In 1998 Der Spiegel’s “Kommunikation total” issue profiled the global connectivity revolution underway and being accelerated by the Internet boom of the late 1990s. It chose my picture of a satellite dish and a ger in the Gobi Desert to symbolise this historic event.
From 1997 to 1999, I served as the Communications Coordinator (head of communications) for the United Nations (UN)/United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) mission in Mongolia, founding and directing its UNDP Mongolia Communications Office.
The world has changed considerably since then; and so has Mongolia. The digital revolution has rolled across the planet, the attacks of 9/11 unleashed a wave of violence and wars, and Mongolia even became the fastest-growing economy in the world a few years ago (2012). But back when this book was researched, Mongolia was just coming out of decades of isolation within the Soviet orbit under Communism, and the country experienced in the 1990s “one of the biggest peacetime economic collapses ever” (Mongolia’s Economic Reforms: Background, Content and Prospects, Richard Pomfret, University of Adelaide, 1994).
Revolutions in technology are placing more and more power into the hands of the individual, and 3D printing and fabrication machines are opening a whole new chapter.
These devices come in many forms, but they all do one thing: they can manufacture pretty well any three-dimensional object on the spot, from digital plans. These machines come in many sizes, from factory scale to smaller, home versions which are no bigger than personal computer printers, such as the well-known MakerBot Replicator 2 (makerbot.com).
3D printers introduce sophisticated precision manufacturing to the individual much in the same way the personal computer and the Internet have empowered people to make their own software, build websites and start online businesses.
A pioneering educational innovation in Chile is taking the technology even further, in a way that is truly mind-blowing. Thinker Thing (thinkerthing.com) promises to transform the way people interact with this new technology. “We have built a machine that will allow you to make real objects with your mind,” its website states.
And, it wants to do more: “We want to use our invention to light a fire of inspiration throughout the remote and often disadvantaged schools of South America and we can do this with your help.”
Thinker Thing allows the user to wear a headset and communicate through brain waves to the 3D printer. The printer then manufactures a three-dimensional model of the thoughts. These can be squiggly shapes or even, it is hoped, more sophisticated forms.
Thinker Thing’s Chilean Chief Technology Officer is George Laskowsky. Laskowsky has a games console engineering background and was a research assistant in charge of high-energy particle experiments.
The Chilean government is funding this experiment to help children to improve their creative skills. The idea is to use the technology to eliminate the technical side of creating objects and focus the effort on the creative thought process. Thinker Thing was selected from more than 1,400 applicants to participate in the prestigious global accelerator program, “Start Up Chile” (http://startupchile.org). Start-Up Chile is a program created by the Chilean government that seeks to attract early-stage high potential entrepreneurs to develop startups using Chile as a platform to go global, in line with the national goal of converting Chile into the innovation and entrepreneurship hub of Latin America.
The plan is to tour Thinker Thing all around Chile and use the science, art and engineering principles behind the invention to help very young children in remote rural regions to learn through understanding the project. Its creators also hope to take the exhibition – called the Monster Dreamer School Outreach Program and the Fantastical Mind Creatures of Chile Exhibition – on the road and show it in major global cities.
The children are being asked to imagine fantastical creatures that will then be made into 3D forms with the machine. The idea is to then sell these 3D creatures to supporters of the project to help fund the initiative. As well, these creatures will go on display in an exhibition to help educate visitors about Chile’s children and their communities.
To increase interest, exclusive photographic prints and limited edition figurines are available of the creatures the children create.
The prototype uses what is called an EmotivEPOC, basically a wireless neuroheadset collecting signals from the user’s brain. In operation, the software allows users to make 3D models with the power of thought which are then made into a plastic model using a MakerBot Industries Replicator.
This is experimental stuff and neurotechnology is in its early stages. It can detect simple emotions such as excitement or boredom and cognitive thoughts such as push and pull. Despite being in its early stages, the technology can evolve a 3D object over a number of steps by detecting the user’s emotional response to design changes.
