Posts Tagged ‘cook stoves’


KISI is a variation on Keep It Simple, Stupid, but the I doesn’t stand for idiot (or even intelligent people, although we’ll need some of them too). It was coined in a recent chat I had with consultants who wanted my advice / trenchant opinion on the institutional arrangements for a big new carbon-related initiative to be managed by the government here. I think it is also relevant to the cook-stoves problem I discussed in my previous post.

In developing countries major new government agencies are often launched through one or more big development grants. Basically there is a big push at the start, and then things tail off quite rapidly, though the more committed donors will continue to provide some kind of capacity-building support for a while. The trouble is that this sucks as a method of systems development.

My favourite example of this kind of approach failing spectacularly is the disastrous launch of the then new London Ambulance Service Computer Aided Dispatch system in 1992 that keeled over on day one. These days IT developers are much more keen to get their new wares out to be trialled by users as soon as possible – witness all those beta apps in Google Labs. At the far end of the scale Extreme Programmers aim to produce a new version of their software every two weeks!

The key to this approach is to start off with something simple that solves just part of the problem, field test it, and then iterate based upon the test results. As you go along you can add further features based on user feedback. The system evolves as much as it is designed.

The trouble is the development sector hardly ever iterates, or at least not within the same project. So much time, money and effort is invested in the first version (often with a ridiculous number of regional consultative meetings with people who have no real idea what is being talked about) that there is no stomach either in government or donors to review and revise. Dogmatic officials will insist that this is now the policy / procedure, and hell shall freeze over before it changes (or words to that effect).

One of our achievements of which I am proudest is a method for involving fully local communities in a tricky technical assessment. I am less proud to admit that it took us three or four attempts to get it right, but very proud that we were not satisfied until we’d got a method that really worked, and which local communities could understand and participate fully in its implementation. Too many other development or conservation organisations / projects would be happy to tick the box ‘Method Developed’ at the first time of asking; the promised output was delivered, so no-one should have any complaints … except for awkward people who seem more concerned about the flaws in the final product than the effort that went into producing it.

So, in case you hadn’t guessed, KISI stands for Keep It Simple & Iterate. KISI might also help solve the cook-stoves problem; they’ve probably iterated two or three times already, now, perhaps, we just need to iterate over a few more cycles to get something that really works.

Smart People in Conservation & Development

In the last few months there has been a small outbreak of blogrants, culminating around the time of the MDG conference in NY, pointing out the limits of smart new ideas (generally interpreted as technical solutions) in development. It’s taken me a while to get my thoughts in order, but I think we’re in danger of missing something, so here’s my take.

One of the various bones of contention was Hillary Clinton’s not-so-groundbreaking announcement of improved cook-stoves for all the world’s rural poor. IF it worked this would be a great win-win project, with climate change and health benefits (reducing all that nasty smoke), but it has all been tried before, and not been a roaring success. According to Alanna Shaikh, the problems are mostly ones of cultural acceptance. (I highly recommend you read her criticism in full here.)

So, we can suppose, once upon a time one or more smart people realised the dangers of traditional cookware and dreamed up the first cookstove project. This had mixed success. Later some other smart people designed better stoves which were cheaper / made locally / more efficient / safer etc. These were all improvements on the original model, but still no cigar.

If Alanna is to be believed (and I’m happy to take her word on this one) they haven’t been addressing the right issues. So here’s what we need smart people for:

  1. To work out which are the right questions to ask / issues to address.
  2. To propose solutions to these issues.

The constraints may not have engineering solutions in the traditional sense, but I like to think there are people out there who could figure out how to overcome the challenges of cultural acceptance. Indeed in my own job I often find us having to think creatively to overcome various challenges which generally have far more to do with local social and political problems than sectoral technical issues. (This is one of the reasons that biologists don’t always make for good conservation managers.) But a bit of smart lateral thinking can get us a long way in these situations.

So to those people who claim ground-level development work is not for wonks and nerds I say: phooey! We need them as much as any other discipline; we just need to point them at the right problems which unfortunately won’t happen sitting in a digital media den around the MDG conference. Instead let’s get them into the field, solving real problems in poor peoples’ everyday lives. You might be surprised at what some of them might achieve.

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