There’s no shortage of water in Cambodia, and yet every year this life-sustaining liquid poisons thousands. When designers in Britain considered how a contaminated water source could be turned into a resource, they came up with Cellopore: A cellulose sachet that, when placed in a stream, lake or even a muddy puddle, filters out 99.99 percent of all known bacteria by osmosis—leaving a bag of pure, drinkable water.
Cellopore was part of ReDesign, an exhibition of sustainable British design brought to Phnom Penh by the British Embassy this week. The 23 designs on display highlighted how innovative thought could solve many of the problems that Cambodians face daily.
One company putting this theory into practice is the British-run Development Technology Workshop. Based just outside of Phnom Penh on the Chroy Changva peninsula, DTW works with a team of Cambodian technicians to design and produce technological solutions to everyday problems.
“Back in 1998, we visited demining organizations and asked them what they were having problems with,” said Harold Pearson, DTW’s country program manager. Deminers were having to spend up to 50 percent of their time clearing vegetation from mined areas, branch by branch, before mine-detection equipment could be operated.
So Pearson’s team came up with the “Tempest,” a 2.6-ton, remote-controlled vegetation clearance vehicle with bamboo-shredder attachments and a magnetic fixture that unearths small scraps of steel that would otherwise trigger metal detectors used by deminers.
The 17th of these machines is now in production; DTW has exported them to Thailand and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and is soon to send vehicles to Bosnia and Angola.
An inventive concept is now turning a profit, so the DTW staff—more than half of whom are disabled—are turning their attention to other designs, including a low-cost Braille typewriter and lightweight prosthetic limbs.
“People used to think that prostheses made of wood and leather were ‘appropriate’ here,” said Michael Stimpson, DTW’s general manager. Staff at the workshop prefer to think of Cambodia as the perfect place to develop low-tech, low-cost solutions to design problems such as artificial limbs, using local materials and locally trained technicians.
The Mekong Wheelchair, one of the product’s exhibited at ReDesign, was designed in a similar spirit. It aims to improve disabled people’s quality of life “by designing robust, maneuverable wheelchairs that can be made locally from low-tech, available materials.” The wheelchair, designed by the Jesuit Refugee Service at their workshops in Kompong Speu, is made of Cambodian mahogany, keeping the product’s cost to a minimum. The exhibit’s organizers said it exemplifies how small-scale industries making problem-solving products represent a potential source of both income and pride for Cambodia.
One resource the nation sorely lacks is designers. While universities offering business and management degrees in Phnom Penh have students lining up out door, very few young Cambodians want to learn about engineering or design. And very few universities or colleges offer training in these fields.
“There’s a big demand for technology here, but a real shortage of qualified, or even interested, technicians,” Pearson said.
Inventive thinking is abundant in Cambodia, Pearson said—and is especially evident among poorer people, who through circumstance are often called on to improvise and recycle to meet their needs. “The practical ability is there, but what’s missing is formal training,” Pearson said.
The mobile telephone craze that has swept Cambodia over the last few years demonstrates Cambodia’s hunger for new technology, some argue. It also exemplifies why a less-developed country like Cambodia is the ideal birthplace for such designs.
“Look at the way this country has almost completely by-passed land-line telephone technology, how mobile phone technology is now probably more advanced here than in the US,” said Vern Davis, a teacher who was acting as a guide at ReDesign.
“Developed countries have so much infrastructure invested in the old, less-efficient systems, but Cambodia can skip straight to the new technology because it doesn’t have many of these systems in place yet.”
“What’s happened with telephones could be a model for all kinds of innovations,” Davis said.
Minister of Commerce Cham Prasidh agreed. “Now is a very good time for Cambodians to think about inventing new things, especially now that we have the copyright law [which includes patents], so industrial designs can be protected,” he said.
“I think it’s very important to encourage Cambodians to become more innovative. We need to put these designs on display for Cambodians to see, so they can get excited about them too.”
ReDesign made quite an impression on the minister, it seemed: “There were a lot of innovations there that I was very glad to see,” Cham Prasidh said. “We can learn from these innovations—from water-saving and biodegradable products. I am very keen to encourage Cambodians to become more environmentally friendly.”
Environmental sustainability was a keynote of the exhibit. From waterless urinals to a biodegradable credit cards and pencils made from recycled plastic cups, ReDesign showed how inventive minds can take an environmental problem and turn it into an efficient, pleasing product.
One striking example of such simple, eco-friendly design is Biogran Natural, a granular fertilizer made from concentrated human waste, which has helped restore some of Britain’s more barren landscapes to their former, verdant selves. “One 7.5 kg tub of fertilizer contains the equivalent of the average person’s waste solids for four months,” according to the exhibition catalog.
Some of the exhibition’s more cutting-edge concepts, particularly in architecture, seemed far removed from the reality of modern-day Cambodia.
But according to British Ambassador Stephen Bridges, “It’s never too early [in a country’s development] for stuff like this. And even if some of it doesn’t directly translate, it’s more about sowing the seeds of innovation, germinating ideas.
“It’s part of sustainable development—showing that development isn’t about building huge new buildings with drop-dead air conditioning, but about thinking more carefully about how development can be sustained.”
A vital element to making small, innovative businesses sustainable is ensuring they are financially viable, according to Pearson. “We want to promote development, not subsistence. Something that’s going to improve things,” he said.
“Profit is essential in small industry, but in development circles, it’s a dirty word.” DTW’s studio spent years testing and perfecting protective clothing and visors for deminers; the gear is now produced commercially in a workshop close by, and is a business in its own right.
Most of all, according to the DTW team, a paradigm shift in is required to get young Cambodians thinking about design. Because of Cambodia’s limited production and export record, few Cambodians even consider the option of designing and manufacturing new products on their own soil. “We need to stimulate creative thinking,” Stimpson said. “‘Yes, we can make it in Cambodia—we don’t have to import it from overseas.’”