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cane riot shields, India

CRPF hold shields as Kashmiri protestors throw stones during protest in old city Srinagar. 'Top LeT militant Abu Dujana killed in Pulwana encounter', The Hindu , August 1, 2017

A clear example of a weak system used in the hardest of tasks, riot response by police. India has access to polycarbonate shields, but its police forces are often cash-strapped, thus this more historic and local version — not bullet-proof, but effective against rocks, sticks, bottles, the weapons of equally cash-strapped rioters and protesters. 

The incident above was reported as an encounter in Pulwama district of Kashmir where security forces were engaged in a counter-militancy operation during which a Pakistani LeT commander was killed.  The report in The Hindu includes this paragraph:  'The official said that over 100 “miscreants” started pelting stones at security forces involved in the anti-militancy operation in Hakripora area of Pulwama. He said the security forces used tear smoke shells, pellets and fired few live rounds to disperse the stone-pelting protestors.'

The escalation of the technology of combat: how much of disorder in the streets is actually about harm, and how much is about the theatre of protest?  When it becomes asymmetrical, where either bullets are fired at bamboo screens, or bullets are fired from behind polycarbonate and kevlar shields at unshielded fighters throwing stones, power resides with the effectiveness of weaponry against protection from such weapons.

If the bamboo screens are effective in Srinagar, clearly the police have judged quite finely the kinds of missiles coming towards them.  They'd probably like more impermeable shields, but in the case of police, rather than armies engaged in wars of invasion, they also probably do not want a bloodbath in their community.  Kevlar shields would encourage kevlar-piercing bullets, not just stones.

This is all quite far from the asymmetry of suicide bombers, cell phone triggers and chemical weapons — the combination of technology and purpose.  We are told such methods are spread by social media: instructions,  ideology and justification, thus if and where bamboo shields are still in use, the conflict is not modern, is not technological, but is as old as Kashmir itself.

There is a difference between policing and war: the police maintain order with something like the preventative strategies of an arms race, each side held in detente by their co-refusal to escalate to outright war and consequent annihilation.  The bamboo woven shield is carried with the trust that the opposition, whatever it might be, will use ammunition proportionate to the strength of the shield.  And vice versa, that the protesters expect the conflict to be at the level of stones, not guns.  When either side breaks that trust, the social contract is broken, and as we have seen with the recent escalations of civil warfare whether in the US or Syria, it is no longer about keeping order but about killing.


Soccket balls

Soccket, an energy-generating football, generates and stores enough electricity after half an hour of use to power a small lamp

In honour of FIFA feel compelled to say something about soccer this week.  Shall start with the electricity generating football, SOCCKET, put into production in 2013 with kickstarter funds.  It was developed in 2012 by Jessica Matthew, an Edo from Nigeria, a very clever girl who went off to Harvard and allegedly taught herself mechanical engineering.  Her psychology and economics degree shows: the project is sophisticated way beyond its energy-generating possibilities.  

The football has a pendulum inside which turns a generator attached to a battery.  This adds a bit of weight, but just an ounce.  The ball is airless, don't understand that bit.  It has a 6W output: for the undeveloped world, this means a lamp can be plugged into it for three hours after half an hour of kicking the ball around.  For the developed world which is actually purchasing the balls for quite a lot of money, it can recharge your phone. You buy this soccer ball really as a charitable act: you buy one and one will be given to someone far away.
Pulse II, a skipping rope that generates electricity from the spinning of the rope in the handles.
Uncharted Play, Inc, Matthew's design firm, also makes a skipping rope, PULSE, where the generating mechanism is in the handles.  This sells for $295 in New York.  Says Matthew, 'Right now, we  are selling them in New York and in New York, we charge people a lot because it is New York'.  As I said, clever.

In an interview, Nicole Brown of Uncharted Play explains the marketing of PULSE: 'Because charging a cell phone is more of a developed world issue, we’re going to give a SOCCKET, which powers a lamp, to the developing world for each PULSE sold.'  Images show little children in otherwise un-illuminated huts doing homework by the light of a tiny led lamp and, where living off the grid is not an option, iPhones in bright white rooms are plugged into it. I understand that the developing world far exceeds cell phone use compared to the developed world which has so many more options, but one's First World charitable impulses are triggered by the combination of technology (which we have) and poverty (which 'they' have).

