Thomas Bjelkeman is a man who has his priorities straight. A Swedish entrepreneur and technology visionary, he has worked doggedly to build a series of ventures that tackle the world's most important problem – access to water.
While studying environmental sciences at Stockholm University, he cut his teeth helping Brit Charlie Paton build the profile of Seawater Greenhouses. The ingenious desalination system, which allows you to grow commercial-scale crops (or power air conditioning) in arid coastal regions using just sunshine and seawater, has bagged lots of awards and now just needs some enlightened punters to get on and build some big commercial projects. I know this one's a big deal because my friend Fiona, who is an environmental journalist of some note, always calls me when Charlie pops up on the radio. It takes a lot to excite a newspaper journalist.
Thomas has now turned his attention to an even bigger opportunity. Can we dramatically speed up the pace at which we tackle perhaps the biggest problem on earth – that many people lack basic water and sanitation?
This is a mind-blowing challenge. Over 1.1 billion people are without safe drinking water and, globally, 2.6 billion lack basic sanitation. Each year, as a result, 1.8 million children die of diarrhoea and other diseases, 440 million school days are missed, and in sub-Saharan Africa alone $28.4 billion (USD) are lost in productivity and opportunity costs.
The UN Millennium Development Goals include a target to reduce by half the number of people without safe drinking water and sanitation by 2015. Almost every expert in the world agrees that this target is unlikely to be reached if the world continues business as usual. And even if this target were met, 50% of the target population would still remain unserved.
The problem is we're now in 2007, so the deadline is getting close. Surprisingly, the international community has only recently prioritised water and sanitation in existing partnerships for development. Yet those involved know by experience that it will take five to ten years before this translates into implementation and impact on the ground.
Something more is needed. Bjelkeman's answer is Akvo. If his plan works it will become the definitive, global online water and sanitation resource tool. A wikipedia and eBay for water, rolled into one, he has already assembled some of the leading expert organizations in global water and sanitation development. And the project is the recipient of seed funding from a Dutch consortium committed to technology innovation and the transformation of the water sector. Now he needs 2.2 million Euros to make the whole thing happen.
Development is full of talk of cooperation and it does indeed happen on an unprecedented scale. Yet Akvo is trying to take this to a different level. Can the IP for water and sanitation solutions be genuinely opened up and shared? Can hierarchical control structures evolve into open, networked organisations? How will people in poor communities interact with information technology in future? Do we have to wait for 1 billion people to learn to type before they can use online instruction manuals and user groups?
On top of the basics, there is the scope. Can new components and capabilities be rapidly built on top of this global instruction manual and components trading exchange? Might it be possible for someone shopping on eBay or Amazon to add the purchase of a specific water pump, for a specific village in India, at the checkout page? Might someone else then build a tool to establish a feedback mechanism between these individuals that encourages further donation, further connection?
This is about proper globalisation. Here's the academic D Linda Garcia on the topic:
"Increasingly much of the information and knowledge that was once held personally is now embedded in software-based components and networks, where it can be used to support a wide range of economic activities. Depending on the way in which networks are configued, and how they structure relationships and perceptions as well as distribute information, they can be employed either to empower or to weaken the position of rural communities in economic transactions or exchanges."
In other words, they say knowledge is power, but actually those with control of the knowledge network have the real power. In the developing world, how that power evolves is a critical issue. In the wrong hands, with insufficient openness, it will be the people without water who will suffer most.
Connecting open source with development is a concept that is bang on time. Jeffrey Sach's astonishing new series of Reith Lectures, broadcast here on BBC Radio 4 put the case forward for "a new politics, and potentially a hopeful politics. I'm going to call it open-source leadership. If Wikipedia and Linux can be built in an open source manner, politics can be done in that manner as well. We are going to need a new way to address and to solve global problems, but our connectivity will bring us tools unimaginable even just a few years ago."
