation, so they worked with service providers to help them reach low-income areas by bringing in expertise. The engineering was straight-forward. The important part was the meticulous negotiation and formalising of relationship with various players. 85% of hard work was with lawyers and asset owners.

They’re Professionals


Q. What sort of partnerships do the members have? Close or Contractive?

A. They hold members agreements and service agreements and pool resources. Its the dull things that matter

Q. What criteria are you expected to hits in rates of return etc.?

A. The goal not always return of investment. Sometimes a company has the goal of reaching 1billion people worldwide. They are building their market-share because these relationships they build lead to future contracts.

Q. What about delivering projects through contractors & NGOs act as pure fundraisers? Removed them from implementation, then any funds they use to hire contractors come with contractual obligation?

A. There is a lot of amateurism in NGOs. The Worldbank and other major funder tender for large contracts for this reason. However, I have never seen contracts for consultant for city planners.
All the NGO money in the world is not gonna change anything. The money is in municipal budgets and international banks.

Conflict Resolution

Never simple

For the next session I went into a smaller room. It was a shame to miss the mWomen talk, pico-hydro innovation, and design processes for change. Anyway back to what I heard.

Peace building: Introduction to Conflict Sensitive Engineering Practices with International Alert. This was more conversational, and so less focussed that other talks. I suspect this was intentional. Given the complexity of conflict, a nice polished, streamlined talk would belie the very heart of the topic.

Their purpose is to analyse conflict and seek to improve understanding between actors through accurate and impartial synopses ((I had to look up the plural of synopsis)). Conflict is not necessarily a bad thing, conflict is part of change. Think of the revolutionary progress of human rights and the turmoil surrounding them. They try to remove the violence from conflict. Afterwards, just because a peace agreement has been signed, that does not mean things have been resolved. Trust has broken down and reconciliation take a long time. Conflict will happen, we have to anticipate and manage the differences between those involved.

At the root of conflict are other issues, unemployment, criminality, governance, unfair social and economic systems. When contentions do not have adequate channels they will re-route and erupt. Tensions form in reaction to threats to capacity to live, grow and flourish, whether real or perceived, people will defend their livelihood. If we imagine structural causes are like firewood e.g failing economy, and drivers of conflict as additional fuel e.g rising theft due to unemployment, add a spark, this can be anything really, and conflict erupts. Political bodies map fear for livelihood onto artificial division. Focus is on the trigger, ignoring the deep rooted contentions. As the conflict continues, focus remains on last offence or retaliation. We are unable to address the root causes of conflicts without recognition of them.

In a case study, a city needed water. International funds were raised and a system designed. An engineering firm implemented the donor design which included directing water away from rural areas where the minority populations lived. These communities felt threatened and protested. Police were brought in and 3 died in the clash. This was framed as ethnic discrimination by the media searching for an easy narrative. The project was on hold for 6 months, waiting for the conflict to resolve, and an agreement to be struck between the rural and urban populations.

How could this have been avoided? It seems like no one actually reads impact assessment. Firms spend a lot of money on them but they influence design very little. This is due to company structures where the engineers are presented with a problem to solve and presume the rest has been taken care of by the other department i.e planning and legal. What can a mechanical engineer do to avoid contributing to conflict? They don’t work in planning or directly liase with the community. Even if they did read these impact assessments how an engineer ensure that they are accurate map? We can avoid lots of conflict by getting this right in the first place.

Companies that invest in tense regions take on great risks, 50% of risk are non technical. They are operational, social, political and repetitional. It seem prudent to hire private security, but as is often the case, the security personel go on to perform abuses, whether or not under the direction of the hiring firm, the firm is responsible.

Make it, hack it, print it, free it, do it

Thing Maker and V3 power held a joint session about Open-Hardware

Aran Eales from V3 power , started off this session. V3 and EWB-UK have worked together many times. The hold a stall every year at the Small is… festival and have worked with several branches to build hand made wind turbines. Here is Warwick’s since I am biased. Also good to hear they have finally found an alternative to neodymium magnets.

They build Hugh-Piggot wind turbine. Hugh-Piggot designed the windturbine and released the plan in a book. The design the is non-proprietary so there is no charge to individuals using the idea. People can monetize the delivery, manufacture, customisation, training, installation of these wind turbines but the idea is free. A massive network of people build these and share their experience and tricks leading to a very rapid testing and iteration cycle. Any firm anywhere in the world is able to enact change without research & development overheads for solved problems.