It's good, this project, but the marketing of it is a bit patronising.  I found a hysterically funny collection of comments on SOCCKET on Seun Osewa's ₦airaland Forum covering every possible aspect of the project, such as, from Willskid:
Seun and Mum
Mum: Seun, where u dey go?
Seun: I wan go play ball
Mum: Ori e da... U no go go read ur books
Seun: Mama u forget say u and papa fone don flat...If i nor play ball, u no go charge ur fone today oo...

or from Virgo:
So while developed countries produce electricity with Coal, Liquid Petroleum, Petroleum Gases, Nuclear, and others, Africa must resort to kicking a ball around in order to enjoy electricity?

Let's just say ₦airaland remains skeptical.


ceramic armour

ceramic plates in a Dragon Skin body armour vest

When we see the bullet proof vests on foreign correspondents, they are basically kevlar with ceramic trauma plate inserts roughly from 5" x 8" and 1/4" thick for concealed vests, to 10" x 12" plates up to 1/2" thick for tactical vests. They work in combination with the aramid fabrics: high ballistic protection from the plates, dispersal of blunt trauma from the fabrics. 

Boron Carbide: B12C3  for those who understand such things is exceptionally hard because the molecules form a network plane.  Not a new technology, it was first synthesised in 1899.  The discs in the Dragon Skin are silicon carbide (SiC) or carborundum, used since 1893 as an abrasive. thank you wikipedia.  Both these materials have a zillion other uses: something about how their molecules arrange themselves in dense interconnected plates makes them exceptionally inert, resistant, hard and defensive.

The small overlapping plates of the Dragon Skin allows more motion and is designed, evidently, to absorb multiple hits, which is a sobering thought.  All of these are meant to protect vital organs, not to render someone entirely bullet proof.  I expect that development in ballistic technology forces the development of anti-ballistic systems.  There is, for example, something called a full metal jacket bullet which is a soft lead core fully jacketed in hard metal which allows higher velocities as the hard jacket slides more easily down the bore.  Do I want to know this?  I suppose so, I thought the movie Full Metal Jacket was actually about some kind of armoured jacket for soldiers.  The point of a full metal jacket bullet is that they can be used indiscriminately against both soft and hard targets. I think I'll leave this topic now.  

There was a scandal in 2007-8 where the US government did not equip its soldiers in Afghanistan with $5000 Dragon Skin armour, choosing cheaper armour from companies with government contracts.  Some things never change.


carbon black

the 7.5 kg Carbon Black wheelchair

A couple of years ago I saw a BBC documentary on the struggle Andrew Slorance, wheelchair bound himself, and his wife had in designing a carbon fibre monocoque wheelchair and getting it to market. They had sunk all their money into producing a prototype, and then another prototype. You felt for this pair, the process was so expensive: to get a protoype to test even was incredibly difficult and meant finding shops in remote industrial parks in the centre of Scotland that could even work with carbon fibre. I remember thinking at the time that good design is not its own reward.  Nevertheless, they persisted.

The gist is that the basic monocoque is cast each time for each individual according to their needs: backrest size, seat width and depth, leg length. Then there are stability adjustments that locate the centre of gravity. I remember in the documentary they had problems with it tipping over until one had learned how to judge where one's centre of gravity actually was. This appeared to be the major stumbling block to the design being picked up for manufacture, that and its cost.
Other options are the wheel size, the size of the rim you push the wheels with, lights, guards and various add-on things.  

It is smooth, it is clean, it is quite glamorous engineering. The glamorous Sophie Morgan, all tawny blond hair and beauty, is the Carbon Black ambassador and inhabits both her chair and the website

Carbon Black was shortlisted for a design award from the London Design Museum in 2012 and has been nominated for a World Technology Network award.  A group called SMART:SCOTLAND provided an original grant to build moulds and to market Slorance's prototype, and then in 2012 in the run up to the 1012 Paralympics the project got £350,000 specifically to get this product to a global market.   From the Highlands and Islands Enterprise announcement of the grant: 'Using the very latest composite materials and Formula 1 engineering, Carbon Black is set to change perceptions of the wheelchair. Carbon fibre offers incredible strength to weight properties, combined with unprecedented stiffness for optimal energy efficiency. The monocoque design is both lightweight and strong, yet has a minimal appearance, resulting in more person, less wheelchair.'
It has become a big project.  