As the development sector embarks on a journey to embrace open source, the problems are numerous. What separates an open source project that succeeds from one that fails? How does a complex network of hierarchical organisations that represent specific interests, often national interests, begin to interact. How does all this change our understanding of territory, authority and rights?
The challenge is to achieve a bottom-up approach that avoids doling out one size fits all solutions from above. As the organisation Practical Action puts it, "crucially, it is not recognised widely enough that the poor are able to innovate themselves, and their own creativity, thinking and potential solutions are often not supported."
The problem, of course, is that many of the 'systems' people might build could easily, like a decade of corporate intranets before them, lie unused and unwanted. The point of an open development process is that a concept will constantly adapt to the needs and opportunities of its market - of the communities that use them.
There are several communities that will matter for Akvo, and other open source projects. Crucially, how do you create something relevant and empowering for the communities themselves? Second is the ability to galvanise the NGO / development community - read hierarchy. And how do you build a base of support among the stakeholders, including NGOs, corporations and national, regional and local governments? Also how do you involve software experts who can make sure the system evolves as it needs to?
Key at all levels is forging cooperation and agreement. As Jeffrey Sachs puts it in his third Reith Lecture:
"Without improved technologies to raise food productivity, use water more efficiently, reduce emissions of carbon dioxide per unit of energy, there can be no way to combine economic well being and environmental sustainability. There must come global agreement. Implementing treaties such as the UN framework convention on climate change, the convention on biological diversity and of course the millenium development goals. Ironically to many of us on the planet, the first three steps - science, public awareness and technological solutions all seem within reach, while global agreements on how to respond seem impossible. The deepest scepticism it seems, is about our very ability to cooperate on this planet, not about the technical solutions to our most challenging problems."
Sachs is talking here about war but he's moving towards an argument for open approaches. He perfectly summarises the difference in how people who work in open source feel versus the rest:
"Two deep aspects of human psychology are crucial here. First, human beings hover between cooperation and conflict. We are actually primed psychologically and probably genetically to cooperate, but only conditionally so. In a situation of low fear, each of us is prone to cooperate, and to share, even with a stranger. But when that trust evaporates, each of us it primed to revert to conflict, lest we are bettered by the other. Game theorists call this tit for tat. We cooperate at the outset but retaliate when cooperation breaks down. The risk is an accident, in which cooperation collapses and both sides get caught in a trap, in which conflict becomes a self fulfilling prophecy."
Despite the tension involved in the above, there is no more exciting place to be than where Steven Weber, describes as the 'interface' between hierarchies and networks:
"One of the key government policy and business strategy questions for the next decade is, how do hierarchically structured organizations (like large governments or corporates) develop and manage their relationships with network organisations? Put differently, there exists no strategy template for how to understand the interface and build relationships between hierarchies and networks. People and organizations are figuring this out as they go along, through trial and error."
"I am certain that some of the most interesting processes in international politics and business over the next decade are going to take place at the interface between hierarchies and networks, rather than solely within either one. And if I am correct in my claim that the open source process represents a distinctive form of political economy, then the places where the 'open source economy' meets the 'traditional', 'proprietary' economy will be places of great creativity and interest from the perspective of social, organizational, and economic thought."
Here I leave you with Kofi Annan:
"We will have time to reach the Millennium Development Goals – worldwide and in most, or even all, individual countries – but only if we break with business as usual. We cannot win overnight. Success will require sustained action across the entire decade between now and the deadline. It takes time to train the teachers, nurses and engineers; to build the roads, schools and hospitals; to grow the small and large businesses able to create the jobs and income needed. So we must start now. And we must more than double global development assistance over the next few years. Nothing less will help to achieve the Goals."
Open source is a process - a way of solving problems. It could be just what's needed.
Disclosure: We've secured funds to help Akvo connect with the people it needs to know around the world. An open source project that is financed. Imagine. Oh and anyone who wonders why this is a topic for Re*Move needs to remember that millions of people, mainly women, spend much of their day walking to fetch clean water.