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What to do when the lights don’t work? – a Participatory Design

Imagine you run a small business, but this time let’s imagine you’re running a small restaurant. Pick your favorite fast casual restaurant – Panera, Chipotle, Cosi, etc – and we’ll be on the same page.

You’re lining everything up for your grand opening. You’ve got the restaurant built just how you want it, tables all set up and food counter ready to go. You’ve got a great location, with tons of lunch- time foot traffic. You have a fridge full of food, and you know exactly who to call when you start running low. You’ve hired your staff. The firm, but lovable (and slightly overweight) guy is running the kitchen. The super-smiley girl is manning (wo-manning?) the register, and making sure each customer has “totally, OMG, the best experience”. Even down to the high-school kid busing the tables – who’s very green in ways of the world, but is eager to do just about anything to please “the boss” (that’s you) at his first job.

Everything is set for the “Grand Opening”, and you’re super excited. All the months of hard work getting everything set up just right is culminating in this one special moment. You reach over and turn on the “Open” sign, but…   There’s no electricity! The sign doesn’t turn on. Without electricity, the oven won’t work, the food in the fridge will spoil, and no one will know that your restaurant is even open! How will you ever be able to make a dime if you can’t serve any customers?

Electricity is something we take for granted here in the U.S. and most of the “modern” world. We think that just because we are connected to the electrical grid we will be able to get reliable, inexpensive electricity for things like refrigerators, stoves, lights and cash registers. We should all be paying much closer attention to electricity, because even as a small business, the cost of electricity is always in the top 3 or 4 – along with salaries, equipment, and the stuff we sell. But, that’s a story for another time…

So, back to your restaurant…without electricity, I guess we’ll have to close.  All that blood, sweat and tears we spent getting our restaurant set up just the way we wanted, all down the drain.  But this would never happen, right?  There’s nowhere out there where you can’t get enough power for the electrical grid to power something as small as a restaurant, right?

Unfortunately, this story is not fiction. This story is about a real problem, faced by a real restaurant owner in Lagos, Nigeria. Lagos is the largest city in Nigeria, and at almost 8 million people, it’s just slightly smaller than New York. Over the next few weeks, I’ll share with you the details of the problem, how we’ll go about finding the answer, and hopefully be able to share with you the final solution we are able to implement to fix his problem.

I want this to be an on-going discussion – don’t let me design this on my own! With your input, we (all of us) can figure out a solution that’s going to be much better than what I could ever come up with on my own. Maybe, through this process, we’ll all get a better appreciation of the electrical grid that delivers power to us, and start becoming more aware of how we use electricity.  Or maybe, we just help a guy in Nigeria with his problem, and in the process give him the opportunity to earn a good living.

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