Slorance had been in a wheelchair since his mid-teens when he broke his back.  He felt keenly all the problems with standard wheelchairs: their weight, their sheer ugliness, their mechanics, their ugliness, their unresponsiveness, their seeming inability to move along with technology. Perhaps people are so stunned by finding themselves in a wheelchair that it cows them into inert acceptance. The wheelchair so separates them from, in Slorance's case, normal teenaged dashing about, that it must seem often to be an instrument of torture.

Carbon Black weighs 7.5 kg including the wheels: this is the result of using carbon fibre with its huge strength to weight ratio. The fact that Formula 1 technology keeps being mentioned indicates something of the cost of such a wheelchair.  Of course it is a wonderful material, warm to touch and mouldable; the launch price was £7,800 and I have seen other prices nearer £12,000.  The Carbon Black System tumblr blog is full of ways to get subsidies for this price, such as access to work allowances, NHS vouchers and so on.  This is a grand site, much newsier than the formal site. It looks like they sell one a week.   


the SoftWheel wheelchair

SoftWheel wheelchair

If yesterday's Free Wheelchair Mission wheelchair had all the dignity of a chair, the chair of the Soft Wheel wheelchair is near-invisible.  It was developed (through Rad-BioMed Technology Accelerator and the Office of the Chief Scientist of the Israeli Ministry of Economics) by a fit Israeli farmer who had broken his pelvis and was shocked by the state of ordinary wheelchairs on off-road terrain.

There is nothing faintly humanitarian in this project, it is pure technology, this wheel, and about time too.  The Acrobat™ wheel used in the Soft Wheel project, uses three shock absorbers rather than spokes and is also being used in bikes.  Until the wheel meets an obstacle, such as a stair, or curb, or pothole, it acts as a normal wheel, but on encountering a large and immoveable change of grade, the shock absorbers reconfigure their lengths in a form of selective suspension.  The wheel itself absorbs impact, rather than the chair or the body.  I sense it will be expensive.

Clearly a first-world device: businessman, downtown, big city, good shirt: we get it. This isn't about difficulty, but about success.

Grand idea, what is interesting is the invisibility of the 'wheelchair' in all the promotional material; if there are handles at the back they don't appear.  The wheels alone are obvious, as substitute legs.  This is blade runner stuff where there is almost an advantage to prosthetic technology over the able-bodied, a shift in perception that was brought to the fore in the London Paralympics in 2012.  Disability is increasingly (theoretically) an anachronism.

It is at either end of the wheelchair trajectory – one end is the plastic garden chair, the other is the Acrobat™ wheel – that exciting developments occur, each filtering in towards the middle, or so one hopes.


the free wheelchair mission

free wheelchair mission's inexpensive wheelchair project

One of the critiques of things such as keepod is that access to information technology isn't a straight line to water purification, for example.  Hardly a critique I know, but I did read it.  However, there has always been a pragmatic streak in people that allows them to figure out problems and solutions – it used to be said of fellows from Saskatchewan farms that they could fix anything with wire and binder twine, a gross gender stereotype no doubt, but not a bad one.  Kids growing up on isolated farms in the early 20th century were innovative, practical, used to doing a lot with very little.  

Of course today one can look on the web to see how to fix something, but often that seems to be the blind leading the blind: just because there is an app for that doesn't mean you can actually fix the wheelbarrow wheel.  

This wheelchair costs $77.91 to manufacture and deliver.  Anyone who has dealt with our medical system and CSA approved wheelchairs knows that 'proper' wheelchairs run to thousands of dollars, and my god they are ugly. And they weigh a ton.  (Ah well, just looked up the cost of a wheelchair and you can get one for $245 at Costco.  Clearly my experience is out of date.  Gosh, here is the EZee Life™ Economy for $150.  Whatever.)

The Free Wheelchair Mission was started by a biomedical engineer in Californa who developed this wheelchair as 'a basic design at an extremely low cost to reach the highest number of disabled impoverished people in the shortest possible time'.  He uses component pieces already being manufactured in high volume, perhaps for something else: mountain bike wheels, plastic garden chairs, nuts and bolts, casters, all manufactured and flat-packed with cartoon-like instructions in China and sent off in containers to sites in need.  

