Many sustainable development projects have a fatal flaw: they are unrealistically expensive. Sure, a stationary bike that purifies water as it is pedaled is a great innovation, but how much does the bike cost to build and implement? These technologies are often really pricey, which prevents them from being effective. Environmental innovations should be affordable to the people who need it most. Which is why I’m so excited about the hybrid tuk tuk contest!
A tuk tuk is basically a motorized rickshaw. It has three wheels, a seat up front for the driver, and a bench seat in the back for up to three passengers (and occasionally animals and/or the daily shopping). There are three million tuk tuks in India alone, but they are common all over Southern Asia and parts of Africa and Latin America. They are especially popular in areas where traffic congestion is an issue. The tuk tuks are also an environmental nightmare. They spew smoke. The drivers are often from lower socioeconomic classes, and therefore need to run their rickshaws on the cheapest, dirtiest fuel. Sometimes they even run on kerosene.
Last year, Stef Van Dongen visited India and rode on a tuk tuk. He is the founder of Enviu, a Dutch environmental think tank, and was horrified at the smoke belching out of the back of his rickshaw. Van Dongen is known for being creative (Enviu also created a sustainable dance club), and he realized that there was a huge social and environmental opportunity in front of him.
Enviu decided to host a hybrid tuk tuk contest. Eight research teams from universities in India and the Netherlands were challenged to make an environmental efficiency kit for existing tuk tuks. The teams were given funding by Enviu and a year to create their prototypes. The rules were simple: the kit had to be easy to implement (because many Indian mechanics cannot read) and cheap (because tuk tuk drivers have to be able to afford the kit in the first place). The idea is that the kit will reduce rickshaw emissions by 40 percent. This will obviously have huge environmental impacts in dense urban areas like Mumbai and Karachi, but it will also increase the profit margin for tuk tuk drivers and thus improve their quality of life.
The research teams took varied approaches to the challenge. Some teams were able to reduce carbon emissions by up to 20 percent simply by modifying the exhaust pipe. Other teams began using cleaner fuels. One team created a cheap hybrid prototype. Solar and electric options were ruled out quickly because they are just too expensive.
The final goal of the contest is lofty: to improve one million tuk tuks in India by 2010. The final judging is occurring in India today. The top three prototypes will be commercialized, if Enviu can get the funding. This kind of inexpensive, realistic innovation is what the sustainable development movement needs. Sometimes a simple design contest can have a huge impact.