Manu Prakash Fold Up Microscope

The Social Innovators Code (10 principles)

Trevor Baylis and Manu Prakash are two social innovators I consider as having a lot to teach us about offering help from the outside in a way that does not create unhealthy dependency and ultimately sap citizen energy to produce change and grow power. They believe the people who use their innovations are the primary inventors. Therefore, the job of the social innovator is to build things that facilitate citizen inventiveness and find their expression.

Trevor Baylis, a British inventor is best known for inventing the wind-up radio. The user winds a crank for several seconds, hence removing the need for batteries or external electrical sources, and powers the radio. Having seen a TV programme (1991) on the spread of AIDS in Africa, which emphasised the importance of spreading information and education, he immediately went to his workshop and developed the prototype for the radio.

Like all great inventors once he truly understood the question, the answer came quickly. He needed to invent something that could carry information across a continent with poor infrastructure in general, and poor energy infrastructure in particular.

“The key to success is to risk thinking unconventional thoughts. Convention is the enemy of progress. As long as you’ve got slightly more perception than the average wrapped loaf, you could invent something” – Trevor Graham Baylis OBE

And what of malaria?

The 50-cent microscope

Manu Prakash invented the Origami-based paper microscope – a bookmark-sized piece of layered cardstock with a micro-lens – which only costs about 50 cents in materials to make. You can find out more about it, here.

In this TEDx Talk given by Prakash, you can see his “Foldscope” being built in just a few minutes. Prakash’s ambition towards an ultra-low-cost microscope will someday be distributed widely to detect dangerous blood-borne diseases like malaria. While his ultimate goal is to end malaria, like Baylis, he believes the best means of doing so is to put the technology -in as low-tech format as possible- in the hands of people themselves. “I wanted to make the best possible disease-detection instrument that we could almost distribute for free,” said Prakash, “What came out of this project is what we call use-and-throw microscopy.

These inventions are exemplars of the kind of innovation we need to address many of the social challenges of our day.

  1. Low tech by comparison with other ‘gadgets’ available to communities
  2. Reliant on the energy of local people to function
  3. Do not disturb local autonomous led action
  4. Can channel an important message/information for change e.g. community grows from inside out
  5. Cost effective relative to the proliferation of more complex solutions that do not engage the energies of the community
  6. Mobilises existing energy in a way that generates more connections and more power over time
  7. Remains accountable to the indigenous people
  8. Can be switched off or thrown away
  9. Does not claim to be more important than or to speak on behalf of the people to outside agencies or act as an interpreter of external messages
  10. Enables people to see and hear the facts without telling them what they should see and hear

“A leader is best when neither seen nor heard; Not so good when adored or glorified; Worst when hated and despised. Fail to honor people, they will fail to honor you; But of a good leader, when his (or her) work is done; The aim fulfilled; The people will all say: “We did this ourselves.” – Lao Tzu

Lao Tzu’s sentiment to leadership from 2500 years ago, remains true for those who would lead innovation today; of the best innovators the people will also say “we did this ourselves“.

Cormac Russell

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