The Birth and Death of Big Institutions

By Paul Polak The failure of development is closely tied to the ossification of big institutional structures. The World Bank was born as a vehicle for reconstructing Europe after World War II, a task it carried out with amazing success. But when it morphed into a massive institution to address global poverty, it didn’t do so well. Schumacher launched a revolution in design with his admirable book, Small is Beautiful, but the appropriate technology institutions that emerged from it became ossified, failed to address market forces and died. The Politics of Innovation I define institutions as radical ideas cast in concrete. The radical notion that…

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Applying the Design Revolution to the Woes of Big Canals

By Paul Polak The 13,324 miles of canal system in Pakistan’s Sindh province irrigates 12 million acres of land. That’s a canal that’s long enough to cross the United States three times! This canal system and others like it make as significant a contribution to feeding the world’s growing population as the introduction of the green revolution’s miracle seeds. But big canals come with big problems. Namely, rampant corruption, water wastage, numbingly inefficient operation and maintenance as well as millions of acres of productive land ruined through water logging and salinization. Because of water losses from evaporation, leakage, evaporation, poor operation and maintenance and prehistoric…

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Death of Appropriate Technology II : How to Design for the Market

by Paul Polak The single biggest reason that the appropriate technology movement died and most technologies for developing countries never reach scale is that nobody seems to know how to design for the market. Over the past 30 years, I’ve looked at hundreds of technologies for developing countries. Some provided elegant solutions for challenging technical problems. Some were big and clumsy. Some  were far too expensive. Some of were beautifully simple and radically affordable. But only a handful were capable of reaching a million or more customers who live on less than two dollars a day. If you succeed, against all odds, in designing a…

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