This week has been inventors' week in D-Lab: Design. After Suprio's lecture on Monday, we hosted Bernard Kiwia for Wednesday's class. Bernard is an inventor from Tanzania, who currently leads technology innovation at Global Cycle Solutions in his home country. Bernard started as a bicycle mechanic with 3 years of experience when he participated in the first edition of the International Development Design Summit at MIT over the summer of 2007. After connecting there with other craftsmen, technicians and hackers of sorts, he came back home to start making things, as he likes to describe his current activities. As part of his lecture, Bernard presented the different inventions he has come up over the years, which include a cell phone charger for bicycles, a wheel truing stand, several daily objects made out of bicycle spare parts (a can opener made from a bike brake, a picture frame made from a front sprocket wheel, chairs made from bike wheel rims, etc), a bycicle-powered water pump, a solar water heater, and a pedal-powered drill press to name a few.
Being presented with such a rich and varied array of inventions, D-Lab students wondered about the origin of all these designs: did they come from his head or did people come to him with challenges? Bernard replied straightforwardly: in order to invent, you need to know what people need. For me it's easy because I live there, and I experience the same problems myself: I had to take a cold shower every morning until I decided that I would build a solar water heater to have access to warm water for showering. As soon as I build one, neighbours started asking for one. Thus, if you don't live there you have to make a lot of research to understand people's needs and desires. Better yet, travel to learn it by yourself first-hand.
Bernard has strong opinions about what it takes to become an inventor: don't make things for somebody else, think of yourself as the user, assume that you will be somewhere in Africa, and this device will help you while you are over there. The ultimate attribute of an inventor is self-confidence: Bernard wants to keep trying to do new things because he knows he can do it. Then, if you know you can do it, just try and start doing it. Answering students' concern about the challenge of continuously coming up with novel ideas, Bernard comments that fresh ideas are a small part of the game. Instead, it's all about modifying exisiting ideas from the past and re-adapt them to match current needs. As an inventor and designer, you must have an inner curiosity to know and discover how things work, and these are the sources of inspiration for your next designs.
Invention is a very personal thing: one feels it, and does it. --Bernard Kiwia