Perchance to Dream

There’s something about complexity that I find intimidating; impressive as it may be, I don’t crave the complicated. I don’t even understand it. Of course, that may be part of its fascination for some: a facet of the instinct that leads to worship of that which is mysterious. Unknowable to the uninitiated. The awe of a dark night full of stars.

Perhaps it’s the structural intricacy, or maybe the number of parts and their varying relationship to each to each other that I find confusing, but not compelling. Inexplicable, but not awesome.

I sometimes think that complexity is a necessary first attempt at something –a way we initially endeavor to solve a problem: throw all our resources at it and then cobble together a solution using as many of them as we can. But in time, that jungle of interacting parts usually resolves itself into a skeletal framework that does the same work, but more economically. In a way, it’s like a sentence in which, instead of a subject a verb and an object that succinctly communicate a message, there are a whole host of unnecessary words thrown in -for colour, not clarity.

In short, simplicity -at least in a device- almost always trumps complexity: less to go wrong, simpler to understand and fix, and usually cheaper to produce. Of course those are some of the more important characteristics of equipment that would be useful in less well developed countries. Places with large needs but small budgets and even smaller infrastructures.

If, for example, a machine is clever, but complex, helpful but profligate of energy, it would be of limited use where electricity is sporadic, or non-existent. Or where, after prolonged use, there are no people trained to maintain it, or no accessible spare parts for that matter. And if the parts themselves are so complex and intricate that they don’t lend themselves to innovative adaptations with available local items, the machine is effectively useless: flashy new cars without wheels. Or engines…

Our society thrives on complexity simply because it can. It reveres new technology both because of its utility in solving old problems –often not appreciated as problematic before its inception- and because it can support its necessary underpinnings. And if the infrastructure is not yet in place, there is usually some facility locally extant that is wealthy enough to create it. For a price, of course.

But there are some regions of the world where babies die needlessly. Low birth weight babies, for example. Some are born prematurely, some are disadvantaged in the womb and never grow properly. And among other requirements, what their small size and lean body cannot provide, is warmth. The inside of the uterus where the baby has been developing is warm –it’s the mother’s body temperature. Normally, when mammals are cold, they shiver to produce heat. But, shivering, which is an attempt to warm the body by contracting skeletal muscles, is energy expensive -energy depleting. And these babies in particular have minimal energy stores when they are born. They are thin and have no extra fat to use as fuel. If they become hypothermic, they can die.

One answer, and one known by every new mother, is to cuddle the baby next to her skin –let her own body’s heat warm the baby. But suppose the mother is unable to do this –say she’s hemorrhaging, or convulsing from pregnancy induced hypertension (eclampsia)? And unfortunately, among other problems, these complications are far more common in poor countries with inadequate antenatal care programs –or at least health clinics that are relatively inaccessable to many in isolated rural communities, even if they could afford the care.

So low birth weight infants need warmth; if the mother can’t provide it, they need to be in incubators until they can fend for themselves. But incubators are expensive and energy-intensive. They require a fairly complex infrastructure for both their performance, and their maintenance. The idea may be intuitive, but the ultimate product is complex; it is usually merely a transplantation of a device that is taken for granted in a labyrinthine, infrastructure-laden country, into one whose poorer inhabitants may not have adequate sewage disposal, let alone electricity, even in the larger towns. And conditions are seldom better in the distant rural villages where roads or communication facilities may not allow reception of news of an emergency or access to provide timely help.

What to do? Well, fortunately dire need spawns ingenuity and there are several ingeniously simple devices created that may well help to fill some of these gaps. An article in the BBC News outlines some of the innovations:

I think my favorite is ‘Embrace’, a product envisioned during a class assignment at the Stanford Institute of Design in 2007. It is basically ‘a sleeping bag with a removable heating element’. It only requires 30 minutes to heat it up, and a phase-change material maintains the bag at 37 degrees C. for up to six hours. And ‘More importantly for mothers, it allows for increased contact with their child, unlike traditional incubators. So it also encourages Kangaroo care, a technique practiced on newborn, especially pre-term infants, which promotes skin-to-skin contact to keep the baby warm and facilitate breastfeeding and bonding.’ It costs about $200 the article asserts, and is reusable. Furthermore, ‘Embrace is a non-profit venture. The product is not sold, but is donated to impoverished communities in need.’ And apparently the organization has even set up educational programs to teach the mothers about hypothermia. Wow!

And there was another article in the BBC News talking about yet another innovation by a student names James Roberts; this one won the ₤30,000 2014 James Dyson Award (which, as Wikipedia explains ‘is an international student design award, organised and run by the James Dyson Foundation charitable trust. The contest is open to university level students (or recent graduates) in the fields of product design, industrial design and engineering, who “design something that solves a problem“’.[ ). The design is for an inflatable baby incubator called Mom.

‘The device is designed to be delivered as flat-packed parts that are assembled at their destination. At its heart is a sheet of plastic containing inflatable transparent panels that are blown up manually and then heated by a ceramic element. This wraps around the interior of the unit to keep a newborn warm. “When it’s opened it won’t collapse in on the child and will maintain its shape,” Mr Roberts stressed. An Arduino computer is used to keep the temperature stable, control humidification, and manage a phototherapy lamp that can be used to treat jaundice, as well as sound an alarm. The electronic components are designed to use as little power as possible and can be run off a car battery for more than 24 hours when mains electricity is not available. The modular design of the kit allows damaged parts to be replaced without compromising the whole unit. And after the child is taken out of the incubator, it can be collapsed and the plastic sheet sterilised so that Mom can be easily transported for re-use elsewhere.’


So, take an ‘old’ design, and simplify it so it can satisfy a need elsewhere. “How far that little candle throws its beams. So shines a good deed in a naughty world.” How prescient, William…


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