I know what you're thinking. Joris, why would we 3D print poor people? We have enough of them already. A lot of people have supposed that for the bottom of the pyramid, the 4,000,000,000 people who live on less than $2.50 a day, 3D printing may prove to be a panacea.
3D printers would provide them with all they would need. The thinking goes that “give a man a fish and you'll feed him for a day”, give him a 3D printer and he'll make what he needs, forever. I want to believe in this, I really do. But, I have my doubts.
I was eight when we moved to Kenya. The red earth permeated all. Unwashable it seeped and soaked into all clothing giving shoes, shorts and socks a crimson brown or pink hue. I never thought there would be so many clouds. I never knew there to be so many stars. There were weekly trips to spot hyenas, gazelle and zebras. Giraffes striding elegantly, left two legs forward, right two legs forward. A steadfast parade. Gnus' confusedly swarming, a stink of a million locker rooms, braying, turning about in panicky bedlam. The Great Rift Valley opening before us, a gorgeous gouge into the earth.
The sky above somehow bigger, more open and wider than I could ever have imagined it to be. Sunsets comprised of all the reds. More reds than you thought could ever exist. Male lions languidly yawning while females hunted. A Hippo closing the distance between her young and my friend with improbable speed, her mouth snapping shut louder than the biggest book in the world, closing. Flamingos improbably perched in otherworldly pink. A hummingbird hovering helicoper-like in-front of the fruit trees in our yard.
I constantly ate passion fruit, fried chicken encased in yesterdays newspapers and explored a yard bigger than we thought a yard could be. Mongooses and a slum abutted our far too large home. More bars on the windows than a Verdi opera. The gardener burned our trash at the bottom of our yard, light bulbs popping indolently in the early evening while he was impervious to pleas from me that burning batteries was not a sound idea.
I cycled to my friend's house a few miles away as a Dutch kid is wont to do. Impervious to my Mother's check up phone calls to see if I had arrived. Shots rang out in the night. A colleague of my father once got picked up and tortured by the police because they did not believe that a Kenyan guy unconnected to the government could drive a Mercedes. Another colleague murdered a co-worker and once he had served his sentence asked my dad for his job back.
At one point I went to visit my father's work, servers encased in a cold cloud, humming diligently behind glass doors. We walked, my hand in his, along the main thoroughfare in Nairobi. A man across the street from us ran, having stolen something. A guard chased him with a wooden club. As he passed another store another guard joined the chase. A third followed. Perhaps a fourth, I can't be sure. The three (or maybe four) of them started beating him with the clubs as my father veered off into an alley with me.
Once our silent alarm went off. We were in the living room sitting with guests. Around 40 men scaled our bougainvillea clad walls carrying machetes and clubs adorned with nails. They had parked two lorries next to our walls and with ladders ascended the 3m obstacle keeping us from the outside world. Our parents stayed calm and aloof downplaying the incident but I couldn't escape the thought that “if the Group4 alarm people sent 40 guys with machetes and spiked clubs, what are the robbers like, exactly.”
When the pope came the government was so embarrassed about the beggars that they took them all away in trucks depositing them 100 kilometers from Nairobi. The thinking was that by the time they had, crippled selves, hobbled or walked back, the TV cameras and pope would be gone.
Many of my classmates had parents who worked in aid and development. It seemed like a fun gig, Landcruiser in hand saving the world, home by 3. Even though I was young their failures didn't escape me. We saw fields of parked and unused tractors, fallow for lack of maintenance. “And then we told them to plant on all of the fields, not using terrace farming but using our methods, but it turns out that if there is a rainstorm the fields all wash away, and this is why the people have always had terraces, who knew?”
The beggars. Dented, bent and folded into improbable shapes sat crushed next to the roads. I'd love to tell you that this affected me, melted my heart and turned into to pure love. But, these kids, many of whom were either lepers or had their bones broken into implausible shapes by gangs in order to provide for more revenue were only an initial shock to me.
A Dutch kid wandering out of the InterContinental into his new country together with his family confronted by scattered heaps was indeed jolted. But, like the yellow cabs of New York they melted into the scenery. Apart from those few initial KLM stewardess infused months in Kenya. I have no memory of the beggars. They simply became a part of the scenery. Like cherry trees in Japan, canals in Amsterdam, you don't notice them after a while.
Poverty, the slums, the poor conditions just become an everyday part of reality. And while we did visit the slums and many poor peoples homes, it just didn't hit home to me. Poverty was something that happened to other people. Until we visited Lucy's house. The visit to Lucy's house is probably the most important thing to ever happen to me. It has occupied almost all of my thoughts since then. It is the reason why I am in this industry.
So Lucy was our maid and was, on all accounts, paid well. She didn't, like many, have seasonal employment but had a year round job with my parents. She was kind, nice and made an amazing lemon cake that used the lemons that grew next to our kitchen, from the trees hummingbirds used to hang around.
I knew about poverty but my assumption was that she'd be ahead of most. I knew that people in Kenya were poor but assumed that people such as Lucy were doing OK. We went to her house, a double room below a corrugated iron roof. She did have a job but at 39 supported around 30 members of her family with that job.
