Low-Tech Solutions for High-Stakes Problems

DIY innovation is paving the way for some simple, life-saving products.

By Jonathon KeatsJan 29, 2014 8:00 PM


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Low-tech, open-source innovation had a watershed year. Here are just a few of the simple, life-saving products that made a splash in 2013. If you want to appreciate the benefits of these DIY technologies, just pay a visit to rural Africa.

The two images above show parasitic worm eggs under a traditional microscope (left) and with the iPhone version (right). | Isaac Bogoch
Double-sided tape and a glass lens turn a smartphone into a field microscope.

iPhone Microscope

A $9 spherical glass lens taped to an iPhone camera provided Toronto General Hospital internist Isaac Bogoch with a field microscope to diagnose parasitic infections in Tanzania. A stool sample on a slide is illuminated with a dollar-store flashlight; the simple setup provides at least 50x magnification — enough to spot many parasites. 

Bogoch’s 2013 Tanzania study is proof-of-concept that readily available smartphones can be deployed as medical instruments. And there’s a bonus: Inexperienced clinicians unsure of a diagnosis can get a second opinion by tweeting the photo to colleagues.

Courtesy of Ideo

Evocam Endoscope

This simple camera and light source allows diagnosis and treatment of vesicovaginal fistula, a complication of childbirth among more than 2 million women in the developing world and common in sub-Saharan Africa, that results in a potentially deadly opening between the bladder and vagina. 

A traditional endoscope — a flexible fiber-optic tube used to look inside the body — costs as much as $70,000 and must be plugged in. San Francisco biomedical engineer Moshe Zilversmit’s Evocam costs less than $2,500 and runs off a battery-powered laptop.

RHU/Ikea Refugee Housing 

In Ethiopia, 20 Somalian refugee families have been living in these houses since August, prototypes of a lightweight, durable, insulating shelter developed by the Swedish design team Refugee Housing Unit and funded by the Ikea Foundation

Conventional refugee tents allow little privacy at night when lights from inside cast shadows, but these units use a novel polymer that lets in sunlight and blocks shadows. Two people can carry one shelter kit — conveniently boxed in Ikea-inspired flat packing. 

And with an expected life span of more than three years — six times longer than traditional refugee tents — these houses may out-survive the crisis, in which case they’re designed to be disassembled and rebuilt on more permanent ground.

[This article originally appeared in print as "Low-Tech Solutions for High-Stakes Problems."]

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