Author: Brenda

Course on innovation design for humanitarian needs and international development cooperation

A university course module focusing on innovation for humanitarian needs and international development cooperation designed by sWASH&grow, is currently open for applications. The course will be offered by Malmö University in collaboration with Parlametric AB.

The aim is to develop tools that improve the opportunities for innovators and aid organizations to bring more circular, inclusive and sustainable innovations to those in need.​ A key priority is to build the capacity to develop tangible solutions, market-relevant products and enable innovators to bring their ideas to fruition.

The course is structured into two modules. Read more and apply below.

  1. Global Product Development I

Idea to Concept

Global Product Development I is for students and professionals (in engineering or related disciplines) who want to gain a broad understanding of how to develop products that can be successfully applied in challenging environments. It also addresses how technology can be part of reaching the UN’s global goals for sustainable development. The context of the course is humanitarian operations and international development, where complexity is a core challenge to achieve results.

The course combines case studies with lectures. Lectures will provide broad insights into the technical as well as social and economic challenges in product development. These insights are continuously applied in case studies. Participants will also be part of a team with the task to develop an idea into a concept of a technical solution that can be applied to solve a real-life challenge in a low- or mid-income country.

2. Global Product Development II

Concept to Prototype

Global Product Development II is for students and professionals (in engineering or related disciplines) who want to further develop their product development and project management skills. The course allows you to apply your knowledge and skills to problems in challenging environments, with an emphasis on humanitarian and international aid. 

This course is designed to address technology companies’ and development organizations’ increasing need for engineers with skills to handle complexity and work in challenging environments. It builds on strong connections to the industry, which will improve the participants’ opportunities to get a relevant job in aid and with international innovation companies.

During the course participants will work in teams to address an actual development challenge in a low- or mid-income country. The purpose is to develop a prototype that can be effectively implemented. They will receive continuous feedback from development experts and managers from companies and organizations with similar challenges. Partners in this course include RISE Research Institutes of Sweden and Urban Technology Sweden.

East Africa as a case study

The course uses two development case studies: Acholiland in Northern Uganda and Rama, Tigray in Ethiopia.

The case study in Tigray, Ethiopia, focuses on water solutions for farming. 

The course aims to develop and promote a combination of innovative climate smart agricultural technologies and practices, that respond to the challenges and opportunities faced in the Ethiopian semi-arid regions related to food security, integrity of (agro)ecosystems and water management. This is based on an Integrated Watershed Management approach at sub regional scale level, while developing pathways that build-up social capital and the institutional frameworks required. 

As securing water for food is a big challenge for social and economic development in the country, students in this course are tasked with designing off-grid solutions to address methods of enhancing water use efficiency to considerably expand agricultural productivity in the Tigray region, which currently has limited water resources. 

The case study in Acholiland, Northern Uganda, focuses on sanitation for school children.

The long-term goal is to fulfill girls’ and boys’ right to water and provide adequate sanitation and hygiene conditions in rural Uganda. The course also aims to build trust among partners, strengthen ”out of the box” thinking and strengthen the WASH innovation ecosystem in Uganda. Phase II of the course focuses on addressing structural WASH problems to achieve sustainable results. In addition, regional cross-learning knowledge transfer and networking is enhanced in East Africa in order to scale up innovations and enable south – south learning.

Students in this course are tasked to design a concept for innovative solutions that address WASH needs for school children or other vulnerable groups in the rural areas of Acholiland, Northern Uganda.

In the long-run, the innovation model will be private-sector-driven, allowing development of new market-based solutions. Universities will support the SMEs by for instance, creating new ideas, concepts, research and conducting tests with the children. 

Read more on the Guest Lectures >>

Workshop: Healthcare as a leverage for implementing sustainable infrastructure in developing countries

Date: 4th May 2021
Time: 1300 – 1630 CEST
Venue: Online (Zoom)


Providing healthcare is dependent on clean water, electricity, heating/cooling, wastewater handling, communication etc.  The infrastructure and services are also sorely needed by surrounding communities. Lacking access to clean water, electricity etc. are among barriers keeping people in poverty back as well for small businesses to grow. Effectively making services available  to the local community can both create substantial circularity and sustainability advantages  and opportunities for people, such as a hub for businesses to develop. 