Thinker Thing has been working alongside neuroscientists to understand the workings of the brain. Amazingly, in one experiment they were able to get a person to control the leg of a cockroach using their own thoughts. Called the Salt Shaker (http://www.thinkerthing.com/about-2/salt-shaker/), it is an experimental kit for young students and hobbyists that allows them to take control of a biological limb quickly and simply.
The 3D printing revolution is energizing for large and small-scale manufacturers alike. It means a business can now engage in precision manufacturing of products and spare parts quickly. It means it is possible to download from the Internet plans for new innovations and manufacture them within minutes. It also means communities off the mainstream supply line can make what they need and repair machinery without needing to wait weeks or months for items to be shipped from afar or spend vast sums on shipping costs.
The Fab Labs project based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has been at the forefront of pioneering and prototyping this technology, including running testing labs across the global South to prove the relevance of the technology to the world’s poorest communities.
If Thinker Thing has its way, maybe people in the future will say “I think, therefore I print!”
1) Stratasys: The company manufactures 3D printers and materials that create prototypes and manufactured goods directly from 3D CAD files or other 3D content. Stratasys systems are used by manufacturers to create models and prototypes to aid in the new product design process. And they are becoming widely used for production of finished goods in low-volume manufacturing. Systems range from affordable desktop 3D printers to large production systems for direct digital manufacturing. Website: http://www.stratasys.com/
2) 3D Systems: 3D Systems is a leading provider of 3D content-to-print solutions including 3D printers, print materials and on-demand custom parts services for professionals and consumers alike. Website: http://www.3dsystems.com/
ExOne: With decades of manufacturing experience and significant investment in research and product development, ExOne has pioneered the evolution of nontraditional manufacturing. This investment has yielded a new generation of rapid production technology in the field of additive manufacturing as well as advanced micromachining processes. Website: http://www.exone.com/
FabCentral: This site supports a digital fabrication facility and global network of field fab labs managed by MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms. Website: http://fab.cba.mit.edu
Maker Shed: 3D Printing and Fabrication: An outstanding resource for getting all you need to understand 3D printing and manufacturing, with 3D printers, supplies, Whether you want to print out physical objects or machine something from plastic, wood, or other materials, we have the tools and accessories you need. Website: http://www.makershed.com/3D_Printing_Fabrication_s/220.htm
EMachineShop: The first and leading machine shop designed from the start for the Internet, eMachineShop’s mission is to provide easy, convenient and low-cost fabrication of custom parts via the web. Website: emachineshop.com/
Published: August 2013
Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator.
“We will be asking: is bribery business as usual at the UN?”, US Attorney Preet Bharara, October 2015
“If proven, today’s charges will confirm that the cancer of corruption that plagues too many local and state governments infects the United Nations as well.”, US Attorney Preet Bharara, October 2015
“Corruption at any level of government undermines the rule of law and cannot be tolerated. But corruption is especially corrosive when it occurs at an international body like the United Nations. By paying bribes to two U.N. ambassadors to advance his interest in obtaining formal support for the Macau conference center project, Ng Lap Seng tried to manipulate the functions of the United Nations. The sentence handed down today demonstrates that those who engage in corruption will pay a heavy price and serves as a reminder that no one stands above the law.”, Acting Assistant General John P. Cronan, May 2018
“It is important to send a message, to the people at the UN itself and to other institutions in this country, that perverting the decision-making or attempting to pervert the decision-making through bribes will not be tolerated.”, US District Judge Vernon Broderick, May 2018
It first came to light in 2015. Arrests by the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) in New York – steps away from the headquarters of the United Nations – began a journey of discovery that led to a remarkable story of global order and power upended. Since World War II one country alone reigned supreme over the global economy and the rules and norms that underpinned it: the United States.
In this brief taster, I will flesh out what I have learned to date, framing it in the context of the post-WWII global order.
It is a story that has it all: the gambling sin-bin of Macau, human and sex trafficking, bribery, corruption, money laundering, spies, and, if they are to be believed, naive UN officials hiding behind their laissez-passer passports who knew nothing about all of this but were happy to take the money for a five-star conference and a trip to China (and a free iPad). How the UN ended up in this quagmire leaves many puzzled and perplexed. Then there is a so-called “21st century” media service that really is a “conduit” for bribery and money laundering (and possibly fake news), and who to this day is still reporting from the United Nations.
