Brennan Lake is the Programs Director of the Technology Exchange Lab with previous experience in ecological, low-cost innovative solutions driven by the everyday life of a squatters’ community in Chile. In the interview with Laka he speaks openly about his background in handling the gap of unsatisfied basic needs with the help of design, as well as his work at TEL.
Laka: How did you decide to dedicate your professional life to empowering people to do their best to help others? What was your career path?
Brennan Lake: In 2008 I spent a month conducting research in a homesteader community on the outskirts of Valparaiso, Chile. I lived an earthquake-resistant house made of locally sourced eucalyptus posts and recycled sheet metal. I cooked indoors with an improved adobe cookstove, and made (daily) use of a Japanese-inspired composting toilet that fertilized terraced vegetable gardens. Among the community members were day laborers, artists and intellectuals – none with backgrounds in engineering or design. Yet with the help of Google and Youtube, they were able to create a self-sustaining community.
When the simplest of technologies are practically designed to efficiently meet a basic need, your satisfying user experience leaves you wondering “why didn’t I think of that?!” Technology Exchange Lab (TEL) helps communities around the world leverage simple solutions and their own ingenuity in order to satisfy basic needs. My work with TEL is a natural extension of my inception to the field of international development, and my past experiences drive me to further bridge the knowledge and logistical gaps between practical solutions and unmet needs.
Laka: What are the criteria based on which you select problem areas for the TEL Project Accelerator?
Brennan Lake: Through the TEL Project Accelerator, we help community-based organizations leverage appropriate technology solutions to maximize the impact of the their development projects. We are geo-agnostic, and work with organizations through any stage of their project. Whether a client is looking to develop an agricultural livelihoods project from scratch, or an existing community solar program is simply looking to make smarter procurement decisions, we offer up our expertise, methodologies and vast network of innovators to launch viable and sustainable development projects. In return, we ask that our clients do their part to diligently and responsibly implement community-led programs that put the end users’ needs first.
Laka: What are the subsequent steps in the acceleration process?
Brennan Lake: For projects starting from the ground up, we begin the process with a community-led needs assessment in order to translate the unmet needs and aspirations of community members into opportunities. We’ll then work with key stakeholders to identify potential solutions – whether products, technologies or services – and develop viable business models to sustainably implement solutions. From there, we can help organizations procure and pilot solutions in order to iteratively work towards a successful program.
Laka: What kind of projects and actions do you perceive as the most influential in terms of their ability to overcome poverty?
Brennan Lake: Community buy in and community led approaches produce better development outcomes, period. It may seem like a platitude, but it holds water, and for obvious reasons. In introducing new technologies, products and processes, you walk a fine line between innovative disruption and paternalistic decision making. TEL was founded on the precept that free choice of development solutions by well-informed end users leads to far better results than top-down selection and distribution. Anyone can drop an innovative technology into any context and hope that it sticks, but when community members are heard and incorporated into an iterative project design process, the resulting solutions are not random, they belong to the community.
Laka: What is usually first – innovation or problem area? Do you look for solutions to specific problems or apply existing solutions to many problem areas?
Brennan Lake: It always begins with the challenge area, and proposed solutions are informed by a deep understanding of the challenge, and the context around it. The word innovation is often associated with products and technologies, and it tends to attract interest (and donors). But sometimes “replication”, unsexy as it is, can be a more appropriate answer to a given challenge.
Take solar lanterns, for example. While there is a huge variety of solar lantern designs, the product family as a whole is moving towards commoditization. Inventing a new type of lantern around the particular context of a small community probably doesn’t make sense, especially considering market size and start-up costs. In introducing existing product designs into that same community, however, the technology itself might not be innovative, but developing a viable business model to provide safe and sustainable energy to off-grid families certainly is.
Brennan Lake is the Programs Director of the Technology Exchange Lab (TEL), a Boston-based nonprofit that bridges the gap between last-mile communities and innovative solutions to problems of poverty. Brennan joined TEL in 2013, following four years of working across non-profit and for-profit sectors in South America. As Programs Director, Brennan has designed and launched projects to sustainably implement appropriate technology solutions in energy access, water & sanitation, agriculture and housing across developing regions worldwide. Outside of his work with TEL, Brennan is active with the Latin American startup community and with social entrepreneurship programs in Massachusetts. http://www.techxlab.org/
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