Introducing our new series: Designing change for the developing world

Introducing our new series: Designing change for the developing world

Assistant Professor Evan Thomas, director of Portland State University's SWEET lab, demonstrates the way that the lab measures the output of two different low-fuel stoves. Photo: Megan McMorran/Mercy Corps
Assistant Professor Evan Thomas, director of Portland State University's SWEET lab, demonstrates the way that the lab measures the output of two different low-fuel stoves. Photo: Megan McMorran/Mercy Corps

Brilliant ideas don’t always pan out. In the realm of humanitarian development, innovations that fall flat affect more than just investors’ bank accounts.

That's why a small team at an Oregon university has set out to become the testing ground for the world's possibly brilliant humanitarian inventions. This post is the first of a Global Envision series on how they're doing it.

While promising products like self-adjusting eyeglasses or low-fuel stoves generally undergo some sort of lab testing prior to introduction, they often perform differently than expected once they’ve reached their destination due to environmental or cultural differences. Rather than waiting to see results after the fact, Portland State University is working on a grand plan to evaluate magic bullets like these before they hit the developing world.

It's a mission that straddles two separately funded PSU programs. The internationally focused Sustainable Water, Energy, and Environmental Technologies Lab shares a roof with the domestically focused Green Building Research Lab. The latter is stocked with equipment that, as PSU architecture professor Sergio Palleroni put it, "can create any environment on earth, any weather condition." PSU researchers can use the equipment to closely mimic the environmental conditions of the destination country and closely measure products’ performance in all sorts of climatic conditions.

The SWEET lab, meanwhile, focuses specifically on putting low-cost sustainability products through a battery of tests.

"We want to become the Consumer Reports for the developing world," said Palleroni, standing in a lab room devoted to the subject. That means not only ensuring that products function as they should, but also measuring how well they function — and how similar products stack up against one another. Two small, low-fuel, low-emission stoves burned side-by-side when we visited, various sensors measuring their ouput and rate of fuel consumption.

In forthcoming posts in this series, we’ll be exploring a few of the PSU labs’ projects. Stay tuned.

Margo Conner is a senior at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, majoring in international affairs. Read her other contributions to Global Envision.

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