Thursday, February 15, 2007

Save Lives and Win Fabulous Prizes

Mason's Broadside ran an article this week about Abul Hussam, a Mason chemistry professor who won a $1 million prize for creating a filtration system for South East Asia. The goal of the Grainger Challenge Prize for Sustainability was no small task. The system not only had to reliably filter arsenic, it also had to be easy to maintain, affordable, socially acceptable and environmentally sound.

This is an apt example why technological development is best pursued in a de-centralized way. Instead of creating a single committee, bureaucracy or "task force," the Prize signaled to countless people that this problem exists and is worth solving.

I doubt a government bureaucrat could replicate the job Hussam did. Not only is he a professor of chemistry (perfect for filtration), he's from Bangladesh and is intimately familar with daily life and the resources locals have access to. His system is built around the people and their world, allowing them to make their own filtration system from easily found resources. Useful technology doesn't just come from knowledge discovered in the lab. It also draws upon the vast stock of information some of us had since we were children.

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