If healthcare is to become a driver for community development and environment and climate change mitigation, there is a need to apply a system solution approach in health care infrastructure. Broad collaboration between stakeholders from the private sector, international organisations, civil society, and community and partnerships are as central.   

The workshop provides an arena for dialogue on how healthcare can become a frontrunner for implementing sustainable infrastructure in developing regions (low- and middle-income countries) around the world. The aim is to get the discussion started on how an integrated approach to health care investment can be implemented and to connect key stakeholders for future collaboration.

We will discuss implementation, procurement, financing and technology solutions for a system solution approach.

Report: Match-making activities for innovation, partnership, finance and extended export to humanitarian crises

sWASH&grow’s goal is to improve the conditions for innovators to be able to meet relief organizations’ demands. An important part of reaching this goal is to create opportunities to connect and network. Facilitating that is the major role of WIN Water in the project. The two major networking activities organized by WIN Water were successful and attracted around 90 participants from several countries.

In the first event, “Digitalization and business in challenged regions”, participants discussed Needs, Business Case, Implementation and Opportunities in relation to WASH.

In the WIN Water event “Business in challenged regions: clean water and safe sanitation for all”, participants were divided into small groups to facilitate closer interactions. Participants explored decentralized systems and business models, and how they can be applied in areas where they are needed most.

Read a summary of the events below.

In addition to the two major project-focused events, WIN has also organized a series of events where the focus of the project has been touched upon indirectly involving the project partners and have thus provided important networking opportunities. Read a summary of these events in the report below. 

Accelerating access to energy and WASH services

Written by: Olle Olsson & Karina Barquet, SEI. This article was originally published as part of a series on

Previously, we discussed Off-grid innovation in the WASH sector >>

In this article, we highlight some of the tensions that arise from an ongoing shift in the relationship between the costs of single large systems, which are based on grids and one or a few large processing facilities, and several small systems, with a large number of onsite stand-alone solutions that perform largely the same functions as large grids do. However, it is important to note that tensions arise when trying to integrate these two types of systems, for example by adapting small-scale and mass-produced technologies into existing technological systems and regulatory frameworks that are largely based on paradigm of extensive grids and a few large processing facilities.

What if there are no such systems in place to begin with?

This is a situation that is all too familiar to many people in the world today. Close to a billion people lack access to electricity altogether and many more have unreliable connections and suffer from frequent outages. More than half the world’s population lack access to safely managed sanitation and around two billion people have no access to properly managed drinking water. One of the main reasons for this is that even in rich stable democracies it is difficult enough to build, operate and maintain large-scale grid-based infrastructure systems that provide electricity and water and sanitation services. It is even more so in countries with weak institutions, especially if these infrastructure systems are based on designs adapted to, for example, European conditions.

Infrastructure, like power transmission cables, is very capital-intensive. In places with fragile institutions and/or difficult geographical conditions there may be little hope that large grid-based solutions can contribute to improved access to proper energy and WASH services any time soon. From this perspective, then, the fast and accelerating pace of innovation in standardized and modular solutions, which can be rapidly deployed close to the consumer and in the form of small individual projects, is promising.

Solar home systems, typically consisting of a solar panel, a cellphone charger and a couple of solar lanterns, are already bringing substantial improvements to the daily lives of millions of people. There is also a rapidly growing market for efficient refrigerators, fans and televisions specifically designed to be operated using stand-alone solar PV systems. As solutions that can function in situations without available grid infrastructure become cheaper, they are spurring new innovation in specific settings as an alternative to relying on painstakingly adapting solutions designed for a conventional grid-based setting.