Jens Thiel, in 2010, had a website loaded with photos of monobloc plastic chairs used in strange ways – I wrote about them at the time.  Thiel's site has disappeared unfortunately, but this designboom entry will do.  Is the plastic chair the cheapest and most easily found seat for a wheelchair?  Probably, but it also has a look that is not medical, which is perhaps more important.  It is a chair first, with wheels.  This seems important somehow, that one sits in a chair rather than a dark complex piece of disability kit.

Increasingly, sitting here in one of the G8/G7 countries, I feel locked into technologies that are complex, dark, inaccessible, expensive and not very nice looking.  There is a revolution going on that does not extend to the society in which I find myself. 


A simple orrery, 1900

Evidently common enough to be in schoolrooms, this one in Germany.

An orrery, ca 1900. The arm is manually rotated by worm and wheel below a circular calendar disc printed with months, date, zodiac and seasons. The candle reflects light over the wood moon onto the terrestrial globe. signed 'Erd Globus v. 15cm. durchm. von Dr. H. Fischer Wagner & Debes, Leipzig Lehrmittelanstalt' 19in / 48.5cm high

Compared to William Pearson's orrery design below of the whole solar system, this schoolroom orrery is just the sun, the earth and the moon.  It must have been magical.


Seamus Heaney: Digging

One can hear the slice of the spade in this poem Heaney wrote as a young man, and here in 2009, read in his seventies.  This was my father's favourite poem.  In his memory. 


the Bathurst hedge

12 July 1962. Britain's tallest hedge.

sorry about the proprietal watermark, but the hedge ladder is so interesting.  This is from TopFoto's 50 Years Ago Today: 12 July 1962.  Britain's tallest hedge undergoes its annual trim which takes three gardeners ten days to complete by hand.  Planted in 1720, it is part of the estate owned by the Earl and Countess of Bathurst in Cirencester.

2008: Britain's tallest yew hedge given a trim. The Daily Telegraph, 11 Aug 2008
The quantity-obsessed Daily Mail reported in 2008 that it is now 'the 300 year-old hedge on Lord Allen Apsley's Bathurst Estate', and that it cost £5000 to trim it.  The Telegraph, picking up the same feed, adds that 'Two workers spent two days on a 70ft high cherry-picker cutting back six inches of new growth, which produced nearly a tonne of clippings.  These are then sold to pharmaceutical companies who use yew extract as a key ingredient of Docetaxel, a chemotherapy drug used mainly for breast, ovarian and lung cancer.'

Who'd have known.

Interesting too that they used to be gardeners, part of the cost of running the estate; now they are contract workers and an invoice must be paid.


how to lay a hedge


Theo Jansen's Strandbeest


the Jompy

David Osborne. The Jompy water heater.This was one of the entries into the Shell World Challenge last year.  It is very clever: a flat coil of hardened aluminum alloy, like a flat skillet, that sits between the fire and the cooking pot.  What looks like a handle is attached to water, cold or contaminated which circulates through the coil, is heated and comes out of the other end of the coil hot and boiled. 

Although in use in South Africa, Kenya and India, in theory it is the same as the hot water on demand burners which are slowly replacing the elephantine hot water tank that lurks in most basements.  The Jompy is much more minimal however, and consequently more adaptable to different conditions and uses. 
David Osborne, a plumber and gas fitter from Troon in Scotland was on his honeymoon in a water-challenged part of Africa and figured out this inexpensive way of boiling water with fire already doing some other task such as cooking food. 

The website, is a bit cumbersome, but all the information is there, plus various videos, including the World Challenge introduction

David Osborne. The Jompy in demonstration in Kenya by Celsius Solar's enthusiastic representative, Kalfan Okoth, just reminding everyone that this is a Scottish product.


glass block lights

the Tuff Block Light installedA press release came in the mail today about a glass block with LED lighting embedded in it.  It is from Arizona, and the brochure stresses that the inventor is Harold P Kopp, Blind Veteran, USN Retired.  The website is even more curious: the back story of Kopp's various bouts with illness appears to be as important as product information. It is certainly more important than spelling.  Whatever, the lights have a life of 50,000 hours and are laid in with regular brick or block paving.  The brochure appears to come from some other century altogether.  Is this one man working away in his garage, inventing clever electrical devices and then running off product information on his printer and mailing them at some expense to architecture magazines all over the continent?  It appears so. 

