by Brian Peng Weng Kung
The Romans took 100 years to build Rome, Shanghai city was built at an unprecedented speed of just 20 years. It took Japan 40 years after it was devastated by the atomic bombs to achieve industrialised nation status; its ‘predecessor’ Korean took 25 years to achieve similar status. In the past decades, mountains were brought down in exchange for stones for construction sites; sand in remote Vietnam and Cambodia was mined to fill up landfills in neighbouring countries, lush jungle hills in Borneo make way for dam. The humankind had really gone a big way to reconstruct its Lego-dreamland. Today, there are over 20 megacities worldwide. Unlike Lego-bricks though, the world’s resource is finite. In other words, what humans are doing is merely a ‘nature reconstruction’.
Is it possible for us to build our dreamland which assimilates well into the nature’s ecosystem? With massive infrastructure being built, and more in the pipeline, humans have almost single-handedly changed the landscape of Mother Nature in recent decades much faster than any other time in history. It is time that we take a reality check on these globally pressing issues: greenhouse effect, rapid population growth and urbanisation, and the overexploitation of nature. With so much at stake, human will need to ‘unlearn’ past design strategies, and re-learn a completely new design paradigm which will change the way we live and think, in a sustainable manner.
Design with a direction
The postwar years in Japan witnessed a steady rise in the average Japanese standard of living. The three signs of affluence back then were the “three sacred treasures,” – a television, a fridge, and a washing machine. By 1964, an estimated 90% of households in Japan own all three of them. Most families had sought to equip themselves with these “luxury” items, and in the years that followed, consumer demand increased significantly. Between the post Second World War and the cold-war periods, we witnessed an era of intense innovations to strengthen the arm forces of two superpowers. For decades, billions of dollars were poured into the research and development of military and defense technology, which saw the birth of internet, lithium ion battery and the likes. If innovation and design in the 21st century has one clear direction, it has to be geared towards a sustainable development. This momentum shift can already be seen in our daily life.
“If innovation and design in the 21st century has one clear direction, it has to be geared towards a sustainable development.”
Design to exploit the crowd
In the London Olympics game in 2012, engineers have shown that the little energy produced by our footsteps can be harvested for meaningful use. The pavement slab leading to the train stations were made by recycled rubber to transform kinetic energy into electricity and each footstep is able to light up a LED-powered street light for an astounding 30 seconds! Bring together 29,000 people and you could move a train for one second! Highly populated city such as Tokyo, or even Dhaka, can be a good source for “crowd-farm”, a term first used by two MIT graduates to harvest mechanical energy from the movement of crowd .
Design for more with less
Innovation in industries or even academic research has always been based on the “spend to innovate” approach with very little attention paid to cost. As history may have taught us, constraints can sometimes be the best form of liberation: call it the art of frugal innovation if you want. One success story comes from General Electric (GE). GE was able to come up with an ultra low-cost electrocardiogram (ECG) as they were up against many financial constraints in rural India. It turned out that an ECG which typically cost more than $5,000 could actually be produced at the cost of $20 , which in return benefits both the poor and rich countries.
Post-industrial revolution see the birth of often well-defined goal achieved in the manufacturing line which results in fabulously high efficiency, thus significantly cutting down production time and saving natural resources. While this recipe has done wonders, it has unfortunately stifled creativity and improvisation. As a result, fossil fuel engine and vehicles are still being produced despite the knowledge that greenhouse effect is hurting our Mother Nature at an alarming rate. There is a lack of incentives and strong political will to address and remedy the situation. Instead, what we see is a manifestation of severe addiction and dependency on old technology.
Frugal engineering shifts the focus from working towards a targeted goal or well-defined vision which often means exploiting seemingly “unlimited” resources and capital to a mentality of producing a “good enough” and decent solution in a less-than-perfect environment. Instead of looking outwards for solution, frugal innovations instead forces out the very best in oneself. Such an approach sometimes shows that one’s knowledge and creativity knows no boundary. As resource is scarce, we seek to develop new product replacing old product without losing the desired functionality. Twenty years ago, no one could have imagined having a phone-cum-television-cum-computer on a single device called smartphone. Thomas Alva Edison did not set out to create a light bulb just because he wanted a light bulb. What he wanted was merely a form of light source. Light bulb has been associated with light source too often that it became a generic term for light source. Is there an entirely new product which produces light without using light bulb? Perhaps a painted wall that glows in the dark? Nanotechnology may be able to add value to the paint we know today.
“Thomas Alva Edison did not set out to create a light bulb just because he wanted a light bulb.”
