Need drives innovation. But even when the need is life-and-death, innovation often follows a path that is crooked and sometimes comes to a (temporary) dead end. "Eureka" moments may prove to be just that -- momentary.
Consider the cooking stoves used by more than 2.4 billion poor people in developing countries. The stoves -- fueled mostly by kerosene or biomass (e.g., wood, charcoal, dung) -- kill an estimated 1.5 million people annually because of indoor pollution that causes pneumonia and other diseases (photo from U.N. WHO report "Fuel for Life: Household Energy and Health").
There have been numerous attempts to develop a less dangerous stove, but success has been, at best, only marginal. Innovative stoves often proved inferior to open fires in cooking local foods, and in other cases they actually turned out to be inefficient energy users.
The 30-year struggle by a group of altruistic American inventors/tinkerers, scientists, and other amateur and professional experts to design a stove that was safe, efficient, inexpensive, and met local cooking requirements and tastes across the globe is described in a fascinating article in the New Yorker magazine, "Hearth Surgery." (The link requires a subscription; to read the abstract, go here. Author Burkhard Bilger's blog is here.)
For all their altruism and expertise, not to mention innovation, the designers met setback after setback. One big obstacle was getting international donor funding. "For groups like the Gates Foundation and USAID, the metric is cost-effectiveness," said team member Jacob Moss. "How many people are you going to save with a hundred million dollars?"
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