It is a bit like the cat's eyes story where Percy Shaw laboured away in near-destitution for 5 years during the depression before someone in the Ministry of Transport recognised that with the blackout conditions in WWII in England, some sort of low-level road lighting system such as reflective marbles embedded in the road would be of some use. 

The cost of the Tuff Block Light is prohibitive: $US 80 each, plus all the wiring laid down the side of your driveway, or patio or sidewalk.  To get something like this to take off it would need a large government contract attached to some sort of safety bylaw, then when it was in production in a mass-market sort of way, one could start to do some quite nice things with these blocks.   On second thought,  I'll wait for one with photovoltaic cells.  On third thought, I'll just use a hand crank flashlight.  No. On fourth thought, I'll just eat more carrots and develop my night vision. 


Bill Burns

Bill Burns. Safety Gear for Small Animals. Respirator, 10 x 11 x 6 cm, 1994/1999Bill Burns is originally from Saskatchewan, studied at Goldsmiths, now lives in Toronto, has work in major collections here and abroad.  He is best known for his series Safety Gear for Small Animals, 1996-2000, a collection of tiny helmets, gas masks, life jackets, hazmat suits and goggles for rats and gophers and other tiny neighbours.
Curiously the effect does not anthropomorphise the animals, the little life jackets simply remind us that we don't look after animals at all.  If not actively trying to exterminate them, we ignore them, so busy are we looking after ourselves as we elbow our way into the lifeboat, first leaving everyone else to go down with the ship. 

Safety Gear for Small Animals led to the more recent project, Boiler Suits for Primates, 2006 which is a suitcase of miniature versions of all the things given to people incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay: orange jumpsuits, rubber thongs, towels, a bucket, toothpaste.  These are considered the bleak essentials of life it seems, and by putting them into the context of Safety Gear for Small Animals, the parallel to zoos is undeniable.  Detainees are stripped of their humanity, but still given toothpaste.

The ambiguity between mankind and animalkind is the subject of Burns' work.  It is a similar project to that of Yann Martel who uses animals as eloquent voices of the blindly fumbling human condition.  George Orwell was another.  Somehow when the rather selfish ambitions of human beings are made to come out clear and pure from the mouths of animals who, if we think about them at all, we consider innocents, we are shocked.


the Holzweg

Arndt Menke-Zumbrägel. Holzweg, 2008Arndt Menke's wood bike uses wood as a sophisticated material, rather than a low-tech material that shows its vegetative lineage.  There is a standard set of images of the Holzweg, found on several design websites, that show its details, parts and assembly.

Arndt Menke-Zumbrägel. Holzweg. Laminated bentwood back wheel strut.It is possible that this too is mainly a bamboo bicycle as the photos show wood tubes for the frame pieces.  Reamed wood wouldn't be as strong as bamboo with its hollow integrity.  The most interesting part, a bentwood, laminated back wheel strut, is not, as far as I can find, discussed at all. The bentwood piece is laminated from four shaped pieces and then shaped to fit into the tubular metal lugs.  This would give it both strength and spring, giving some suspension movement in the back wheel.

Arndt Menke-Zumbruagel. Holzweg. Forming the bentwood back wheel strut.The frame weighs 2.3 kg.  A comparably responsive ride, a full suspension frame, ranges from 2kg to 5kg (2.8 for aluminum might be typical). 

We've gone through a long period of time where as individuals we have been told we can't make anything ourselves.  We certainly can't fix our own cars, where once everyone was his own mechanic.  What I like about all these wood bikes is that one could actually make one without a metal workshop, without welding equipment and a welding ticket.  These bikes are about assembly of parts, rather than sealed monolithic units, bought ready to go and only repairable by professionals.  That just seems so disengaged now.



