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Humanitarian Aid on the move # 17, special issue: The World Humanitarian Summit

Disintermediation - the future of Aid in a Digital world?
Ian Gray



A large part of humanitarian response has traditionally been the transfer of non-food items to disaster-affected communities. There are numerous types of non-food items that people require in the aftermath of a disaster, including shelter materials, cookware, blankets, buckets etc. with the majority of goods distributed being held in large warehouses in hubs across the globe, with most humanitarian agencies having supply chain management and logistics functions, and warehouses with lots of ‘kits’ in them.

A new Disruptive Digital Disintermediation phenomenon is occurring that will have a profound impact on these supply chains and the provision of ‘things’ in humanitarian settings. We currently stand at the threshold of what is being dubbed the fourth industrial revolution [13]. The third industrial revolution has been the process of digitising physical goods, systems and processes to make them more efficient, scalable and accessible. The Fourth Industrial revolution will see this process go almost full circle, in that the digitised world can now be used to control and make things in the physical world through the internet of things, physical objects with embedded technology that enable them to connect to each other through the internet and exchange data, and new maker technologies.

The most familiar and exciting of these maker technologies is digital 3D printing. This is the ability to design physical products yourself using software and then print them out yourself using a 3D printer. Most of this is currently on a small scale, but the first 3D printed house has been made [14], and it is being used for car parts [15]. The exciting thing about this for humanitarian and development agencies is that manufacturing production can become hyper-localised.

But what does this mean for humanitarian work? 3D printing has already been trialled in a number of emergencies through organisations like ‘Field Ready’ [16]. They started their work in Haiti, using 3D printing to create much needed umbilical cord clamps for maternity units. By being co-located with the health staff they could rapidly and iteratively improve their design, leading to a product that was fit for purpose in a timeframe that would be impossible to achieve using traditional manufacturing and supply chain processes. Along with 3D printing, other maker technologies, such as extruders and laser cutting, are capable of manufacturing ‘things’ that disaster-affected communities need.

Although these approaches are in their infancy, and can only currently produce small items quite slowly, the next 5-10 years will see this situation change dramatically. The two main constraints on 3D printing for humanitarian needs currently are the cost, and the size and volume of products that can be printed quickly. The first of these constraints will see a revolution in the coming years as some of the materials and printer technologies start to come ‘off patent.’ This will enable non-proprietary generic materials for printing to be produced, and cheaper printers to be made, leading to a significant reduction in cost. Volume is a more difficult challenge to crack, but strides are also being made to address this issue.

By investing in the capacity of local micro-enterprises and small businesses to produce these goods, the building blocks for the disruptive digital disintermediation of ‘things’ are already in place. In the future, large logistics functions, supply chains and stockpiling of goods in global distribution centres will be more of a last resort than the first choice.