30 June 2012

SVN 5K: Evolution of the Automated Design Tool

The Future of the Automated Design Tool

Some years ago, AguaClara program director Monroe Weber-Shirk was asked when the Automated Design Tool would be capable of producing completed designs. He responded by saying it should be "pretty perfect" by revision 10,000. As the future design team leader at the time, I decided the design team would make it well beyond halfway to "pretty perfect" before revision 5,000.

24 June 2012

8th AguaClara Plant Inaugurated

Yesterday on a small knoll on the outskirts of Atima, Santa Barbara in Honduras, a crowd gathered to celebrate the inauguration of the 8th AguaClara water treatment plant. There were speeches by Jacobo Nuñez of Agua Para el Pueblo, Rotarians from Baltimore and from Santa Barbara, and the mayor of Atima. Town residents toured the new water treatment plant and all enjoyed a celebratory meal together.

Jacobo Nuñez demonstrates the difference between the
dirty water entering the plant and the safe drinking water
produced by the plant.
The Atima project was several years in the making. An early potential bilateral donor turned down the project in part because the AguaClara plants don't use electricity and the bilateral donor thought that since Atima has electricity that we should use their "locally available materials". (Including electricity...). Eventually Dan Smith made connections with Rotarians and that turned into a strong relationship. The Rotarians funded the project, Atima provided labor and local materials, Agua Para el Pueblo provided the local design, construction supervision and capacity building, and AguaClara at Cornell provided the plant design. A partnership that is truly win-win-win-win with everyone contributing what they can and together doing what no one could do alone.
Atima marks a transition for the AguaClara program. AguaClara water treatment plants now produce over 100 L/s (more than 3.5 billion liters per year) and serve over 30,000 people. AguaClara is now a significant player in the world of safe drinking water. And AguaClara has technical capabilities that give us an unparalleled opportunity to scale up.

For the last seven years AguaClara has been synonymous with innovation. We've developed a whole suite of technologies and every plant that was built included multiple innovations. We used the power of feedback to drive continual improvements in our technologies and our implementation methods. AguaClara facilities were built at the rate of about 1 per year and even at that pace it was challenging to update our designs to include the new technologies for each new plant. I remember in 2007 when we were designing both Tamara and the retrofit plant at Marcala and the design team clearly stating that designing two plants in one year was too much. Since then the design team has developed amazing scalable design capabilities with our automated design tool. Beginning a few months ago we now maintain a stock of standard designs ready for use by implementation partners.

Atima marks the transition from full focus on technology development to a shared focus on deployment of the AguaClara technologies. Atima will likely be the last AguaClara plant to be built without a stacked rapid sand filter. Of course, innovation and technology development will continue! We have many years of productive research ahead to optimize plant performance and reduce construction costs. But now we have a new focus on taking the technology to scale.

We have an opportunity for a friendly competition between implementation partners. Where will the 9th AguaClara plant be built and who will build it? The 9th plant could be built in Colombia by AguaNova, in Guatemala under supervision of INFOM, in Nicaragua by CARE, In Ethiopia by Bahir Dar University, or in Honduras by Agua Para el Pueblo.

Help us take AguaClara to this new level where we methodically add new implementation partners who can build AguaClara plants.

17 June 2012

Praxis: Innovation through Feedback from Reality

Paulo Freire defined praxis in Pedagogy of the Oppressed as "reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it." Praxis and the scientific method are both about learning how the world works and when used wisely are powerful tools to make the world a better place. Learning about how the world works is a concept that is infused throughout the AguaClara program from the research laboratory to the classroom to the Agua Para el Pueblo (APP) office to the plant operators who run the AguaClara plants. Our emphasis on learning and a desire to know what is really happening rather than what we wish was happening is part of the magic of AguaClara.