Is your life one moment? Because mine is. I only think of this moment. I only think of a solution to this problem. If I'm on an airplane with nothing to do, I think of this. If I'm biking somewhere, I think of this. If I'm in a cab, I think of this. If I'm in my bed at night I think of this. Any time my mind is not engaged with the here and now I think of this one thing: the visit to Lucy's house and a solution to her and many other people's problems.
So we walk in to her house. And there is a KLM calendar on her wall. Our old KLM calendar. Its one of those typical airline calendar jobs set to a particular month “Kyoto at sunset” or whatever. And immediately, I think what the likelihood is of Lucy visiting Kyoto. And even in my childhood naivete I could conclude that this would be zero. Air travel for me was commonplace, it is how you visited grandma and I did at least 4 flights a year. But, I intuited that for her to have the disposable income to visit Kyoto would be something she would be unable to accomplish in her lifetime.
This is something I may be able to accept due to temporary economic differences. But, a much more horrifying conclusion was that her children would not be able to do so either. As I walk into her house I realize that the chances are slim to none that her kids will attend the right schools, be able to accumulate the capital, be able to start businesses or at all be in a position to go to Kyoto. Flying to Kyoto is something that for me would be well within the realm of the possible, but for them would not be possible.
The second main decorative item in her home would be even more shattering to me. Across her sparsely furnished mud walled dining room/kitchen/living room/bedroom she in addition to the KLM calendar had a table runner. This was a laminated paper table runner my mom got at the Blokker. It had a Easter themed pattern on it and once it had been covered in egg stains and coffee rings we crumpled it up put it in the trash. Lucy had smoothed it out as much as was possible and hung it across her living room as the main decorative item in her home. Recognizing this thing somehow disassembled me, broke me into a thousand pieces, and ever since I've been seeking to resemble myself.
My life since that moment has been concerned with trying to discern how to equalize capital allocation, how to make assets available to all and how to reuse things in a logical way. I've never really told anyone this. I never wanted to be the idealistic sap, the wanton dreamer. But, I've also never really spent a moment's thought on a subject other than this. Solving this equation always seemed to be something that would be beyond my reach. It seemed to be a hobby in desperate disparate thought, considering an unanswerable problem. An amateur mulling Fermat or a casual pianist plunking away at Rachmaninoff. A doodling of the mind.
I hate 3D printing
I hate 3D printing. Despise it. Loathe it. Abhor it. Here I am, just idly going about my life. This abstract distraction mulling, mixing and bouncing in my head. A milkshake of possibility. A smoothie of unadulterated promise. An impossible problem that permeates my waking hours. Its a thing to consider: what could equalize the world? What would let anyone make anything they wanted? What could give people access to the technologies that they needed? What could let people reuse and recycle while building what they required?
A thought experiment sloshing around in my brain. But, crucially just this, a thought experiment without any possible answer. And then I happen upon it, 3D printing. For me, a paper by Hod Lipson. F***, F***, F***. Is my initial response. I no longer have a choice, because this is what I will need to spend my life on.
It all clicks in the ensuing months. Super obvious really. Simple and self-evident in retrospect. There are a lot of problems effecting the Bottom of the Pyramid: lack of access to markets, higher taxation of their products, lack of capital, lack of machines, lack of information, lack of skills, remoteness, higher costs of imputs etc. So how to solve for most of those?
Super obvious of course. Lease them 2 shipping containers, SoWa containers (SolarWater) One with a reverse osmosis water plant in it powered by solar panels so they can make their own electricity and water. Another filled with instructions and machinery to make whatever they needed to make. A container filled with a lathe, 3 axis CNC, 3D printer, filament maker etc. That would also enable them to use these machines to make more machines that could make almost all they needed.
Lower costs for them, less labor spent gathering or buying wood, charcoal, batteries & kerosine. Lower environmental cost and health benefits would provide these people who because they are off the grid pay more for water and energy with something to save money and improve their lives. And at its core, a 3D printer, would enable them to make many of the goods they would need to ameliorate their lives.
A fishhook slung into my brain. Caught, I was unable to escape this technology and the ramifications it has. But, there are downsides as well. A creeping worry that keeps me up at night.
If we look at societies such as South Korea, Japan, HK, Singapore and post WWII Europe that have gone from destruction to prosperity they have all meandered up the tech tree. Grandad was a factory laborer making plastic flowers, Dad was a maintenance engineer maintaining a semi-automated factory making radios and the granddaughter was a designer designing cell phones. Stable employment and investments in education increase the skill set, GDP , stability and value of an economy over time. Low paid peoples work their way up through higher skilled, higher quality manufacturing that penetrates more export markets as they develop their own businesses.
This lets the middle class emerge and brings about political stability and (in some cases) democracy. But, what of a world where everything would be manufactured locally? If we'd use 3D printing to make everything in our own homes and cities what opportunities would be left for those not yet wealthy? What we risk is a permanent separation between the rich and the poor with us making all of our own things here while not giving the poor an opportunity to make anything.
They would simply never be able to catch up because in addition to tariffs, distance, lack of infrastructure and other issues these peoples will simply not be given the opportunity to sell to us. And even though they may have their own 3D printers these will be less capable than the machines on offer in the “North.” So they may never catch up. So even though theoretically the poor could make many of the things they need with 3D printers, the development of 3D printers may make them permanently poor. I don't have an answer or way out of this conundrum and would be very appreciative if any reader could give me any insight into it.