Design with no waste
After millions of years of tinkering, Mother Nature has worked out an effective process that links closely to the principle of energy minimisation. In nature, there is no such thing as “waste” as anything left over from one living being is “food” for another, not until human came along. “Waste” is a concept created and known only to human beings as a fallacy of human mind, passing down through generations as a form of filial acceptance. If dung can be turned into precious fertiliser, so can plastic bottles. One of the most lucrative “waste” industries in modern history is the recycling of plastic bottles. Resource-hungry countries like China is silently buying back millions of recycled plastic every year. Of the 7.5 million tons of plastic bottles that were collected worldwide, 3.4 million tons of them were used to produce fibre and 500,000 tons to produce bottles [4,5]. If “waste” is a fallacy, so is “precious”. Did you know that in the 19th century pure aluminum was more valuable than gold? It sounds unbelievable to us now, but United States actually capped the Washington monument with a six-pound aluminium pyramid in 1884 to show off its industrial prowess.
Design with a clue
Nature has been perfecting its forms and systems for millions of years, and in fact humans have always been searching for clues from our Mother Nature. Biomimicry is the art, skill, intuition and science of turning towards nature for inspiration on solving our dilemmas. For years, scientists have been looking for ways to improve the display technology. Qualcomm, an American company of mobile technologies has been looking at the unique properties of butterfly wings for clues. These highly developed structures reflect light so that only specific wavelengths interfere with each other to create bright colors. This same principle was applied to cutting-edge display technology to make brighter, more readable, lower-power displays in mobile devices. Ever wonder how IKEA makes their furniture sturdy yet light? It does this by inserting a man-made honeycomb structure to panel of woods. This not only reduces redundancy, it also translates into reduction of cost and weight.
As much as we would like to believe that human is the most powerful being, blessed with an extraordinary intellect and limitless imagination, our civilisation is actually very fragile. On 5th of June 2013, The Huffington Post reported that honey bees in California are dying and this is putting the $30 billion ‘honey bee economy’ at risk. Mind you, honey bees don’t just produce honey; they are also the main sources of pollination for crops from apples to zucchini . Therefore, one day if you buy a piece of state land, be it in suburbs of California or downtown Manhattan, and you are thinking of clearing up the land or destroying the bee hives – think again. We need to forge a synergy beyond legal boundary with other co-inhabitants of this planet earth in order to achieve a dynamic equilibrium, an Ubuntu state. Ubuntu is a way of life that underpins an open-society, and is perhaps best explained with the following story :
“An anthropologist studying the habits and customs of an African tribe found himself surrounded by children most days. So he decided to play a little game with them. He managed to get candy from the nearest town and put it all in a decorated basket at the foot of a tree. Then he called the children and suggested they play the game. When the anthropologist said “now”, the children had to run to the tree and the first one to get there could have all the candy to him/herself. So the children all lined up waiting for the signal. When the anthropologist said “now”, all of the children took each other by the hand, ran together towards the tree. They all arrived at the same time, divided up the candy, sat down and began to happily munch away. The anthropologist went over to them and asked why they had all run together when any one of them could have had the candy all to themselves. The children responded: “Ubuntu. How could any one of us be happy if all the others were sad?” Ubuntu is a philosophy of African tribes that can be summed up as “I am what I am because of who we all are.”
“I am what I am because of who we all are.” This is perhaps the best lesson Africa, the birthplace of humanity and civilisation, can teach today’s world. To me, the concept of “we” should be extended to include other living and non-living beings and the environment which are often left out as humans race to build their Lego-land. And there is no better time to start than NOW. If one day, you were given a pen or a pencil to draw on a piece of paper, the world that you like it to be, what would it be?
“…the concept of “we” should be extended to include other living and non-living beings and the environment…”
About the Author
Dr. Brian Peng Weng Kung is currently a Senior Postdoctoral Researcher at Singapore-Massachusetts Institute of Technology for Research and Technology (SMART Centre), where his team developed the world’s first low-cost, palm-sized magnetic resonance relaxometry system (based on the well-established principle of magnetic resonance) for in vitro blood-borne diseases screening focusing on resources-scarse areas. He is a strong believer in frugal innovation and the spirit of social entrepreneurship. Instead of looking outwards for solution, his sense of frugality often focuses on forcing out the very best in oneself, where knowledge and creativity know no boundary. Weng Kung can be reached via [email protected]. Find out more about Weng Kung by visiting his Scientific Malaysian profile at http://www.scientificmalaysian.com/members/wengkung/.
This article does not reflect the opinion of SMART Centre.
 Tutu, Desmond (1999). No Future Without Forgiveness. ISBN 0-385-49690-7.