Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Solar Energy Storage Hackathon Singapore.

The Solar Energy Storage Hackathon in Singapore is run by Global Sense and Civil Innovation Lab. This is the first of such event held in Singapore, and the goal is to find out sustainable solution for storing sustainable energy in Rural communities.

The registration started on 18 April 2016, and there were 2 pre-Hackathon workshops on 28 May and 4 June. The workshops are to introduce how solar energy works, and to calculate carbon footprint. The hackathon is open to secondary schools, JC and university students.

This year, the hackathon is run at the Singapore Science Center on 14 - 17 June. there were 37 registered participants and the each team was given a 5.4W panel that produces 4.5V output.

The challenge was to use this panel to store energy (without the use of batteries or chemicals) in a sustainable way, and later allow the energy to be used to power LED bulbs or charge a phone. The solution should be scalable in the rural communities, like those in Nepal which are off the grid.

The participants are encouraged to recycle old toys and appliances for the storage and spend as little as possible, and use item which they think can be acquired in Nepal. 

After some brainstorming, mentors are assigned to each team to work with them on a solution that they could hack together in the next few days.

Some of the ideas were pretty ambitious, and others rather novel. Many of the students did learn a lot from school, and want to apply their knowledge, and during the hackathon, they quickly realized that it is actually very challenging to create a prototype, which it is easy to work out solution on the paper.

For example, the most common way to get energy stored to light a bulb or charge a phone is to use a motor as a generator, and picking the right motor to light up a bulb is not easy. Even a 3W motor can come in various sizes and even engineering students don't have any idea when it comes to creating a device. It is really a big test on their creativity and adaptability to work towards the solution with what they have.

Initially, some of the participants though of similar solutions, but implementing and creating the solution is NEVER the same. even when 2 teams want to store water, one team actually created their own pump out of a piece of wood in a circular plastic container and a motor.

The hands on experience on creating the prototype and managing their limited time is also a great learning experience as most knowledge are taught on books, and translating it to a physical product is something all the participants have no experience in.

After a few days of assembling materials and building their prototype, they have to present their solution to the judges.

The participants created a lot of novel solutions, and there were many iterations of the creation as there were lots of trail and error to get to what they want.

Time management was also very important, and some groups had a rather hard time managing time, and resources. And eventually had to scale down their solution to a simpler one.

Many interesting devices were created by the younger student, and even a "valve" derived by examining how the heart works is being tested.

The prototypes need to be functioning and not "pretty" and even so, it was not an easy task. For some projects, it became a crafts project, and one need to be handy and innovative to use limited resources.

In the end, one of the younger teams created a good device which they can demo (and works) to pump water to a height with a pump powered by the solar panel. And later, use the running water to turn a turbine and light up a bulb.

We would like to thank our main sponsor -- Ricoh Singapore that sponsored the Theta S 360 camera as prizes for the winners.

I had great fun organizing the event and was inspired by the young minds in their creative solutions. This was their first hackathon experience and they put in a lot of effort to work on the prototypes. They are also invited to travel to Nepal where there are several on the ground partners like Nepal Communitiere to host them to scale their prototypes up into other solution to empower the rural communities and earthquake survivors.

-- Robin Low

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The unequal distribution of resources

Many societies have come to a point where people feel that the unequal distribution of resources is part of life. Some of my friends in Singapore buy into the prosperity gospel -- a religious belief among some Christians that financial blessing is the will of God for them, and that faith, positive speech, and donations will increase one's material wealth. Others join mega churches and believe that they should earn more in order to give more.

In the US, my Conservative Republican friends dislike paying taxes and make socialism a dirty word. They also believe that people are poor because they are lazy, and seek ways to reduce social spending.

Resources are materials found in the environment that humans use for food, fuel, clothing, and shelter. These include water, soil, minerals, vegetation, animals, air, and sunlight. People require resources to survive and thrive.

