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The Atlantic: Developing countries serve as R&D lab for global technologies
Author: Michael Coren
Posted: October 23, 2012

Read the original article in The Atlantic here.

Traditionally, technology has flowed one way: from rich countries to poor ones. Yet the virtues of designing for extreme conditions in the slums of India or the remote villages of Africa -- rugged, low cost, versatile and (ideally) low-polluting -- makes the same technologies attractive in the US and elsewhere. 

Now the flow is reversing. A flood of new ideas from developing countries are being repatriated to industrialized ones. 

The most recent example is Caltech's toilet. Inspired by the Gates Foundation's challenge to develop a toilet for billions who still lack sanitation (as well as the US military's call to design something for its troops), Caltech chemist Michael Hoffman's team built an electrochemical toilet that works without running water, eliminates pollutants and costs just five cents per user per day. That toilet, powered by solar panels, splits water molecules in the waste tank to power a hydrogen fuel cell, and treats organic solids until they are safe to fertilize the fields.

After he won the Gates challenge, said Hoffman, the calls started coming in from builders and toilet manufacturers around the world. Kohler, a US manufacturer, and Falcon Waterfree Technologies, are investigating the toilet's applications for their markets, he says, and others expressed interest for areas of the developed world where public infrastructure is non-existent, or just not green enough.   

The adaptive role of science in solving the earth's problems will be one of the points of focus at The Atlantic's Big Science Summit, which will be held in Palo Alto on Oct. 30. 

How to harness that adaptive role was the challenge facing Evan Thomas, professor at Portland State University, who was asked to develop a sensor network that could monitor hygiene and cook stove projects across Africa. His work has not only changed the way development projects are designed in Africa, it led to a new way to track air and water quality in the US.  

Historically, it has been too expensive to track remote development projects. With little reliable data, government agencies and NGOs rarely knew if their interventions were working. Thomas' high-resolution, ultra low power sensors, known as SWEETSense, can relay data about environmental conditions over cell phone networks almost anywhere. 

"We didn't set out to invent anything," says Thomas. "We were trying to solve a problem in global development." 

The instrumentation and data management technology behind SWEETSense is now at the heart of a joint-venture with the Portland-based Stevens Water Monitoring Systems to develop commercial applications in the US. 

More innovations are on the way. From cheap, same-day genetic sequencing of bacterial infections by Pathogenica to wind-powered desalinators in the Middle East, cheaper, more robust solutions from the developing world are coming to advanced countries that once thought they had little to learn from their poorer counterparts.