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Principal and Co-Investigators: Steven Johnson (School of Physics, Engineering and Technology), Jonathan Ensor (IGDC Co-Director, Department of Environment and Geography and SEI-Y), James Moir (Department of Biology), Thomas Krauss (School of Physics, Engineering and Technology)

External Collaborators: Oxfam, Unicef, Department of Water Resources, Government of Vanuatu

Funder: Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)

Project Duration: 2017-2022

Diarrhoeal diseases result in approximately 1.8 million deaths each year worldwide, in many cases due to a lack of access to clean water. In this inter-disciplinary project, the team have taken an innovative approach to the development of water monitoring technology in which they have collaborated with communities most affected by the lack of clean water, to co-design, test and validate technology that meets their needs, skills and environment and that engages with community institutions and social structures. The primary deliverable will be a community appropriate technology that responds to the local context to ensure water safety that improves the health, wealth and well-being of poor and marginalised communities. The team will also deliver a generic process for participatory technology development that will ensure science and engineering works effectively for the poor and marginalised.

Underpinned by the team's expertise in analytical technology, microbiology, critical social science and participatory action research, this project will co-develop effective, equitable and appropriate technologies for testing of water quality in poor and marginalised communities in Vanuatu.

Objective 1: Establish list of technology requirements and user needs through microbiological assessment of community water sources and facilitated community discussions.

Objective 2: Demonstrate microbiological activity sensor(s) and novel biosensor arrays for testing microbial water quality and evaluate in-lab against community challenges, needs and requirements.

Objective 3: Informed by economic assessment, engineer water monitoring prototypes, including development of ancillary components, for use in-community by community members and NGOs.

Objective 4: Validate water sensor technology alongside co-designed community institutions through in-community trials.

Objective 5: Develop and demonstrate a versatile approach for the innovation of equitable technology that embeds end users in technology development and validation.

Key Findings

It remains the case that the benefits of technology development are unevenly experienced, with some users persistently excluded from gains that should be accruing from the application of science to societal problems. Responding to this locates technology development as both a technical and an ethical challenge. It requires a rethinking of the processes and methods that applied scientists and engineers work through as they develop solutions that are simultaneously technical and social. Analysis suggests a typology of five methodological considerations that, the team suggest, are significant for the practice of equitable technology development:

  • Persistence in revealing and legitimising knowledge diversity
  • Responding to histories of marginalisation from processes of knowledge creation
  • Building a multi-scale understanding of the context of intended use
  • Iterative technical and institutional development that is anchored in context
  • Opening space for ongoing dialogue during incremental re-shaping of technical and institutional arrangements

Project Outcomes

Rhys Ashton, Callum D. Silver, Toby W. Bird, Ben Coulson, Andrew Pratt, Steven Johnson, Enhancing the repeatability and sensitivity of low-cost PCB, pH-sensitive field-effect transistors, Biosensors and Bioelectronics, 227, 115150 (2023)

Daniel Vorbach and Jonathan Ensor Autonomous Change Processes in Traditional Institutions: Lessons from Innovations in Village Governance in Vanuatu. International Journal of the Commons, 16(1), 173 (2022)

Additional Resources

 Engagement with Vanuatu and equitable technology is ongoing through various means.

Find out more about Equitable technology co-development

IGDC Project Contact:

Contact us

Interdisciplinary Global Development Centre
01904 323716
Department of Politics and International Relations, University of York, Heslington, York, YO10 5DD, UK

Contact us

Interdisciplinary Global Development Centre
01904 323716
Department of Politics and International Relations, University of York, Heslington, York, YO10 5DD, UK