Interview with Carola Schwank
Carola Schwank is the Project Manager of the “empowering people. Award”. First started in 2012, this Award is fast becoming popular in the developmental work community because of the long-term support that is provided not only to winners but also to all promising technical solutions that can help basic supply problems following the close of the competition.
Carola, you managed the Award in 2012 for the first time. Why is this project so important to you?
I have been working in the area of Basic Needs at the Siemens Stiftung for some years now and I have been able to witnessed many people struggling with their everyday supply of basic goods. Surviving is their first and only priority and living without essentials such as clean drinking water, energy or basic medical care is exhausting: Walking miles to collect water, being cut off from energy grids or from vital information bulletins means that individuals and also whole communities don’t have the opportunity to flourish and develop. This is something we would like to help change for the better.
There were so many fascinating objects entered to the competition last time round. Were you surprised when you saw them?
Yes, indeed! We were surprised and overwhelmed not only by the quantity of solutions – we received 800 entries from more than 90 countries – but moreover by their quality. This was reiterated by our experts who carried out a detailed evaluation of each entry. We saw so many simple, but very creative and very appropriate technologies that provide a real improvement of basic supply in the most pressing issues of daily life.
And we were surprised and impressed again when we met many of the inventors and entrepreneurs behind these solutions in trainings or workshops. They all are passionate drivers, highly socially motivated. They saw a problem in their environment, and they developed a fitting technical solution as an answer to this problem. They do a great job! And our common objective is to bring these ingenious solutions to the people that are waiting for them.
Do you think the “empowering people. Award 2015” can help bring about change?
I think the competition can certainly go some way towards that.
When I think about the entries from last time around, they were often amazing in their simplicity and pragmatism. And they had one thing in common: these small technologies have had a huge impact. Let me give you an example: The OneDollarGlasses, overall prize winner in 2012, has a bending machine to manufacture glasses. They are affordable and have a great knock-on effect in a community because people get their eyesight back and can once again see what they are doing! This means children can go to school, learn and equip themselves for a future, adults can work and earn a living for their families – this is a major benefit for a single family and can have a great effect on a whole community. Or let’s take the example of the Permafunnel, another one of our prize-winners from last time around: This funnel is about 4 cm – so really tiny. A simple device to stem the flow of water as a great deal of it is lost when people turn on old taps. It can even be retrofit into old pumps and, of course new ones! You can imagine how helpful this is for people as so much of this precious life-force is just wasted simply because water doesn’t flow straight into jerry cans.
How does the competition this year differ from last time around?
Well, we have made a few adjustments: Firstly, we have added the category of Education. This was important to us because solutions for education can help in the widespread sharing of knowledge. We are ideally looking for products and solutions that support the improvement of education in school subjects. We are convinced that there are many innovations in this field and we expect e-learning solutions and apps as well as technical devices that support school education or vocational training. The category of Education is also relevant in the areas of hygiene or the environment. Important information needs to be shared and there is a major lack here in these regions.
Secondly, we are placing more emphasis on the business models and impact of these products and solutions, that is the potential of financial sustainability. Our philosophy at Siemens Stiftung is that we wish to empower people so that they can help themselves sustainably. Most products or solutions can only reach a growing number of beneficiaries if they can be based on a realistic entrepreneurial model and do not depend on grants or sponsorship in the long run. That is why we have integrated respective questions into the online application process.
What are your expectations for this time around?
Primarily we would be very happy if the Award has a similarly huge response as in 2012. We hope to learn about many innovations in this sector. When we say innovations we don’t only mean brand new technologies and inventions: Entries can also include a creatively redesigned product or solution or a new effective implementation model in a new context. There is a range of relevant aspects that marks a successful solution.
What sets this Award apart from other awards?
Siemens Stiftung does not simply give away an Award and Award money. In the first step, our goal is to identify and evaluate promising technical solutions that provide a significant social impact. In a second step we present them on an online Solution Database and promote them within the international development community. We want to help the organizations to find and convince appropriate partners that are interested in technical, operational or financial cooperation. We also offer our own training workshops and coaching to the organizations and their employees with the objective of strengthening competencies and furthering positive development. All these measures happen in our “empowering people. Network”. That means the Award is not an end point but a starting point to an international network of peers, specialists and development players.