Having been away from my home and native land for four months, in my other home and native land, I have been surprisingly disoriented since being back.  After looking at  a small house project Saturday in the far south west, I came back with the contractor I generally work with when I do such things so he could collect his old Sawsall which I borrowed four years ago to hack out some joists set too high for a floor I was replacing.  It was a long story and brute violence was needed to solve it.  Anyway, my front room was a mess: half unpacked, stacks of papers everywhere.  I bleated 'magazine', 'moving', 'ill', 'too much', etc.  and then spent the rest of the afternoon simply clearing my work table.  I now have a tidy stack of little notes of ideas.  I have similar stacks in each room – neat things I read, or hear on the radio, or think of, fascinating bits of news.  What to do with these little notes, each worthy of a dissertation at least.  If I work through them here for a bit, I can throw them away.  It won't be a series of dissertations, but I can air them and let them go.

This is the danger of misc files: they are brilliant, and unwieldly, and provocative, and oppressive, inducing much guilt that one is not pursuing them, working them out, making connections.

So.  Bamboo bikes

First patented in 1894, bamboo frames are lightweight, responsive and quiet. Bamboo is evidently 17% stronger than steel in certain directions.  Craig Calfee in Santa Cruz has been producing high-tech bamboo bikes for several years and is the acknowledged expert, although bamboo bikes have long been built in China.

Calfee Bamboo Cargo bike, built in Ghana. The back wheel is bamboo-reinforced and capable of carrying 640 lbs.The straight pieces are heat treated bamboo.  Instructables has step-by-step  instructions on how to build such a bike: it mortices the bamboo together at the joints and then makes hemp and fibreglas reinforced wrappings around the joints.  Better pictures are here.

The other way to join the pieces is to use carbon fibre, steel or other metal pre-formed lugs into which the bamboo poles fit.  Otherwise, one needs all the rest of the parts: chain, wheels and brakes recycled from ordinary bikes.  The front fork is often metal it seems, rather than bamboo: something to do with stability.

The Bamboo Bike Project in Ghana, Kenya and other African countries was started by several people in different research units at the Earth Institute, Columbia University. BBP is setting up bamboo bike production in local workshops, with local bamboo, that are sturdier than metal bikes and more suited to carrying loads over rough roads. 

There are, of course, obsessives who are working to make everything out of bamboo as a kind of pure design exercise.  Flavio Deslandes is a Brasilian industrial designer living in Denmark. His bike uses a back brake which is much more elegant than all those cables.  Evidently there is much research into bamboo spokes, but couldn't find any pics except for the bamboo reinforcing on the cargo bike above.

Flavio Deslandes. Bambucicleta. Rio de JaneiroIt's all quite exciting, and there are pages of websites, so it must be quite a common project.  I just hadn't heard of it. 


Fairey Marine hot-moulded hulls

Fairey Marine, Hamble, England. A hot-moulded mahogany hull.

Back to plywood.  In the next issue of On Site: small things, we have an article by Charles Lawrence who writes about Fairey Marine which took Fairey Aviation's wartime wood laminate experience in making aircraft to the making of powerboats in the 1950s and 60s.  They built up a monococque hull with six layers of wood glued in cross directions over a solid block form, and then the whole lot was baked at boiling point in an autoclave, producing a lightweight nearly indestructible hull.
It was in a white Fairey Huntress that James Bond chased his enemies, in Fairey Huntsmans, in From Russia With Love.  Wonderfully evocative names for these boats: Fantome, Swordsman, Spearfish.  Fleet and nimble, slicing through the waves, many are still in the water.  

The hot-moulded Fairey hull, like the moulded Eames chairs, eventually went over to fibreglas and, I expect, much of the magic was lost. 


the monobloc plastic chair

Simon Palfrey. 8-year-old Kunde boy with ruptured appendix, being carried 12 hours and 25 km in this chair to local airstrip for evacuation to Kathmandu.While looking for an image of the original Eames splint used during the Second World War, the technology of which led to his chair experiments, I came across this use of an ordinary plastic lawn chair in Katmandu being used for emergency transport.  Its light weight and rigidity would be key here.

Jens Thiel, who is working on a book, a documentary and an exhibition on monobloc plastic chairs, has a website full of pictures of these chairs in all settings, in all variations, all kinds of repairs and uses. has a short history of monobloc plastic chair development.  They are cheap – $3 to make, and they are made all over the world. Although polypropylene is recyclable they are too big for our blue bins and are often found in fragments set out with the garbage, and living in the rich west as we do, we rarely see the inventive uses found by Thiel or the repairs and re-use.  Thiel points out that inexpensive as they are, they are still equal to a day's salary in many places, and so are valued, helped along when they get elderly, repaired lovingly.

