Do Designers Actually Exploit The Poor While Trying To Do Good? Jan Chipchase Responds
Friday, January 6, 2012
Recently, at the PopTech Conference in Camden, Maine, Jan Chipchase, Frog’s all-star field researcher, was giving a presentation on his travels in search of novel design solutions when a person in the audience lobbed a pointed question: “What is your motivation? Why do you do this?” When Chipchase began to respond, the audience member interrupted and asked again, “No, what is your motivation?” The follow-up hanging in the air was, “How do you sleep at night?”
As the back and forth continued, the hostility became more palpable. The audience grew quiet and unsettled. Were Chipchase and those doing similar work really helping those in developing countries by creating better products for them? What if, instead, they were simply scraping local communities for big ideas and then riding them to big profits?
Whether you’re a fan of design research in the field–or more sympathetic to that audience member–you can’t gloss over the issue. Who is the best poised to bring innovation to the developing world? Big corporations that are already rich? Or people living in the countries themselves? Do big corporations bring better standards of living, or simply sugared water and useless doodads?
Chipchase didn’t respond directly to the question at the time, but later he sat down with Co.Design and addressed the topic more specifically: “It doesn’t take much effort to find something about globalization to be incensed about: Starbucks squeezing out your neighborhood coffee shop from the prime location; riots in Indonesia triggered by a stock market crash in Wall Street impacting oil subsidies. Coke logos being painted onto remote pristine mountain ranges. Make no mistake: Big companies, governments, organizations, agencies need watching, need to be held to account, and in many markets hold a disproportionate amount of power.” But Chipchase has thought long and hard about these issues, and has a sophisticated view informed by millions of miles traveled. He believes that if those in the West aren’t working with the emerging markets they’re developing for, the products suffer and people lose out. If we don’t design for these markets, then the alternative for them is usually no design at all–and that means no designs solving their specific problems, and no economic might to prove their standing in the wider economy.