I was recently reading the report from the WASH sustainability forum and found this remarkable statistic. 
"Over the last 20 years, 600,000-800,000 hand pumps have been installed in Sub-Saharan Africa, of which some 30% are known to fail prematurely, representing a total failed investment of between $1.2 and $1.5  billion. Less than five percent of projects are revisited after project conclusion, and far less than one percent have any long-term monitoring."

Organizations that implement projects and don't follow up miss an important learning opportunity. They never learn what works well and what causes problems and thus they never get the feedback necessary to improve either the technology or their method of implementation. This isn't Praxis.

At AguaClara we work hard to learn from both success and failure. We collaborate with APP and communities to test at full scale the ideas that we develop in the laboratory. We constantly evaluate the interface between humans and technology and work to make that interaction as positive and empowering as possible. 

Michael Adelman summed it up this way. "AguaClara needs to disseminate...
  • not just a technical model
  • not just a governance model
  • but a RESEARCH model - where the inclusion of the "real world" accelerates the innovation process
Just like we need to convince engineers not to fear gravity, we need to convince researchers not to fear reality."

Imagine what Cornell will become as more researchers accelerate their innovation by engaging with communities and partners in the "real world."

10 June 2012

The Magic of AguaClara

Alauca residents visiting their water treatment plant
Dan Smith used the phrase, "the magic of AguaClara" in a conversation about design alternatives and the need to keep plant operation simple and easy.I've been reflecting on the essential magic of AguaClara. It is easy to sense that magic when talking with community members or members of the water board. Antonio Andara, president of the water board in Alauca (7th AguaClara plant), eloquently expressed his passion for making the world a better place:
"If we continue to deforest our land, then our children will be forced to farm the desert. We have time to overcome the errors that our grandfathers made. They have passed the bill on to us, and it's our turn to pay it. Now, thanks to God, man has given us this technology, this plant. I feel very proud that I've given something good to my children. They will have clean water, treated water."
-  Antonio Andara
Cornell alumni refer to AguaClara's magic, too:
 "...[AguaClara] was a fantastic example of how developmental work should be done. I have tried to get involved with other programs ... , and they really don't measure up both in terms of what the students are providing the communities and in what the students are learning." 
- Cornell AguaClara alumni
The magic of AguaClara is seen in the successful operation of the AguaClara facilities in stark contrast with the failures in both high tech conventional plants and low tech multiple stage filtration plants. What is the magic of smart tech, of simplicity on the other side of complexity? What is the underlying magic of our design philosophy? I propose that the AguaClara magic begins with

  • empathy for people who live without access to safe drinking water
  • a respect for people's desire and capacity to create a better world for their children. 
  • belief in the the wisdom of a group and the power of collaboration 
  • humility in understanding that it is a short walk to the edge of knowledge and that our partners (plant operators, communities, Agua Para el Pueblo) bring a complementary wealth of knowledge

AguaClara is a people centered Research, Invent, Design, and Empower (RIDE) cycle. It is this respectful cycle of learning that is so magical.

I welcome your comments on the magic of AguaClara!

03 June 2012

Knowledge: It is a short walk to the edge

Last Sunday was Cornell graduation and one of my students, Yiwen Ng, handed me a note with her artwork of one of my favorite sayings. My students all know that "It's a short walk to the edge of knowledge."

I had never noticed before that the "edge" is right inside knowledge. It really is a short walk to the edge and perhaps the first step towards wisdom is recognizing how close we are to the edge.

The success of the AguaClara program has been in our ability to recognize the edge and then conduct experiments and test new ideas both in the laboratory and at full scale. We discovered that much of conventional wisdom about water treatment technologies is scaffolding built beyond the edge. We stepped back off of that shaky scaffolding and back on to the solid edifice of knowledge and began extending knowledge brick by brick.

In the past 7 years we have added bricks in chemical dosing, flocculation, sedimentation, and filtration. With Agua Para el Pueblo we've also added bricks of knowledge in governance and construction of water treatment plants. As we look ahead to the next 7 years, may we add many more solid bricks!