This entails a substantial change in how energy and WASH services are provided, from having been based on a top-down infrastructure model to what increasingly resembles a model for consumer goods and household appliances. So, it seems the path is clear and laid out towards a future where sustainability problems stemming from lack of access to energy and WASH services are a thing of the past. But is it as straightforward as that?

New tech – new narrative? – the SEI Gridless Solutions Initiative

There seem to be very large opportunities that arise in the wake of the rapid pace of innovation in what we call “gridless solutions”. These are technologies that are based on standardized designs that can be modularly deployed at the level of individual households or small communities and provide stand-alone access to energy and WASH services in settings with little or no available grid infrastructure.

However, while such technologies certainly appear to be characterized by more rapid innovation than those based on the “large grid plus large centralized plant” model discussed in this series, technological innovation by itself does not solve sustainability problems. Rapid innovation needs to be leveraged and translated into equally rapid service provision and uptake.

Here, there is still much work to be done. Getting alignment between business model development, financing mechanisms, regulatory frameworks and institutional configurations and ensuring they keep up with technological developments will be quite challenging. These are some of the issues addressed by SEI’s Gridless Solutions Initiative, which aims to identify and help mitigate the key obstacles that stand in the way of gridless solutions realizing their potential.

We think that there is a lot of cross-sector learning to be done when it comes to things like financing, business-model development and adaptation of basic technological designs to different use cases. In addition, we explore the potential for synergies that can emerge when gridless technologies for energy and WASH are combined, perhaps most notably in the way that gridless solar PV solutions can be used for things like water desalination or purification in off-grid settings.

The initiative also takes a holistic view on the issue in terms of understanding, for example, how and why a particular technology can be successfully deployed using a particular business model in one setting but not in another. We believe that taking a broad approach that cuts across many different fields of expertise is necessary for us to make a meaningful contribution.

But it is also very challenging, so we try to link up and engage in partnerships and joint projects with actors who have deep expertise in different subfields. One early example of this is the sWASH & grow project, led by RISE Research Institutes of Sweden, where we are collaborating with innovators and humanitarian organizations to find ways to accelerate deployment and uptake of innovative, sustainable and inclusive WASH solutions in humanitarian aid settings.

It is important to emphasize that we do not believe that gridless solutions are by themselves a panacea. Electricity and WASH systems based on large centralized units and extensive grid networks currently play and will continue to play an essential part in providing vital basic services to billions of people around the world. There is a lot of ongoing innovation within monitoring and operations of water and wastewater utilities, such as digital twins, the use and provision of data for smarter services and increased consumer participation. In addition, innovation in governance will most likely lead to increased efficiency so that the lifetime of a utility can be extended. Also, some argue that the next big thing in utilities is the use and sharing of data that will enable the decentralization of services around a utility (e.g. different entrepreneurs being responsible for different parts of the wastewater treatment process) and this might decrease the operating costs of utility providers. These kinds of innovations could help shift the upward trend in grid costs, which would be highly desirable because it would further strengthen the portfolio of technologies that enable sustainability.

In other words, the Gridless Solutions Initiative is not based on an ideological preference for small-scale solutions. For example, while solar PV can be deployed at a small scale, what has been central to its success is the ability to draw on automated mass-manufacturing and globally integrated supply chains. Instead, the underlying thinking behind the initiative rests on a pragmatic recognition of how techno-economic megatrends are working in favour of solutions that are based on mass-manufacturing rather than on-site construction; standardization rather than bespoke design; and granular deployment rather than megaprojects.

We’re looking forward to getting to work.

Off-grid innovation in the WASH sector

Written by: Olle Olsson and Karina Barquet, SEI. This article was originally published as part of a series on

Recent years have seen both substantial cost reductions and increases in deployment of wind & solar power.

While there are strong innovation pushes in similar directions in the water and sanitation field, it is by no means self-evident that development in mass production and cost reduction can be expected, or even possible, in the WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) sector. In fact, innovation in water and sanitation continues to be incremental rather than radical.

