☀️ Solar power, Zimbabwe and chronic problems: how tech really makes people’s lives better

TL; DR – one way tech can make our lives worse is by burdening us with chronic problems. A solar energy system might give you electricity (yay!) and anxiety for a host of things that could go wrong. We should solve for that by thinking in tech stacks, and thinking about the whole story.

People often say tech isn’t a silver bullet.

The argument goes something like this: tech won’t magically solve your problems. Or, of it appears to, it actually only creates more problems down the line.

Here, I’m going to talk about why people say this.And propose a couple of ways we can make tech less painful.

But before I do that, let’s talk about solar power.

Solar is on a huge growth trajectory in Africa, the sunniest continent on the planet. By 2040, it might become her single biggest source of energy¹. One reason is that it’s cheap, once it’s installed. Another is that you can install it in small scale modules, wherever there’s sun. Installed for a house, a school, a factory, a village. Without connecting those places up to a national grid.

This capacity for decentralisation can be good or bad. It makes solar power nimble. You could decide to get some solar panels, and install them, in days, sometimes hours. But, here’s the catch – the system won’t be hooked up to anything else. We’ve heard horror stories across Africa of sub-standard panels being installed and forgotten about, gradually providing less and less output until they stop working at all. Or a fault happens with one of the parts, meaning the whole thing doesn’t work and nobody knows how to fix it. The solar energy system – panels, batteries, inverter – becomes an expensive, shiny relic.

To solve for this, many solar energy systems now come with internet connectivity. So data gets sent back to whoever can act on it. This could be data on how much energy is being used, which lets you ‘right-size’ future systems so they don’t produce to much or too little. Or – and this is powerful – data on what needs fixing, so you can send someone to repair it. With the explosion of 3G and 4G across Africa, connectivity can solve for the downsides of decentralisation.

Like the internet connected phone becomes a smartphone, internet connected solar becomes a ‘smart’ energy system.

In Zimbabwe, our goal was to bring the potential of ‘smart’ solar energy systems to hospitals and health clinics². And do it in remote rural areas with no national grid. Where no power meant doctors and nurses delivered healthcare with no lights, no vaccine fridges, no phone charge, no electrical equipment.

We installed in two places – a small clinic and a larger hospital – and used the connectivity to keep an eye on the system. Three months later, we saw its output had eroded by 30% in both places. Why? The team realised a think layer of dust was gathering on the panels. The dust blocked sunlight and stopped the panels producing as much energy as they could. We were stunned that something so everyday as dust had this huge impact. No-one expected it, and we’d never have known without the data feed.

From then on, we made sure each installation came with a mop, and guidance to hospital staff to use it to keep the panels dust-free. Hi-tech internet connectivity alerted us to the issue. And the lo-tech mop helped us solve it.

I think of this chain of events in Zimbabwe often, when I think of what it takes to make tech make in the real world.

Mostly, I think of three big lessons it taught me. About how tech won’t magically solve your problems by default, and how it might.

Tech creates chronic problems.

In Why Things Bite Back (published in 1996, more relevant than ever today), Edward Tenner reminds us that:

Technology demands more, not less human work to function. And it introduces more subtle and insidious problems to replace acute ones.

Tenner labels these new problems as ‘chronic’. Our solar energy system fixed the horrible, acute problem of doctors having to perform surgery by candlelight. But it created the chronic problem of needing to look after a complex system, which could degrade or break at any point.

Tenner’s chronic problems are elusive, long term, difficult to address, and need constant vigilance. They can be anything from minor nuisance to massive mental burden. And – here’s the twist – they tend to come about as a consequence of a technology fixing an acute problem. They are what Tenner calls a revenge effect of technology.

Tech should give people the power to shape their lives. It’s a lofty goal. And Tenner’s thesis stops us taking it for granted. If tech puts people on this treadmill of constant vigilance and stress – if it creates chronic problems – has it really given people this power? Or more problems? More problems, and less agency and freedom?

Sometimes, the very tech that was supposed to give us agency, ends up burdening us with new demands and problems. It makes us stressed, and angry. Here’s some other examples you’ll recognise. Microsoft Teams and Slack solved for people being able to collaborate from different places. But filled our lives with noise, and always on work talk. Cars have given us mobility, and the frustration of traffic jams and upwards of 1.3 million deaths a year. Advances in healthcare have raised our life expectancy, but left us facing more of the aches and pains of old age. Underestimate these revenge effects, and their impact, at your peril.

The very thought of these “subtle and insidious” chronic problems can leave us paralysed. And being paralysed can stop us achieving great things with tech. In Zimbabwe, I learnt that chronic problems exist. I also learnt of two ways of stopping them: stacks and stories.

Think in stacks.

Technologies work best when they’re combined. That’s one of the reasons people are so excited – and frightened by – technological convergence.

One way convergence will help us is if technology B can solve for the chronic problems created by technology A.

In Zimbabwe, putting a sim card in the solar energy system so it could send data eased the burden of constant care for hospital staff. And of course, data transmission was only possible because of the infrastructure of network masts across rural Zimbabwe. One tech stacked on another, on another.

When I talk about our work in Zimbabwe, I say we installed solar in health clinics. What I should say is that we installed internet-connected solar, backed by 3G/4G infrastructure and data viz tools to help us monitor energy use. It might not roll off the tongue as well. But it better reflects the interplay of tech that solved the acute problem, stacked with the tech that eased the chronic burden.

Of course, stacking tech might also multiply your chronic problems. That’s where our second way of thinking can help.

Think in stories.

When you think of a technology or a tech product, it’s likely you think of a point-in-time, tangible thing.

In Zimbabwe, there were things – solar panels, batteries, mops, and so on. But there were also people, talking to and working with other people. People to deliver the mop and give some advice on how to use it (“don’t use water!”). Clinic staff rang product teams when there was an issue. Local government officials were shown the system, to help plan where to install next.

There was also a timeline. Things that happened before and after the tech was installed. The equipment was loaded onto a jeep and driven to the clinic or hospital. The data was monitored first daily, then weekly after it was set up.

Product. People. Time. All combine to create a story.

Because chronic problems are long-term, the battle to ease them also needs to happen over time. And, in Zimbabwe, it it’ll include different people, playing different parts, and interacting with each other in different ways. Write the story well, and your users will thank you for easing their chronic burden as much as for solving their acute problems.

And start small. Nobody knows what the entire story will be straight away. Give yourself the option of writing new sentences, new paragraphs, or even new chapters as you go³.

Classically, we ask of technologies: what problem are you solving? Making sure they target sufficiently acute problem. We should also ask of them: what story are you writing? Making sure they are planning for the chronic problems their solution will throw up. This is why good service design can be so powerful.

Tech creates chronic problems, which we can mitigate by thinking in tech stacks and stories. It isn’t a silver bullet, but – if we get it right – technology can be magical. Just ask the staff at Jari health clinic in Zimbabwe who – for the first time – could deliver babies with electric lights, rather than candlelight.

¹ Check out this cool graph from the Energy Outlook 2019 by the International Energy Agency.

² There’s lots of smart people working on this tech, turning the solar energy system into a connected object. We worked with Mike Rosenberg and Steve Harris, and their amazing teams at Africa Power Storage and JVS projects.

³ I’ve written before about the benefits of starting small for this work in Zimbabwe, for Lean Startup Co.

🎬 Thanks to Steve Harris for looking at drafts of this post.

🤔 Got thoughts? Don’t keep them to yourself. Email me on asad@asadrahman.io. Let’s figure this out together.

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