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Low-Tech inventions that have changed people’s lives

Each time there is a discussion on life-changing technology, participants assume that they necessarily have to be of the cutting-edge variety. The fact, corroborated by that excellent book titled Jugaad Innovation, is that several of the innovations that enhanced the quality of human existence didn’t necessarily happen in a controlled tech environment.

Let’s take a look at some such inventions over the past decade or two that would make Phunsukh Wangdu (of 3 Idiots fame) jump with joy. Maybe we could start off by profiling the very instruments that were shown in the 2009 Bollywood hit. Of course, these were conveniently presented as innovations of the movie’s leading man.

Aamir Khan played Ranchodas Shamaldas Chanchad aka Phunsukh Wangdu, the hero of ‘3 Idiots’

The three names behind those three inventions are: Jahangir Painter, who runs a small painting workshop and is the man behind the scooter flour mill; 5th standard dropout Mohammed Idris from Meerut designed the bicycle-based shearer; and Remya Jose, a school girl from Kerala, who created the pedal-powered washing machine to help her ailing mom.  Today Remya works as a serial innovator at the National Innovation Foundation, an autonomous body under the Department of Science and Technology in Ahmedabad.

Globally, there have been similar low-tech inventions that cut down effort and brought relief to the underprivileged people across the world. Here are five that deserves attention:

  • The Hippo Roller was invented by two South Africans Pettie Petzer and Johan Jonker in the early 1990s. It consists of a barrel-shaped container that holds water and can be rolled along the ground, thus obviating the need for transporting water in containers carried by women on their heads and balanced on their hips. Though prevalent in Africa, these are yet to make an impact in India. Hippo rollers cost below Rs 10,000 a piece and are usually handed out by not-for-profit organizations
  • The Foldable Microscope was a project undertaken with funds from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation by an Indian researcher Manu Prakash at Stanford. Christened Foldscope, this microscope can be assembled from a punched sheet of cardstock, a spherical glass lens, an LED and diffuser panel, and a watch battery to power the former. Once assembly, it resembles a simple bookmark, and can be used to diagnose infectious diseases and costs less than Rs 70 rupees a piece.
  • The MittiCool Refrigerator was created by a 10th-grade dropout selling tea at Wankaner in Gujarat. Today, Mansukh Prajapati owns the MittiCool brand that makes and distributes an array of home appliances from clay that keeps food articles cool and delays decay. Funded by the National Innovation Foundation, MittiCool is now working on clay houses that keeps inhabitants cool in summers and warm in winters. Prajapati turned entrepreneur only to spite his rich in-laws who had previously looked down upon him.
  • The Disaster Communicator is a system developed in Chile that helps those stuck in disaster spots to communicate for help when even cell phones aren’t functional. Known simply as the SiE, the system encodes text into a high-frequency audio tone that is then distributed over broadcast radio wave s and received on any smartphone. The beauty is that the signals do not require internet infrastructure to communicate. It is just a phone app that listens to the tones and transforms them into a short text message. The devices can be downloaded on to a smart phone and used.
  • The Berkeley-Darfur Stove is a wooden stove developed by Ashok Gadgil of the Lawrence Berkeley Labs to help Sudanese women who walked several miles in search of firewood to cook their meals. He figured out that the three-stone was the least efficient form of turning firewood into fuel, so his team came up with a stove that was 30% more efficient and consumed only a quarter of the firewood burnt by a traditional stove. So the Sudanese women reduced their trips to the forest by more than 75% in a month.

Finally, there is the story of Ice Stupas built by Sonam Wangchuk, an engineer from Ladakh, who came up with the idea of these stupas or conical ice mounds that behave like mini-glaciers and slowly release water for the farming season in these mountain deserts. For this pioneering effort, Wangchuk received the Rolex Award for Enterprise in 2016.

Sonam Wangchuk, the real Phunsuk Wangdu, was awarded conferred the Magsaysay Award in August 2018

An afterthought:  Wangchuk also happens to be the real-life inspiration behind Aamir Khan’s reel life rendition of Phunsukh Wangdu in 3 Idiots.

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