Where Einstein Meets Edison

Design for the Other 90 Percent: Innovating for the World’s Poor

Design for Whom?

The word “design” usually elicits images of modern architecture in the pages of Dwell, Bryant Park runways during Fashion Week, the font face Helvetica, or the latest Apple product. While the aesthetics and utility of modern design are debatable, the following is true: new designs are made for consumers with disposable income – the top 10 percent of people in the world.

But what about design for the other 90 percent? Across the globe, billions of people do not even have their basic food and water, shelter, sanitation, education, and healthcare needs met. If the creativity and inspiration of designers and engineers were directed toward addressing these issues, imagine what problems could be tackled, at least on some level, through innovation.

This article presents design principles for individuals at the bottom of the economic pyramid, highlights some likely and unlikely sources of innovation from around the world, and raises other issues that need to be thought through for designs to make an impact on the ground.

What and How to Design?

Villgro is an organization in Chennai, India that seeks to identify, incubate, and market innovations that have rural benefits. Since 2001, Villgro has activated nearly 2,000 innovations and has impacted over 350,000 rural lives. At the August 2010 Asia-Pacific Student Entrepreneurship Society Indian Regional Summit, Paul Basil, Villgro’s founder and CEO, painted the big picture behind tackling poverty through innovations and social enterprises. 

As an engineer by training but not by trade, Basil has seen a lot of innovations that were intended for rural users. Some could be considered relative successes, but many cannot. Speaking to a crowd of pan-Asian engineers and business undergraduates, Basil shared principles learned from his experiences with Villgro. Three were particularly related to, though not wholly dedicated to, design.

First, design for ruthless affordability. For a given problem, introduce the product that provides a solution at an affordable price. For example, if lighting is a problem, then a CFL lamp or a kerosene lamp can be a solution. A CFL lamp is more energy-efficient and less expensive in the long run than a kerosene lamp. However, its upfront price is high, and the “save and pay” or premium pricing models do not work with customers who have limited disposable income.

Second, design to localize value creation: Products should create significant value, lead to asset accumulation, and boost the economies of villages. These goals can be achieved through local production of basic consumption goods (i.e., sanitary napkins) or innovations that add value to products sold by households or village units (i.e., a small lathe machine).

Third, design with no frills: Product design should address a simple need, and customers will not pay for unnecessary features at an additional cost. For example, foreign companies build Rs 80,000 cow milking machines that are useful for farmers with 40 cows. In India, 70 to 80 percent of milk comes from farmers with two cows. A small, no-frills milking machine that costs Rs 3,000 is more affordable and appropriate for local needs. 

Additionally, a number of well-known international development workers, engineers, and academics, including International Development Enterprise’s Paul Polak, MIT D-Lab’s Amy Smith, The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid’s C.K. Prahalad, and Ethan Zuckerman, have published their own bottom of the pyramid design principles. Their lists include: learning everything possible about a specific engineering, economic, cultural, and social context; creating “transparent” technologies that end users can easily understand, use, and innovate upon; limiting costs and environmental impact by reducing material use; providing skills and not just finished technologies to empower users; and aiming for scale to achieve impact in terms of numbers.

Who are the Designers? 

The designers come from all walks of life and from all over the world. Predictably, academic institutions are one popular source. In India, the Rural Technology Action Group, which was conceived and is funded by the central government, operates on multiple Indian Institute of Technology campuses.  Its mission is to involve faculty and students in projects that address the scientific and technological needs of rural organizations. MIT and Stanford, both universities with strong engineering schools, have programs that focus on design for developing countries. MIT’s D-Lab “fosters the development of appropriate technologies and sustainable solutions within the framework of international development” as it aims to create and implement low-cost technologies. Stanford’s Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability has a more immediate market-based focus, as its mission is “to treat the poor as customers, not as charity recipients.” The project-based class integrates students from across disciplines to design comprehensive solutions. And of course, engineering students are known to tinker, and funding opportunities like the MIT IDEAS Competition and Global Challenge encourage students to invent as public service.

Additionally, there are several nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations that focus specifically on design. Design that Matters was an MIT seminar launched by MIT Media Lab graduates in 2001 and is now a full-fledged nonprofit organization that engages in low-cost design for social enterprises in developing countries. Kinkajou, a microfilm projector, is an IDEAS Competition and USAID-funded technology that originated from Design that Matters. Catapult Design is another nonprofit design firm and consists of mostly Stanford engineering graduates. The Oregon-based Aprovecho Research Center focuses specifically on designing improved biomass cookstoves and hosts the annual Stove Camp, a weeklong gathering for cookstove enthusiasts around the world to share knowledge and build stoves.

Most of the aforementioned designers come from cultural contexts that are different from those they design for. But innovators can come from anywhere, and those from the developing world have experience and perspectives that are useful for innovating products and businesses to serve the poor. Lack of resources, lack of access to markets, and lack of technical expertise can prevent a product from scaling up commercially. The Lemelson Foundation established Recognition and Mentoring Programs in India, Indonesia, and Peru to address these issues by discovering innovations and providing support for inventors and entrepreneurs, such as design prototyping and business incubation.

Finally, informal knowledge from developing countries, such as traditional practices and grassroots innovations, are valuable assets that are often lost, overlooked, and unrecognized. Anil Gupta’s Honey Bee Network in India attempts to acknowledge local geniuses and increase the informal knowledge network through a database of over 100,000 locally produced ideas, innovations, and knowledge practices.

What is after Design?

As discussed, design for the other 90 percent comes from many people and from many places. The ideas are numerous, but examples of successful, widespread implementation are few.

Innovations from academic institutions often face common problems in long-term implementation. Most innovations begin as student projects, and after the class or graduation, many students choose not to pursue product dissemination. If the effort is made to transfer technology or methodology to partner organizations in the field, then the sustainability of implementation depends on the field organizations’ capacity, resources, stability in management, and commitment to the product. Some students choose to implement their ideas by creating separate for-profit or not-for-profit organizations. For example, social enterprises like Embrace, which designs and disseminates infant baby warmers, and d.light, which designs and distributes off-grid lighting, came out of Stanford’s Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability. For these types of startups to get off the ground, funding is crucial. Fortunately, social entrepreneurship competitions at MIT and Stanford force teams to consider financial viability and can provide start-up money and press that will help them take their offerings to emerging markets.

Inventors create new products and new services, but they are not necessarily the appropriate people to bring these new products and services to the market. In these cases, technology transfer from the inventor to an enterprise should be considered so that the intended beneficiaries can gain from the innovations as quickly as possible. Technology transfer may be confusing when designs are so simple that they cannot qualify for a patent or when designs are sourced from developing countries, where intellectual property rights and patents are unenforced or nonexistent. In many cases, products and processes invented in academic programs like D-Lab are open-source, and the logistics of technology transfer are not so much a legal or financial issue as they are an educational issue.

If designers want to see their innovations out in the field, they have to move beyond design. Heading toward commercialization through market-based mechanisms is helpful, and at this point, issues like appropriate pricing and distribution models must be considered. Moving beyond that, though, collaboration through cross-sector partnerships between businesses, government, multilateral organizations, and civil society both domestically and abroad can improve the sustainability of innovations in the field. If well-established stakeholders mutually benefit from cross-sector collaboration over a long period, then the other 90 percent will actually reap the benefits from products designed with them in mind.


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