The man outside the box
June 22, 2008 3 Comments
A large, light-flooded room. The walls are evenly covered with vast bookshelves, posters, and panels full of wrenches, hammers and all kinds of different tools. An array of strange constructs is spread out in this odd mix of workshop and living room. On the table: an Apple computer. This is the home of Reinder van Tijen, 76 years old, an engineer by profession, inventor and thinker.
Reinder’s room is located in the Landbouwbelang, a squat right in the city centre of Maastricht, on the banks of the river Maas. The vast halls of this former wheat mill have now been converted into a space for artists and musicians, and also host the “laboratory” of an organisation called Demotech.
Demotech is Reinder’s life’s work.
Reinder, as everybody calls him here, can be best described as a radical idealist. For more than forty years, he has been striving to challenge the dominant industrial paradigm we live in, by trying to find technical solutions that are sustainable and by empowering people to become self-reliant.
Unlike many others, he does not only preach these principles. They guide his everyday life as well. After living and working in a converted cow barn for decades and having now found his home in a squatted factory, he tries to avoid our all-pervading consumer culture. Instead he creates and improves things himself.
In the way he stands outside the establishment, Reinder van Tijen is surely no ordinary character. Perhaps there are people who smirk at him for being a dreamer, an odd eccentric. However, he has created tools and technologies that are being widely used in many countries. And here in Maastricht, a group of a few dozens university students called the “Student Workforce for Sustainability and Development“, works and develops ideas with Demotech.
Last month, Reinder was awarded the Order of Oranje Nassau, a decoration honouring citizens for outstanding contributions to social life in the Netherlands.
Tin bikes and rope pumps
The story of Demotech began nearly forty years ago. Reinder, who had always felt a technical inclination, was working in a factory of the Dutch bicycle manufacturer Gazelle. Yet he was not satisfied.
Reinder was critical of the industry and particularly of the scale of production, which in his view, did not make people happy. Wouldn’t it be possible to scale things down, gratify workers and customers, and simply make better and cheaper products?
In the early seventies, Reinder decided to give up his job and founded Demotech. He believed he could build things in a new manner, and find at the same time more sustainable solutions.
His first invention was a “tin bike”: a foldable bicycle with frames and tires made entirely off recycled sheet metal. Recognition was immediate: the prototype of the bike won a design price in Japan.
The idea behind the bike was that it could be produced locally, in a co-operative of less than 20 people. But finding the money to finance the project and marketing it proved too difficult and the idea did not kick off.
“I needed a short-term success to be able to live off it but the thing went over my head”, Reinder believes in retrospect, “I took up something that I was not able to handle.”
He also was forced to scale down and to look for something “a bit closer to reality”, as he puts it.
That’s how he came up with a rope pump. The idea was simple: a rope with rubber plugs, pulled by a wheel with a handle, to pump up water through a plastic tube. There it was, a real idea, something that could be used in poor areas around the globe.
The ingenuity of the design was evident when compared to the habitual ways of collecting ground water: pulling a rope would be so much easier than pulling a bucket, and the rope pump seemed so much simpler than the heavy iron pumps that were being installed at the time in “third world” countries by top-down development schemes.
Reinder, who was working as guest at the Royal Tropical Institute in Amsterdam, obtained support for the development of the pump and was also given the chance to do applied research in Burkina Faso. When it came to the application of his idea however, he later found doors being slammed: “We will keep using what we have”, or “Good idea, but I can’t sell this to my boss,” he was told.
So he took matters into his own hands. Whenever he could come by funding, he went to places like Burkina Faso, Indonesia, Thailand, or Gambia to test and improve his idea in villages together with locals.
“It is hard to see the impact I had as I seldom got the opportunity to go back to these places,” he says. Except for one case: Indonesia. Reinder initially went there in the seventies to promote his pump at a university. Officials didn’t show much enthusiasm for the invention, but some students however were interested in trying it out in their villages. “I visited the country again six years later”, Reinders says with a smile, “and we found the pump in about a hundred communities. It had indeed become a people’s pump.”
Today Demotech presents a wide scope of designs and ideas on its website, ranging from sanitation to roofing techniques, from innovative chairs to bookkeeping methods.
