When you’re creating new processes, systems, products or services, it’s very easy to fall into the mental habit going for high-tech solutions. This bias is common among engineers, who are trained to think in technological terms. But, as we interact with tech more and more in our daily lives, we can all fall into this trap.
Counteracting this bias doesn’t mean completely discarding technology — it often is the best solution. But how can you be sure? It’s very likely you’re ignoring a simpler, cheaper solution. Or even one that’s more viable or impactful.
As an example, the non-profit APOPO (founded in Belgium in 1997, and whose acronym in Flemish means “Anti-Personnel Landmines Removal Product Development”) took a very low-tech, and very unusual, direction to approach the problem it was founded to solve.
The lay of the land
Landmines — buried or hidden explosives that detonate when a person steps on them— injure and kill indiscriminately. In 2016 they injured 8,605 people, of which 78% were civilians, and 42% were children. Around 60 countries in the world have minefields, most of them developing countries, recovering from an armed conflict. In addition to directly harming people, mines impede economic development, by cutting off communication lines and transportation routes. They also limit access to drinking water and the production of food and other agricultural products.
Conventional mine clearing methods are labor-intensive, expensive, and dangerous. One involves sending a highly trained expert, encased in heavy body armor, to systematically check a mined area with a metal detector. It’s a slow, risky method, which produces both false positives, when the metal detector reacts to nails, screws or shrapnel, and false negatives, if the mine is not metallic.
Another involves sending an explosives detection dog with its human handler, both highly, expensively trained, to check the area. They avoid detection errors by focusing on explosive material instead of metals, but it’s expensive to transport them to the remote minefields, and they’re not well adapted to tropical climates. It’s not very safe, either, since dogs weigh enough to trigger the mines when they step on them.
Using these methods, it can take up to 4 days to clear an area of 200 square meters, a little more than a tennis court, of landmines. Each mine removed costs between 100 and 300 US dollars.
If you’d like to a new, faster or safer, method to clear mines, what comes to mind? Maybe you think of autonomous rovers, or underground surveys with ultrasound or radar. You may even think of a geotagging app to keep track of high-risk areas, that could suggest alternate travel routes for civilians and an efficient mine clearance plan for mine-clearing NGOs. But if you consider that minefields are in remote and rugged areas, in countries with limited infrastructure, you begin to see the forces that limit the impact of these solutions.
APOPO, whose founder was a rodent breeder as a teenager, thought the solution was to train an animal other than a dog to detect mines — one light enough not to trigger the mines, well adapted to the tropical climate, and very fast to train. Their HeroRATS are ready to find landmines after just 9 months of training, and can clear 200 square meters in 30 minutes, for much less money than conventional methods.
Currently, they operate in Cambodia, Zimbabwe, Angola, and will soon be in Colombia. They helped make Mozambique fully free of mines in 2015.
A effective and inexpensive as they are, the HeroRATS haven’t replaced conventional methods completely. There are terrains where they’re not as efficient and climates to which they’re not adapted. And, for reasons of animal welfare, they can only work at certain times of the day. If an ultrasound mine-detector rover was invented today, it would hardly be irrelevant. It could certainly save many lives.
But APOPO’s case shows why it’s worth keeping an open mind while exploring how to solve problems. Depending on the social, economic and geographical context, a high-tech solution may not work, or, at least, not as well as something more rustic.