Grassroots Network Abuzz with Clean Tech Ideas

Gujarat windmillProfessor Anil Gupta is an uncommon man with uncommon solutions to today's problems. He believes scarcity is a mother of invention, and that we need to look to the world's poorest citizens for solutions to many of our local and global challenges.

"Poverty doesn't make you uncreative," Gupta said during an interview at his family home in New Delhi, India. "There are a lot of poor people in this world who are not so poor that they cannot think, or find inspiration to experiment.... They may just not know they have innovated."

Two decades ago, Gupta, a professor at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, created the Honey Bee Network to connect grassroots innovators and traditional knowledge holders with the global economic market. The network provides a means for sourcing and diffusing ideas from these individuals, while protecting their knowledge rights and enhancing livelihoods.

"Before the network, there was no mechanism for grassroots innovations that are developed in the informal sector to get the opportunity to be valorized," Gupta said. "Now, informal-sector entrepreneurs have a chance for their technologies to be blended.... There is the possibility to mix formal- and informal-sector knowledge."

Today, the Honey Bee Network spans 75 countries, and its series of open-source databases contains a wealth of traditional knowledge as well as more than 90,000 ideas and innovations - almost all in the area of clean technology.

Gupta provided the example of a windmill created by Mehtar Hussain and his brother, two farmers from Assam, to pump groundwater for irrigation in place of a diesel generator. When the wind blows, the bamboo frame spins in multiple directions, every hour pumping 1,500 liters of water at a wind speed of 8-10 kilometers in a continuously strong flow.

GIAN-West, a network partner, added the windmill's multi-directionality to the original design to adapt it for use by salt workers in Gujarat. The unit is low cost, easy to assemble, and can be folded down 90 degrees during storms to protect it from damage - a function found in no other windmill in the world.

"Some of the best innovations come from the poor, as they have the most need," Gupta said. He explained how two mechanical engineering students at the Sikkim Manipal Institute of Technology, Rajib Ghosh and Kshitij Sharma, and a worker in Andhra Pradesh, developed technological innovations for automating two particularly arduous tasks: tea harvesting and sari making.

"A tea plucker picks a leaf about 12,000 times per day, making a forward-and-backward movement with her arm each time. We have no idea how much pain she goes through when we drink a cup," Gupta said. Similarly, "Pochampalli silk saris require 9,000 to-and-fro movements of the arm per sari. Each takes four hours, with both women and men making a maximum of two per day, and causing a lot of pain."

Gupta also described a diesel engine "silencer" created by Birendra Kumar Sinha, a metal craftsman from Bihar. The pollution and noise from Sinha's workshop were disturbing children at a nearby school, and the institution had asked him to stop his engine or find an alternative to the problem. Sinha's new silencer not only minimizes noise, it also captures 12 kilograms of carbon over eight months of typical usage, in a powder form that could be used as a secondary fuel or industrial raw material.

Despite such creativity, Gupta said, "there are millions of diesel engines manufactured in India, and not one of them is fitted with a silencer or a pollution-control device. Every farmer who uses it for irrigation has to deal with the noise and the pollution."

Discovering and diffusing these innovations can transform human wellbeing and livelihoods. Gupta explained that creative solutions often maximize people's productivity - allowing them to earn more in a day - and minimize their physical and economic costs, giving them more time for additional pursuits and vastly improving their quality of life.

"People are working to reinvent the wheel across the world," Gupta said. "Nobody knows what problems have already been solved and what new innovations are being created by the day." He noted that more knowledge is being lost in the current generation than ever before. "A lot of traditional knowledge is important for today as it is for tomorrow, and there is nothing more important for climate change than the knowledge of people who are on the edge of survival."

Gupta's initiatives, beginning with the Honey Bee Network and database, have led to a proliferation of online resources as well as a range of partnerships, including the Society for Research and Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies and Institutions (SRISTI), the National Innovation Foundation, Grassroots to Global (G2G), and the Grassroots Innovation Augmentation Network (GIAN). All of these are designed to enable and stimulate cross-pollination and germination of ideas, in true honeybee style.

Several core values infuse the Honey Bee Network and its associated efforts, distinguishing it from other similar types of operations. For one, the databases are all open source, enabling all innovations and knowledge to be shared freely, except in instances of commercial use. "These are public goods," Gupta said. "Anybody's use of the database doesn't diminish the database supply - like breathing air."

If companies want to distribute any of the ideas, "they are more than welcome, but they must share the proceeds with the innovator, the community, and with nature in a proportion of their choice," Gupta explained. "This is really about reciprocity toward local communities with due respect for their knowledge and rights." The network's name relates to the way that honeybees benefit, rather than impoverish, the flowers they collect pollen from, he said.

A second core value is the importance of sustaining public goods within society. To this end, several of the databases are hosted in multiple local languages to be as accessible as possible.

The innovations are sourced and diffused in a variety of ways. With the help of students, the Honey Bee "team" travels to homes and villages, sharing innovations and knowledge from the database, while also looking for what Gupta affectionately calls "the crazy folk" - individuals who do things differently from the rest of their communities.

Network representatives share the innovations at fairs and festivals as well, asking event participants whether they have additional ideas or knowledge to offer. To further disseminate solutions, the representatives encourage farmer-to-farmer sharing of ideas, distribute posters and other media, and partake in 120-kilometer shodh yatras, or journeys on foot, every summer and winter. People with Internet access can also view the ideas online.

The Idea of Ideas

Recently, Professor Gupta came up with a really big idea.

As the need for innovation around sustainability and climate change becomes more urgent, he wants to expand and capitalize on the potential of the Honey Bee Network to make it truly global.  "The last decade has been what I like to term the Decade of Derivatives. Let's move on from this point and create a Summer of Ideas. This summer - 2009!"

Gupta's idea is to launch an "innovation competition" that challenges students from around the world to search for ways that a problem has been solved creatively, whether in their communities or in their own families.

"All radios around the world should be broadcasting this competition. It would be multilingual, and anyone, from any part of the world, could send a letter to the central address without a stamp." India could mediate this, Gupta added playfully, "We have enough experience at managing call centers for people across the globe."

Gupta even has a plan for getting the attention of U.S. President Barack Obama. "Given our network's experience in scouting ideas and innovations, both from the formal and informal sectors - working with students, farmers, school children, and more - you could tell Obama that he could get 2,500 ideas by August. Globally."

By October, Gupta speculates, the opportunities identified would receive investments either to create prototypes, collect more information, or test the innovations out.

But how much would it cost? Based on his experience, Gupta believes the initiative would require just 10 percent of the stimulus package recently granted to rejuvenate some of the most troubled U.S. companies - namely, $10 billion.

"With the same amount given to salvage one company and 10,000 jobs, this project would create 1 million jobs and 50,000 small enterprises across the world. We would start a polycentric entrepreneurial global revolution."

To learn about more innovations from the Honey Bee Network - for example,"Meeting My Love" and "Cycle Washing" - search YouTube with the terms "India Innovates."

Anna da Costa is a Worldwatch Institute Fellow based in New Delhi.