Thinking Out Of The Box: Why Going Low Tech (Sometimes) Works

I came across a breathalyzer device that will check how drunk you are and tell you how long you are to wait before you can drive yourself home. I’m not sure about you but when it comes to driving under the influence, ‘don’t drink and drive’ is one of the best advice to follow. Getting a designated driver, a cab or someone you can trust to get you home safely would be a lot better. And if you are the kind who doesn’t drink too much you have no use for this device either.

(Image Source: Kickstarter)

As more and more innovative ideas start to surface, sometimes you have to wonder why is it that we try to use technology to solve certain problems that have a way, way better non-tech-related solution? Sure, tech has always been touted as the revolutionary tool that will change the world, break boundaries, changing the way things work, even when hidden away from plain sight, but sometimes the best solutions need not be technology-reliant. Sometimes the best solutions use little to no tech at all.

The Russian Pencil

To illustrate this, I have to unfortunately use an urban legend (there’s your disclaimer right there, but bear with me). It was the 1960′s and the US (specifically, NASA) is having problems getting replacements for pens. Due to the conditions of being in space (no gravity, no pressure, no air – take your pick), pens don’t work well there, which is bad news for astronauts, so they spent millions in research to make an anti-gravity pen that works.

The Russians, when faced with the same problem, used a pencil.

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So what is the lesson here? Sometimes there is an easy and quicker solution to the problem. And it doesn’t always have to have something to do with a new upcoming app or gadget. Yes, the best solutions may be tech-free, simple, cost a lot less than you think and may just come from pure thought.

Solar Bottle Bulb

Take for example, watch as a man called Solar Demi uses a low-tech method to light up dark homes in the Phillipines. He fills up plastic bottles with water, adds a bit of bleach to ensure there is no bacterial growth, installs it on the roof of the house, seals it and homes are lit with natural sunlight.

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Apart from reducing electrical bills, this idea which originated in 2002 by a group of MIT students, made good use of discarded plastic bottles. The foundation behind this is looking to install this in a million homes in the Phillipines by 2015 and will take it to India, Indonesia and Switzerland.

You can help support the move or volunteer to help with installation at their website: Liter Of Light.

Richard Turere: Lion Tamer

A boy between the ages of 6 to 9 of the Maasai community is responsible for his father’s livestock. Richard Turere was only 10 when he was trying to figure out how to scare away the lions from the Nairobi National park that have been killing their livestock at night. Using fire and scarecrows failed and so Richard turned to electronics instead.

(Image Source: Slab-City)

He patched up an old car battery to a solar panel and installed blinking motorist lights and flash lights in strategic spots on low-lying fences, giving the illusion that someone was out and about. The lions stayed away and Richard won a scholarship to study in one of the best schools in the area. He is also helping his neighbors and his community set this up in their homes. And he’s only 13.

Small Inventions, Big Ideas

Some of the biggest inventions in the world are small but they get the job done and they are cheap enough to produce that they become affordable, household items. And just because these are simple solutions, it doesn’t meant that they are not world-changing or significant. Take for instance:

The Safety Pin

The safety pin was created by Walter Hunt to settle a debt. He sold the patent off for about $10,000 worth in today’s dollar and used part of it to clear his debt. It sounded like a bargain until you realize that the patent was sold off to W.R. Grace & Co, which proceeded to make millions off it. Today, about 3 million safety pins are produced per day.

safety pins

Correction Fluid

Another example is the correction fluid which was invented by Bette Nesmith Graham, a secretary (and painter) in 1951. Before a time of computers and word processors most letters were hand-typed on the typewriter and each mistake the typist makes means they have to start over on a fresh piece of paper. By 1967, the correction fluid concocted in Graham’s kitchen was selling like hot cakes earning her company millions, and is still used in offices, homes and schools worldwide today.

correction fluid

The Paper Clip

When it comes to fastening pieces of paper together, nothing does it better than a small steel wire looped into the right shape for the right clip-on effect. The need for paper clips have been around since offices were filled with paper, but the modern elegant design of today’s paper clip only saw light in 1899 – the design has yet to see a facelift since then but it didn’t matter. Over 11 billion paper clips are sold every single year, in the U.S. alone.

colorful paper clips


Technology has always been around to solve problems, or to break barriers where all other methods have failed. But let’s not get carried away and be so eager to inject technology into every single solution. Rather than try to make the next iPhone or the next Facebook, look for problems to solve in other industries. You never know if your next big (or small) idea will change the world.