You Get What You Pay For

These past couple of weeks a story of a collapsed bridge in Kenya has popped up on my social media feeds quite a lot. The bridge in question, which was also used as a campaigning point for next month’s elections by the incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta, was being constructed by a Chinese Company called the Chinese Overseas Construction and Engineering Company, itself a subsidiary of China railways.

The collapse was touted by friends as evidence of poor Chinese workmanship a view held by many people across the continent.

Most people think Chinese goods and products don’t last as long as they should, and that Chinese workmanship is poor. It is a view so entrenched that we called counterfeits and fakes “zhing zhongs” which is a phrase that arose from trying to sound Chinese.

Chinese reputation is not very good in Africa and there are several cases of Chinese projects going awry, for example in Zambia where a Chinese built road was washed away by a rainstorm.

Yet the notion that the Chinese cannot produce goods of high quality or build durable infrastructure is wrong. After all China itself is pretty advanced and I personally have no complaints about my Chinese Xiaomi mobile phone.

Of course the Chinese know how to build bridges, perhaps better than anyone else. If in doubt watch this BBC video of a truly impressive piece of bridge engineering.

What I think the Chinese do is do shoddy jobs when there isn’t much money on the table. That old adage is true, you get what you pay for.

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Engineering and (Bad) Design: The Day I Couldn’t Open a Door




I’m reading a book called The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman. It’s an interesting book about why some designs are total failures and also how we can improve the design of everything things. A good design has two important characteristics, discoverability i.e. What functions are possible, where and how to perform them and understanding i.e. what does it all mean, how is the product supposed to be used.

The book reminded me of one of my old lecturers who liked talking about the time he spent at Cambridge. He said things were so different in the UK, and so advanced that he found himself unable to open water faucets in one of the University’s restrooms.

I was in a similar situation once a few years ago when I accompanied a friend to his girlfriend’s flat. When it was time to leave I got to the door first and embarrassingly discovered that I couldn’t open the bloody door. Seriously the door had the most elaborate locking system I’d ever encountered. It was like nothing I’d ever seen and I had no idea how to open it. After an awkward moment the girl opened the door and we left.

At that time I attributed the failure to open the door to my own shortcomings. The problem, I thought, was the village which didn’t have doors like that.

Imagine my joy then when I started reading Norman’s work. Apparently Norman, himself an engineer turned psychologist, has had door troubles in the past. There are actually doors called “Norman Doors” which are design disasters. Doors where you have no idea whether to push, pull, turn, twist or punch. Doors like that door in the Avenues. I should have taken a picture of that door and sent it to Norman.

It also turns out that my lecturer’s amazement and his inability to open water taps in Cambridge was not a sign of advancement. It’s actually a design failure.

Good designs should be intuitive and simple. The problem with modern gadgets is that they try to do so many things. We have microwaves with so many dials and buttons that you never use nor have any idea of what they do and cars with dashboards looking like the interior of spaceships.

Design extends to things like websites as well. There are some websites that are truly atrocious. Websites where you don’t know where to click, what a button will do and also websites with so many colors and links that your head will spin. I won’t mention any names but the local websites here leave a lot to be desired.

Traditionally new devices were poorly designed. After all Engineers are most concerned with utility than form. The first question is always “Does it work?”. If it works then we consider the cost, how economic is it, how many can we make? Even then other factors such as size and ease of manufacture are considered before the aesthetic aspect is looked at.

Nowadays though it’s becoming more and more important to not only have things which work, but things which work well, are intuitive and satisfy a whole lot of requirements such as environmental impact and even trivial ones like how well a device fits into jean pockets. Design is becoming increasingly important and products with better designs outperform products of similar utility but poorer design.

A good example of this is Apple with its iPhone, iPads and MacBook. Though both cost about double the price of similar devices they usually outsell their competitors. Apple products are better made, with designs easily better than other comparable products.

For companies to get ahead of their competitors it’s no longer enough just to have products that work. I mean there’s practically nothing differentiating any of the flagship mobile phones in terms of functionality. The main difference is the design (and sometimes cost). The reason I prefer Windows phone is not because it works better than Android.