There are three main reasons for why the pace of innovation in WASH differs fundamentally from that in the energy sector: because drivers of demand for electricity and WASH services are substantially different; because the defining characteristics of water are fundamentally different from those of energy; and because the type of technologies needed for the provision of potable water and sanitation often require energy.

However, it is now possible to upscale previously unfeasible technologies such as off-grid desalination or water treatment, partly thanks to reduced costs of solar panels that can provide stand-alone electricity. So, the question is, will this increased access to electricity change the drivers of demand in the WASH sector? And, more importantly, is there anything that could trigger the type of radical innovation experienced in the energy sector for the provision of water and sanitation services?

Well, how about climate change combined with dinosaur infrastructure and increased demand? While the effects of climate change will play out differently in different locations, increased investment will likely be needed to adapt sewerage mains to increased flows, drinking water networks to droughts, and power lines to increased risks from storms and wildfires. At the same time, everything points to an increase in grid costs (construction plus operations plus maintenance). Why? Well, first of all, in contrast to things that can be mass-produced in global supply chains like flat-screen TVs or solar panels, dramatic fluctuations in infrastructure costs are rare. Rather, they tend to grow roughly in line with general inflation at a rate of a couple of per cent per annum. In other words, with business as usual, grid costs can be expected to increase slightly every year in coming decades.

And on top of increases in grid costs, there is the utility death spiral. That is, as the costs of a grid-based service like electricity or wastewater treatment increase (as they have tended to do over time), the incentives for the consumer to reduce their consumption of the service also increases. Now, this is not much of an issue if this reduced consumption only comes in the form of marginal improvements in energy or water use efficiency. However, as technologies like rooftop solar PV become available at reasonable costs – and very often supported by government incentives – customers can begin to cover fairly large portions of their electricity consumption from electricity generated on their rooftops. This means that the amount of electricity purchased from the grid goes down quite substantially, which means less revenue is generated for the transmission and distribution operators. These operators still have a large grid to operate and maintain, so to cover these costs they will be forced to increase their rates. In turn, consumers then have an even stronger incentive to reduce their use of the grid in favour of increased consumption of solar PV. Now, the sun does not shine all the time, so households with rooftop solar PV must still rely on the grid as balance, selling excess electricity to the grid on sunny days and buying electricity from it on cloudy days and at night.

However, the cost of batteries – a technology that also happens to be based on bundling many small mass-produced units together – has come down dramatically in the last decades. This has meant that in places like California, which has good solar resources and substantial power grid problems, it might even be rational to completely defect from the grid. With even less use of the grid, transmission and distribution rates have to increase even more, and so the spiral continues downwards with fewer and fewer consumers paying higher and higher rates. The problem of grid defection and a utility death spiral is one of the more pertinent tensions arising from the upward trend in grid costs and the downward trend in costs of solutions based on mass-manufactured equipment that can be installed close to the consumer.

The tension between onsite solutions and grid-based options is not a new phenomenon in itself. In Sweden, there are several examples of legal battles between consumers who have wanted to opt out from connection to the grids used for district heating or sewage treatment.

In this context, the issue of equity becomes increasingly important: if the grid is weak and expensive, it may be possible for well-to-do homeowners to disconnect from it for a more stable on-site solution. In contrast, lower-income households residing in multi-dwelling buildings may have neither the financial nor the practical means to set up, for example, a solar-battery-generator system.

Something similar happens in water and wastewater utilities where customer consumption has a direct link to utility revenues. As the need to prioritize water efficiency becomes a pressing issue in places with water shortages, growing consumption and limited storage opportunities, water utilities globally are facing a real financial challenge: rising infrastructure costs must be recovered from a shrinking sales base, because as customer consumption decreases so do utility revenues. In the short-term, the costs of operating a water and wastewater utility remain fixed and reductions in use do not reduce costs. At the same time, most water and wastewater utilities are facing an array of challenges taking place at an unforeseen pace – ageing infrastructure that will demand massive and rapid investments in the coming decade, demographic change, and on top of this climate and other environmental stresses.

