At its Dell Technologies World in Las Vegas, Dell, in partnership with Computer Aid, Intel and Microsoft, announced the Solar Community Hubs, an evolution in its established Solar Learning Labs program that Computer Aid International and Dell Technologies (Dell) have collaborated on since 2011. The first Hub opened in Lagos, Nigeria, in 2014. This was followed by a series of labs in South Africa, Kenya, Morocco, Colombia, Brazil, and Mexico. These hubs are built from converted shipping containers and, as the name suggests, are solar-powered, making them incredibly flexible when it comes to where they can be located.
Dell worked with about 60 technology partners to open 25 labs in 7 countries, including Computer Aid International, a non-profit organization with 25 years of experience supporting eLearning and promoting access to technology in developing and remote areas worldwide. They are also pioneers in their circular economy approach, offering IT asset disposal and data wiping for companies and organizations globally. The focus on sustainability for the Hubs starts with deploying used shipping containers that would otherwise be discarded. Solar panels are then mounted on the structures to power them with renewable energy. In the case of the Amazon location, sustainably sourced wood and furniture are also being used.
As the technology evolved, so has the project both in terms of the technology deployed but, more importantly, in the focus and involvement of the community. Dell and its partners have shifted their strategy from building labs to creating larger Hubs of almost double the size. These function more like Internet cafes in the way they bring the community together to access technology and learn first about the technology itself and then about topics and skills that will help provide career opportunities. The Hubs are now equipped with Wi-Fi to accommodate people inside and outside the structure and they use Dell computers and networking equipment designed to run on a thin-client network with minimal power needs. The deployed products are specifically selected for their durability, long life and energy efficiency.
Thus far, the focus has been strictly on education, but the revamped effort wants to expand to improving access to technology, healthcare and workforce skills for communities in remote areas around the world. The Solar Community Hubs will be built with Dell technology-enabled solutions, including 5G, edge computing and other services. Each Hub will be managed by the community and will reflect the needs of that community. Aside from technology, the hubs will provide communities with access to water and electricity, healthcare and resources for environmental preservation. Community members will also access technical skills training, entrepreneurship support, education and career guidance, and revenue-generating services to support job opportunities and financial sustainability. The first Hub will open in Boa Esperanca, Brazil and aims to help the community address local deforestation.
“Research shows that the greatest impact starts with empowering local communities,” said Cassandra Garber, VP of Environmental and Social Governance, Dell Technologies. “By introducing the Solar Community Hubs, communities will have access to resources and infrastructure to address their most pressing issues. This evolution puts community needs at the center, and we are eager to see – and be a part of – the impact these community partnerships will have around the globe.”
What is interesting about Dell’s approach with the Solar Community Hubs is that the scalability and longevity of the initiative are top of mind. This drove Dell and its partners to get the communities involved more directly to fit their needs better and set them up to become self-sufficient over time. Even the way the partnerships work has flexibility and scalability in mind. Organizations can fund the Hubs financially or in kind. From donating the containers to providing shipping, insurance, and access to water or electricity, the Hubs take donations that will bring the project to be operational. Hubs are also a great example of collaboration in tech for the greater good of humanity. Dell brings together customers and business partners in this initiative so that more can be done both in terms of sites deployed and time of deployment.
The project also underlines that solutions like the Hubs built with flexibility and sustainability in mind are not just suitable for providing education or health services to communities in a remote locations. The Hubs could also serve a critical function in disaster recovery situations.
On day one of Dell Technologies World, in an interview led by Dell’s CMO, Allison Dew, actor and author Matthew McConaughey talked about technology and non-profit initiative. He said, “I love a non-profit idea that can drive profit.” I believe the solar hubs are a great non-profit idea that could drive profit. The work that Dell and its partners are doing is good tech put to good work, but the idea of self-sufficient hubs that could help the community is an opportunity that governments should evaluate.
I am sure, like me, you have not forgotten the stories of kids in Silicon Valley that resorted to using the Wi-Fi signal coming from the gas station to be able to do remote school. Sadly we do not have to go to remote locations across the world to find communities in need of access to better technology. The Hubs would be a great idea as STEM education labs, community health check-point and more. Companies in the US have turned shipping containers into tiny homes as for-profit businesses. Who is ready to look at the Community Solar Hubs as a business opportunity and start doing good while doing well?
Disclosure: The Heart of Tech is a research and consultancy firm that engages or has engaged in research, analysis, and advisory services with many technology companies, including those mentioned in this column. The author does not hold any equity positions with any company mentioned in this column.