Design is an important field which is only getting prominence now. It’s also being helped by the minimalist movement with its “less is more” mantra. It’s a good creed, in an ever increasingly complex world, we risk coming up with gadgets and cars no one understands. Simplicity, as has been said, is sometimes the ultimate sophistication.

Though it was not considered very important until now, design has been around for as long as mankind has lived. From the moment man picked stones as tools and weapons he was into design.

The Roman architect Vitruvius wrote about the 3 qualities of a good structure in the first century BC :
1.Firmitas: The strength and durability of the design;
2. Utilitas: A design’s usefulness and suitability for the needs of its intended users and,
3. Venustas: The beauty of the design
(Vitruvius’s works were lost for about 1500 years until they were rediscovered in the 15th century)

For two thousand years we have mainly focused on the first and second (Except in the case of painters, sculptors and architects). To design products of the future we need to consider all three.

If we do so, I’ll never find myself in the awkward situation of failing to open a door.

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Zimbabwe needs more Engineers

The founder of modern Singapore Lee Kuan Yew, who recently passed on, wrote in his historical memoirs From Third World to First: The Singapore Story: 1965-2000, that he always had misgivings about the development of African states remarking that he was convinced “that they were a different people playing to a different set of rules.

Commenting on Ghana, Yew said “I was impressed, but wondered why a country so dependent on agriculture should have its brightest and best do Classics – Latin and Greek”

Yew’s sentiments rang true after I saw a worrying infographic on Professor Jonathan Moyo’s Facebook Page which shows the proportion of the Zimbabwean population who attain various levels of education.

The image (below) shows that, as expected, most Zimbabwean children go to primary school though the number drops for high school. A reasonable number does some form of higher education, in the form of Colleges, Universities and other tertiary institutions.

What is worrying, however, is the tiny number which goes into science and Engineering.

A very tiny percentage of students are studying Science and Engineering (represented by the red dot)  - Image thanks to Jonathan Moyo
A very tiny percentage of students are studying Science and Engineering (represented by the red dot)
– Image thanks to Jonathan Moyo

What this means is that we have very few people working to come up with (local) solutions to the big problems we face such as power shortages, poor roads networks, water supply issues, drainage, telecommunications, industrial production and mineral extraction.

This is precisely why, despite having a lot of daylight hours, there are few initiatives focusing on solar energy. The few electrical engineers we produce are all sucked up by ZESA and they have no incentive to innovate from within the company. Doing so, after all, will likely put ZESA out of business.

It’s also worrying because we are not focusing on our strengths. The country is blessed with good land for agriculture and abundant mineral resources yet we do not have qualified people taking advantage of this. We do not have local engineers producing mining machinery or coming up with new and more efficient methods of mineral purification. Similarly we do not see revolutionary agricultural or irrigation methods- instead we rely on the Israelis to install simple things like drip irrigation systems.

Like Yew said, it seems like we are playing to a different set of rules. We may not have our best and brightest studying the classics but we have too many people- way too many- studying humanities and business degrees. In fact we have so many graduates of disciplines like Psychology, Political Science, Business Studies, Marketing and Economics that people now think the degrees themselves are useless. There is nothing wrong with the degrees, except that the already poor job market is flooded.

What we need are more people in the sciences. Zimbabwe needs more engineers, computer scientists, programmers, physicists and mathematicians. The problems we face need practical solutions suited to our country. Resuscitation of the industries, better roads, power generation, better and more TV and radio channels and the other problems we regularly complain about need solutions and none but ourselves will solve them.

The myth that sciences are hard and should be studied by “smart” people should be dispelled. Government must do more to encourage young people to take up the sciences by having science fairs, community projects and other initiatives which will increase interest in the sciences.

And everyone, especially people interested in technology and technology firms, such as Econet, Telecel, ZIMPLATS and others should support science education. We all have a part to play.

I’ll do what I can. Watch this space.

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