May 2018 saw the ending of one chapter in the ongoing corruption saga surrounding the executives of South-South News and their alleged bribery and money laundering conduit targeting the United Nations (UN). On 11 May 2018 Ng Lap Seng was sentenced to 4 years in prison for being the ring leader of an elaborate, multi-year, multinational scheme to bribe UN officials and launder money into the United States.
The US Attorney for the Southern District of New York at the time, Preet Bharara, released a flowchart showing how the alleged bribery scheme targeting the United Nations worked. A series of court trials followed for the various co-conspirators, including senior executives and board members for South-South News, culminating in the 27 July 2017 conviction of the alleged ring leader of the scheme, Macau casino billionaire Ng Lap Seng, on six counts “for his role in a scheme to bribe United Nations ambassadors to obtain support to build a conference center in Macau that would host, among other events, the annual United Nations Global South-South Development Expo“. He used the news service South-South News as a “conduit for bribery and money laundering” at the United Nations, according to the FBI, something admitted to by various co-conspirators in court and under oath.
Fast-growing cities and urban areas in the global South can be vulnerable because they lack the web of structures and institutions that enable more long-established cities to mitigate risks and, when a disaster does strike, to bounce back quickly. But thanks to many new technologies, and some smart new thinking, it is possible to bring resilience to even the poorest and most deprived urban communities.
The essence of resilience is to build into plans and daily activities a community’s ability to weather any disaster, small or large. All cities, rich or poor, can experience a disaster of some sort, be it weather, civil unrest, war, earthquakes, shortages, or economic, financial and health crises. New technologies make it possible for all cities, no matter how poor and overcrowded, to build in urban resilience. The ubiquity of mobile phones introduces a powerful city and urban planning tool. Mapping chaotic and unplanned areas is already underway in many cities of the global South (in Brazil and Kenya for example (http://tinyurl.com/qgba8kb).
Impressively, innovators in the South are using affordable microelectronics in the form of mobile phones and laptops to gather data and map it. This computing capability was once the sole domain of big information technology companies such as IBM. Now, a single laptop computer combined with a smartphone equipped with the right software can manage a large urban area, a task that once required rooms full of computers. The data can then be used to manage growth today and re-build after a disaster. Any excuse not to be resilient has been wiped out with this technological leap.
But how to deal with the common reality of feeling overwhelmed by the many obstacles to rational planning and building for urban growth in the South? Innovators have stepped in to take matters into their own hands with simple construction technologies as the solution. One example is the Moladi system of recycled plastic moulds (moladi.net). Anybody can master this simple building technique, as the mortar-filled moulds are designed to fit easily together to construct an earthquake-resistant, beautiful home.
This approach has the advantage of bypassing the failings of authorities to enforce building codes and standards in poor, urban communities, creating safer places to live and preventing the growth of unregulated shanty towns at risk to fire and earthquakes.
Others have found social ways to organize people, even in the most desperate of conditions, providing services and laying down the groundwork for an upgrading of an urban area to improve living conditions and long-term opportunities. The concept of ‘cities for all’ has inspired many to re-energize civic organizations and networking in poor areas to ensure they are not left out of economic growth. In Colombia, a famous example of this is the escalator in the city of Medellin, which connects a hillside slum to the centre of the city, opening up economic opportunities to all (http://tinyurl.com/nm47d3u).
Still more exciting, new technologies are in the works to simplify construction of major infrastructure and new buildings. A future city will be able to gather extensive data on an expanding urban area, make detailed development plans with architects and engineers, and then have robots and 3D fabricating machines quickly lay down infrastructure and erect buildings. Sounds far-fetched? Well, in China one company recently used a 3D machine to make 10 houses in a single day (http://www.yhbm.com/index.aspx).
An infographic from Southern Innovator’s fourth issue (http:// tinyurl.com/m9vfwur) shows 10 ways any urban area – either planned or unplanned – can build in resilience. All are proven approaches from cities in the global South.