Jens Thiel and Daniel Spehr. Rapaired backrest, sewen with wire.


MEND, New Zealand

Rob Buchanan, founder and director of MEND: Mobility Equipment for the Needs of the DisabledA couple of years ago one of the World Challenge entries was by MEND which had set up small workshops in very isolated villages in Nepal to make artificial limbs out of aluminum cans and discarded plastic.  The mandate of MEND – Mobility Equipment for the Needs of the Disabled, is 'to help disabled children and adults become mobile, independent and trained in skills that can lead to employment, and so achieve dignity in their communities'.
Imported prostheses are  too expensive and too rare, generally children in remote areas who lose limbs are left just to get on with it.
MEND is based in New Zealand and now has workshops and centres in Nepal, India, several African countries and Fiji, all to do with achieving mobility by local initiatives and means.    The brief video on the World Challenge site shows a pile of cans being fed into a mould where they will melt and come out as a leg: lightweight, with attachment points for straps and attachments.  Could it be simpler? yet how much invention and testing went into this process so that it was safe for the people in the workshop.  There is a committment to these low-tech manufacturing processes that are sophisticated beyond anything we make in our wealthy country.   

In this next issue of On Site, which is about small things, we have one article by a young architect, Peter Osborne, who, in building a folding bookshelf/storage unit found himself limited not by his imagination, but by his skill with plywood and saws.  The other is by architect Ron Wickman who, because his father was in a wheelchair, sees all architecture in terms of its accessibility.  He makes the very valid point that in handing out awards for amazing buildings, we never let a ramp get in the way of a grand entrance. 

So, two issues: appropriate technology and human rights.  Is this about architecture?  Absolutely, it is about design.  Our culture medicalises disabilities instead of seeing them as opportunities for useful design thinking.  When I was pushing my elderly aunt up and down hills in her 2-ton wheelchair – it was practically uncontrollable – it occurred to me then that surely there was a better way to do this.  Watching the amazingly designed and engineered chairs and limbs on display in the Paralympics right now, it is evident that there is.  Now this engineering and manufacture has to be made accessible.  


Barefoot College, Tilonia

The Barefoot College was entirely built by Barefoot Architects. The campus spreads over 80,000 square feet area and consists of residences, a guest house, a library, dining room, meeting halls, an open air theatre, an administrative block, a ten-bed referral base hospital, pathological laboratory, teacher's training unit, water testing laboratory, a Post Office, STD/ISD call booth, a Craft Shop and Development Centre, an Internet dhaba (cafe), a puppet workshop, an audio visual unit, a screen printing press, a dormitory for residential trainees and a 700,000 litre rainwater harvesting tank. The College is also completely solar-electrified. The College serves a population of over 125,000 people both in immediate as well as distant areasBarefoot College in Tilonia, Rajasthan trains illiterate or under-educated women and men in practical engineering.  Women do 70% of the domestic and agricultural work in India, however Barefoot College has, since the early 1970s, been training women in what are considered technically challenging men's professions such as solar engineers, handpump mechanics, computer instructors, masons, night school teachers.
The College does not prioritise literacy, but rather problem-solving skills such as basic law, making women aware of the Right to Information, minimum wages, violation of human rights.  This, along with their training and employment, give them a way out of the sheer, numbing drudgery of rural life for women in most of the world.
Having solar lamps allows night school and less use of kerosene, toxic in closed spaces.  Having rainwater harvesting systems allows women more time to do other things than walk miles each day collecting pots of water, or firewood, or candles.
The mandate of Barefoot College is very much about the empowerment of rural, barely literate women caught in a caste system and rigid social roles.  At the same time it has trained 15,000 women and installed thousands of solar lighting units and rainwater harvesting systems.

Barefoot College does not give out degrees or even certificates that could perhaps become a kind of currency leading to migration. They do not want their trainees to move to the cities, but to stay in place, in their communities.  Plans are to extend Barefoot College to Africa and South America.  Bunker Roy, the founder, says language isn't a problem.  Sign language will do.
I suppose that one solders a circuit plate the same way no matter what language is spoken.  This in itself is a revolutionary idea.  We are altogether too logocentric here.