This brings us to the next question: what happens when substantial numbers of people unplug from grids? Let’s take a look.

Related post: Accelerating access to energy and WASH services >>

Empowering local innovation through decentralized water, sanitation, and energy technologies for climate change adaptation

Date: 25–26 March, 2021.

Venue: Miramar, Havana, and Online.

Participation: Invite only.

Day 1: Thursday, 25 March 2021. The objectives of the first day of this two-day workshop are to:

  1. To introduce the initiative and the collaborative work between the Institute of Geophysics and Astronomy (IGA), Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), the UK Embassy, as well as other related initiatives. 
  1. To enable key-players to exchange experiences in the planning and implementation of adaptation actions, with a focus on water, sanitation, and energy. 
Date Thursday, March 25, 2021 
Time Subject Participants 
08:30 – 09:00 Accreditation MSc. Isabel Torna Specialist, IGA 
09:00 – 09:10 Opening words Dr. Maritza García President, AMA 
09:10 – 09:30 Introduction to IGA work programmes – SEI, IGA-UK and other synergistic actions Dr. Orlando E. Sánchez RRD Programme manager 
09:30 – 09:50 Nature-based technologies for coastal resilience in municipalities of the Sabana –Camaguey Archipelago Dr. Santos O. Cubillas Director, Coastal Resilience 
09:50 – 10:10 Decentralized technologies for wastewater treatment MSc. Heykel Hernandez Researcher, IGA 
10:10 – 10:40 OSDE Water and Sanitation Technologies and Services (AYS) Ing. Yunior González Vice President, AYS 
10:40 – 11:00 Management of terrestrial water in Cuba.  OSDE Integrated Land water Management (GIAT) Dr.  Rosemaire Ricardo Director of Science, GIAT 
11:00 – 11:20 Technologies and Services of the National Renewable Energy Sources Company (EMFRE)   Ing. Alexander Leon Technical Director, EMFRE 
11:20 – 12:20 Debate and conclusions MSc. Rudy Montero Mata Director, IGA 

Day 2: Friday, 26 March, 2021

The objectives of the second day are:

  1. To introduce the initiative and the collaborative work between the Institute of Geophysics and Astronomy (IGA), Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), the UK Embassy, as well as other related initiatives. 
  2. To identify key actors and sources of information for the innovation and transfer of decentralized technologies in water, sanitation and energy in the Havana Coastal Zone. 
  3. To enable key players to exchange experiences in the planning and implementation of adaptation actions at the municipal level, with a focus on water, sanitation, and energy. 
Time Subject Participants 
08:30 –09:00 Accreditation MSc. Isabel Torna Specialist, IGA 
09:00– 09:10 Opening statementMSc. Rudy Montero Mata Director, IGA 
09:10 – 09:30 Introduction to IGA-SEI, IGA-UK and other potential synergies  Dr. Orlando E. Sánchez Head of the Progbranch of RRD 
09:30 – 09:50 State of the Provincial Plan for the Confrontation of Climate Change (Life Task), with an emphasis on water and sanitation MSc. Yesenia Ibáñez Sub delegate, CITMA Habana 
09:50 – 10:15 Nature-based technologies for coastal resilience in the Sabana–Camaguey Archipelago municipality.  MSc. Yohanis de La Torre DT, Coastal Resilience 
Lessons learned. Sharing experiences in adapting to climate change at the local level 
10:00 – 10:30 Bases for identifying key actors and information in  decentralized technologies in  water, sanitation and energy Dr. Orlando E. Sánchez 
10:30 – 11:30 Municipal experiencein Task Life with focus on water and sanitation (up to 10 min. per coordinator) Programme coordinators and CAM objectives 
11:30–12:15 Survey and debate MSc. Yesenia  Ibanez 
12:15 – 12:30 Conclusions MSc. Rudy Montero Mata Director, IGA 

Cover image: PATTRAWUT / Getty