Designing New Technologies for a Better Life

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

By Lauren Wi
lcox World Ark Contributor

In 1985, a young mechanical engineer named Martin Fisher traveled to Kenya on a Fulbright scholarship. Fisher planned to stay for a few months, putting his degree to meaningful use working on projects for the rural poor, but he soon found himself absorbed in the world of international development. Months turned into years as Fisher worked on rural water projects with communal wells, helped women’s groups start small businesses and helped produce farm equipment to give to farmers.

But after a few years, Fisher took a hard look at the work he and his colleagues had done and found it disappointing. Although the projects were successful in the short-term, they turned out to be “totally unsustainable,” Fisher explained. “We would walk away from these things and they would collapse.” Communal pumps would break, and no one would repair them. Efforts to provide people with things that they desperately needed – water pumps, homes, farm equipment – were simply temporary fixes, no matter how inexpensive, simple or well-intentioned.

What, he wondered, did poor people really need? Rather than beginning yet another attempt at a charitable solution, Fisher put this question directly to the poor, trying to determine what would be most useful to them.

What he found surprised him. Designing products to help the poor, Fisher discovered, was in some ways a through-the-looking-glass experience, a reversal of traditional assumptions. Where design efforts for the poor often focused on saving them time and labor, poor people had both time and labor in abundance. Where design traditionally emphasized quality and durability, the extremely poor, whose lives and needs often changed unexpectedly, preferred affordability. Above all, Fisher found, the innovations that had the most impact were often those that helped individuals earn money, not those that solved quality-of-life issues or were the basis of a community project.

Today, two decades later, Fisher and a small but growing contingent of designers, engineers, businesspeople and nonprofit workers are pioneering a new approach to international development: designing and distributing affordable, useful and in many cases, income-producing products to the extremely poor. Garnering national attention with the recent exhibit, “Design for the Other 90%,” at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York City, the nascent movement is not simply a design revolution, or an ambitious business plan, but a combination of both. It has also begun to change some of the basic assumptions about design, business and solutions to poverty.

The Evolution of a Trend

The emerging trend has its roots in an influential book by the economist E.F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful, published in 1973, which emphasized, in part, the importance of scale in problem solving – that the size and scope of a solution could be tailored to the size and scope of the task. In the Western World, which had been dominated by the momentum of big business, growth and high technology, Schumacher’s notions about scale quietly began to find purchase.

A school of thought called the appropriate technology movement, inspired by Schumacher’s ideas, spread throughout the developing world; it called for local technologies to address local needs, rather than importing less relevant, mass-produced products at greater expense and waste.

While the appropriate technology movement fell short of many of its goals, the theories and ideas had a lasting influence on development work. Designers and engineers began focusing more on practical, local, small-scale solutions to help the very poor. In recent years, these efforts have gathered momentum.

In addition to the technologies on exhibit at Cooper-Hewitt, which showcased low-tech design solutions to problems facing the poor, a number of independent companies and universities, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have been at work on these solutions as well. Amy Smith, a senior lecturer at MIT, founded the D-Lab program, which introduces students to engineering challenges in the developing world. Smith has designed several tools and medical devices for use in developing countries.

As the movement evolves, some basic principles for this kind of design have begun to emerge. They come from Schumacher’s ideas, as well as trial and error and countless conversations with people living in poverty.

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Source: World Ark Online (link opens in a new window)