Due to the difference in the environment that results in different natural conditions, resources are distributed differently across the globe. Countries that do not have the resources they need can trade for them. Sometimes, conflicts happen when countries try to control resource rich territories.
Within the countries and society itself, there is also unequal distribution of resources. Today, the income gap is widening. Many people consume fewer resources they need for survival and well-being. As a result, there is much poverty in these countries. However, not everyone in these countries is poor, there are also a few people controlling all the resources, making them very rich.
This unequal distribution of resources, the legacy of imperialism, is the result of human rather than natural conditions. But this problem is not only found in third world countries, many countries do see a large income gap and the number of "working poor" in these countries is also on the rise. In fact, the world’s 62 richest people hold as much wealth as the bottom 3.5 billion in 2016.
We praise billionaires for their charitable donations and philanthropy. But where do they get their massive wealth from? Many of these billionaires are driven to make as much money as possibly at any cost. After making money, they hoard their wealth and give a small portion to charity while putting the rest in a tax free financial vehicle.

Corporations are also hoarding Trillions of dollars; some say they hold it for a "rainy day", while some corporations focus on "tax efficiency" which most of us call "tax avoidance". If they were to spend it, the economy would instantly grow, and we could see more jobs with better pay. Strangely, the stock market is also rewarding companies for hoarding money, namely software and healthcare companies which hoard the most cash.

Perhaps this is a result of our dysfunctional society, a society where people suffer from curable diseases simply because they cannot afford medical care -- because they are too poor. There is massive income inequality in the world and many that could not earn a sufficient living now require aid in order to get by.

In many societies, people with materialistic wealth are looked up on as idols. No matter where he gets his wealth from, corruption, unfair business practices which kills of other smaller competition, he gets more respect for having more.

Many aspire to accumulate wealth and will find all means to get there, and only when they are rich, they participate in philanthropy. This is the kind of mindset that creates the income inequality, where people around die from poverty and creates a need for the billionaire philanthropists to come to the rescue.

We need to address the distribution of resources at the root. We need to treat people in our society with empathy and consideration. It is definitely possible to do well while doing good. Through social innovation, marginalized communities can be freed from a life bound by servitude and dependency.
Poor people are not stupid. They have ideas and aspirations, but lack resources to even solve their most immediate problems. They do not need the help from the billionaire philanthropists; they do not need aid and donations. They need to be able to be included in deciding their future, and be connected to be resources and be empowered to solve their own problems.

What we need is just for people to rethink their consumption habits. Supporting chain stores who exploit their workers in the different levels of supply chains, just because they sell cheaper products may not the best way to save money. We need business owners who treat their workers with respect and encouragement. We do not need to worship billionaires because it will encourage people to accumulate their wealth at any cost.

Everyone plays a role to empower their communities and enable the ones who are marginalized to do more. Charities are temporary solutions and the main problems we need to address the unequal distribution of resource.

Billionaire philanthropists and large corporations do not hold the solution of the problems we face today, it is up to us to take actions and accountability to make things right.

-- Robin Low

Wednesday, June 1, 2016


It is normal for people to push blame to others, especially when there are voiceless.

Scapegoating is the practice of singling out any party for unmerited negative treatment or blame as a scapegoat. Scapegoating may be conducted by individuals against individuals (e.g. "he did it, not me!"), individuals against groups (e.g., "I couldn't see anything because of all the tall people"), groups against individuals (e.g., "Jane was the reason our team didn't win"), and groups against groups.

For many years, donations have been the default model to help people living in poverty. Nothing much has changed to improve the lives of the recipients of aid, and they are often blamed for it. Many social enterprises give jobs to people from marginalized communities. Some of them pay only minimum wage, and others who hire the elderly or disabled may only hire them part time denying them benefits. There is also often no progression in the jobs, and when these people leave the job, they are often blamed for not sticking to the job. Without engagement many NGOs and governments think of solutions to help these communities. And the communities are told to be grateful and just accept what is given to them. The solution may not work as usually foreign experts are used and no consultation is done, and there is also very little buy in from the community. When the project fails, the communities are blamed for the failure.

-- Robin Low