“You have to think as an engineer and as a strategist at the same time”, says Reinder. “Often the brilliance of a solution lies in its simplicity. Yet, you need to know mechanical principles as well as the social context in which a design can be applied.”
Two of the main influences behind Demotech’s philosophy are E.F. Schumacher and Viktor Papanek, two thinkers almost forgotten today, yet “more relevant than ever” in Reinder’s opinion.
Schumacher developed the idea of “appropriate technology”, stressing that technology must not simply mean industrialisation but that it has to relate to the social, environmental and cultural context of its application, much in line with the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi.
Papanek is considered as the father of responsible design: “Design for the Real World”. Designers’ skills are often squandered devising gizmos, Papanek’s criticism goes, while the only important thing about a product’s design is how it relates to people.
“We do by no means primarily have poor countries in mind when designing”, Reinder stresses. “Here is where the change has to happen. Time’s up, as Al Gore said. We need to rethink and re-design our way of life, today better than tomorrow.”
Whether a rope pump for villages in developing countries, or a tin bike for city dwellers in the Netherlands, the principles that Demotech works by are always the same: a product should empower the people who produce it as well as those who use it, and it should also be simple and affordable.
Reinder’s previous experiences have taught him that the key to bring about change is not only in finding solutions, but also in promoting them by reaching out to the right people. “We need to push agendas, create hypes”, he says. “It’s not enough to just develop something new. You need to go out there and spread it!”
Thinking outside the box
In the early nineties, Reinder got in touch with an environmentalist group in Amsterdam. Together they developed a trestle made of bamboo and wires, which was small when transported but could be erected to a height of up to fifteen metres. It could hold banners or even be used for tents, and was to be used by the activists to expose their ideas to a large public.
It was this attitude of promoting and exchanging ideas that brought Reinder to Maastricht. After working in a barn in the small town of Dieren for a long time, he became tired of his seclusion. His daughter brought him in contact with the squatters of the Landbouwbelang, and he was fascinated by the work of Maastricht University professor Wiebe Bijker on the social construction of technology.
His contacts among young activists and now within the squat have made Reinder aware that young people are the key to reaching more people. Together with three university students, Reinder issued a ‘manifesto’ urging students to join Demotech. Students, it read, could bring change through a “mental force that is detached from existing structures or interests other than love for life.”
Over the last few years a number of students have formed an organisation within the university called Student Workforce that cooperates with Demotech. They work with Reinder on new ideas and bring their own input. For them Reinder is like a mentor they can learn from.
By now, some of the students have written their theses on topics inspired by Demotech. For Reinder, the Student Workforce is a great platform for exchange. “There is so much to practice, so much to exercise”, he says.
Still, the cooperation with the students is not always free of tensions. “They are so caught up in their theory, they just can’t think practically”, he regrets. Besides, it is hard for them to gain a full insight into the hands-on philosophy of Demotech, being so focused on their studies, and – maybe – caught inside the box while Reinder thinks outside of it.
The longer one talks to Reinder, the more apparent it becomes how he struggles with “the establishment” and the impact his ideas really have on the society around him. From time to time he shows signs of frustration, not surprisingly for an idealist like him. “It is hard for people to change their way of thinking. It scares them.”
Still, he remains optimistic. “The paths of life are accidental. I see so many bright people, there is so much potential in this world.” It is remarkable to hear these words after his melancholical comments on the inability of society to change its ways.
After forty years of struggle to make a better world, it is perhaps this type of unwavering optimism that prevents a mind like his from falling into resignation. A look into his eyes reveals his determination: Reinder is still bursting out with energy and ideas on how to change technology and society. Considering that he has just turned 76, it is hard to imagine that he could have been more of a live wire in his younger days than he is today.
The latest project at Demotech is called HY2U, a hygienic hand-washing device Reinder has developed with a few students. This spring, he traveled to Guatemala to promote HY2U; one of the students recently came back from a similar field trip in Ghana. In July, some members of the Student Workforce will go to Stockholm and attend the World Water Week. There they will promote HY2U to other organisations involved with sanitation and sustainability.
That’s just one of the projects spooking around in Reinder’s head. There is a lot of work to be done.
Text and photographs by Henrik Hartmann
Originally from Germany, Henrik Hartmann, 24, moved to Maastricht three years ago. He studies at the University College and is currently working on his Bachelor in Social Sciences.