Emily Youatt

Extreme By Design: Film tracks the world’s biggest little ideas

Innovative, life-changing products offer simple solutions to complex problems in impoverished places. But their conception is often anything but simple.

“Extreme By Design,” a documentary produced and co-directed by Ralph King, was screened at Mercy Corps’ global headquarters in Portland for a public audience in early February. The film follows the journey of a group of students who design and build products to solve seemingly intractable problems of the world’s poor.

Three student teams from the 2012 Stanford University course Design for Extreme Affordability were followed by film crews as they developed potentially life-changing products with three partner organizations in Bangladesh and Indonesia. Each design challenge that the students face highlights the difficulties of designing a useful and affordable product for those living on less than $2 a day.

The film begins on the first day of the course at Stanford University and ends one year later as the student teams return from field-testing their designs. In a professor’s backyard during the first week of the course, teams are given $20 worth of materials to trap water from a simulated monsoon. The difficult realities of designing for extreme affordability are quickly discovered.

Once the teams travel to their field sites to work with their partner organizations to design actual products, they discover more challenges, like designing products that will be accepted within local cultural contexts.

In Indonesia, one team discovers a community’s aversion to plastic and so alters their prototype,Flexitangki (an affordable water catchment device). Another team is faced with the reality of copyright laws for Caregiver (a low-cost IV pump), halting any hope of development beyond the class. The balance between designing for extreme affordability and optimal function leaves one team torn apart by internal conflict and interpersonal difficulties.

For another team, the high-stress environment fosters the creation of an elegant, extremely affordable breathing device for babies suffering from pneumonia. The product is so successful that the final design is later sold to a company that is now developing and marketing the product, dubbed Inspire, in India.

If there is a takeaway message from the film, it is that good intentions alone do not ensure a successful end product. Solid research, trial-and-error, attention to cultural contexts, and a bit of luck also play definitive roles in the field of well-intentioned technological design.

Other successful products from past “Extreme” classes include:

Embrace – a low-cost “infant armor” designed to keep babies warm

AdaptAir – an affordable, one-size-fits-all nasal interface for pediatric pneumonia patients

DripTech– an extremely affordable, water efficient irrigation system for small-plot farmers

product design