Products from other open hardware projects are coming in to support the wind turbine, such as the Arduino ((Arduino is an open-source electronics prototyping platform based on flexible, easy-to-use hardware and software. )) based energy monitor.

Thingmaker, I can’t remember the people’s names, were demonstrating a RepRap 3d Printer, itself made from part printed using another 3d printer. They were also using a Kinect to scan and generate 3d computer models of people. This was as an introduction to the various kind of project people in the maker movement were doing using the Open philosophy. The London hackspace is the largest hackspace in the world apparently with memebers involved in biohacking, bike hacking, lock-picking workshops, robots, the list is endless. It is a place where geeks, tinkerers and makers can come, work and use, surrounded by interesting and interested people.

Some of the project from the wider openhardware world they talked about are amazingly ambitious, such as  The Global Village Construction Set (GVCS) from Open Source Ecology, “an open technological platform that allows for the easy fabrication of the 50 different Industrial Machines that it takes to build a small civilization with modern comforts.”

The open approach is moving swiftly through other fields and is now being applied to open-education, open-journals, open-courseware, open-data. What else can be opened up? Or recalimed in the case of science. However, there remains a giant documentation gap in opensource and open hardware. This is an problem the open movement will need to address if it wishes to grow.

“How do we harness the power of geeks to better the world?!”

– Aran Eales

GNU ways of thinking

I should probably pay my dues to the pioneer who began the Free Software movement Richard Stallman.The open-source software movement descended from this  slightly different approach. The differences are subtle but important and should be considered to see how these philosophies influence free and open hardware. The GNU public License and the associated GNU Free documentation License lies at the heart of near every movement for free ideas, access of knowledge, and sharing of innovation, from wikipedia to creative commons, moving past technology and delving to arts, film and literature. This work has revolutionised the way we think about information and what is often refereed to as “intellectual property”, though he hates the term.


The content for the first of the two closing keynotes is not in the public domain yet but will be published in the next few days. Peter Hansford is the Chief Construction Adviser to the British Government, former Institution of Civil Engineers president and Chairman of the EWB-UK Board of Trustees. He presented the government’s plan for the construction industry. Sounds like a dry topic but this was a genuinely enlivening vision. How to transform the construction industry by 2025? 2025 was picked because it is sufficiently far away to be different but still recognisable. The details contained real strong progressive social considerations in this vision, not just technology. Rest assured the technological considerations were right there at the cutting edge, going beyond just the hardware, but right across the thinking, into installation, integration, utilisation.

I wish I could be more specific, but it was a good vision. here’s to hoping that it moves beyond a vision into reality.

Wrapping up

Closing the day was Andrew Lamb, pressenting EWB-UK’s 10 idea for creating Massive Small Change. Earlier in the day Anna Richell presented 7 ideas for designing for massive small change which compliment these 10 wonderfully.

  1. Do everything in partnership with others.
  2. Do things that scale by at least a factor of six.
  3. We don’t do technology, we do engineering.
  4. We seek people for projects, not projects for people.
  5. We believe in the spirit of volunteering.
  6. Convergence of interest, not conflict of interest.
  7. Empower everyone.
  8. Openness is how we grow.
  9. Focus our influence, not our authority.
  10. Consider everything in context.

These 10 are well thought out and I can’t add much beyond what is written. Although I would like to pick up on the second one. Scaling applies to everything. Projects of course, but also talks, workshops, seminars and conferences. Write it up and share it. Writing up a session scales it from room scale to global.

That’s it

It was a wonderful day, and it was great to see John, Andrew, Sarah, Aimi, Sally, Becca and Al again along with all the new faces. Engineers Without Borders – UK is positioned as a gateway between young engineers and the world of international development, stewarding the great minds and strong passions through a difficulties of the field. perrforming the delicate task of breaking naivety without dulling their spirit, often bolstering it. Massive small change has been a great conference, presenting the heart of EWB-UK, how it goes about empowering our engineers and engineering students, equipping them with the vision, mindset and sensitivity to become positive actors in the development sphere.

A fond farewell to Andrew who is stepping down as CEO. A worthy final event to mark his great commitment and legacy at EWB-UK.

3 responses to “Massive Small Change”

  1. […] their page first then come to me. EDIT: Last year’s winners Azuri presented at the EWB Massive Small Change Conference I already wrote up  my impression on their 2012 winner in the last paragraph of a previous […]

  2. […] RETRACTION:23-June-2013 I was wrong. Totally misunderstood their business model. See here […]

  3. LCA avatar

    Hey! I was on the organising team and was just told about your post. Thanks for the synopsis and really glad you has some good take-aways from the sessions.

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