Niti Bhan

Reflections on A Better World by Design

Last year I was honoured to have been one of the first speakers to be invited to A Better World by Design Conference, held at Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island. This year, when conference and concept creator, Steve Daniels, invited me back to share my past year’s work with the community, I was humbled. The energy, enthusiasm and dedication of the students who collaborated and cooperated to pull this amazing event together is inspiring, if indeed these youngsters are the leaders of our collective future.

This year, each speaker was introduced by a student team who took a few minutes to share a project they were working on that had been inspired by or was related to the forthcoming speaker’s work. These projects covered the gamut of social entreprenuership from education in Tanzania to rainwater harvesting in India, as well those on urban planning, prosthetics and the launch of a movement called Revolution x Design, that’s garnering media attention even today.

What struck me, even as I listened to the various speakers present their efforts to effect positive social change (to make a better world) through or related to design, were Kigge Hvid’s words. The CEO of the INDEX awards, the largest design prize that selects those products which “improve life” each year and promotes them extensively, Hvid made the observation that “big money was looking at this space now, that meant ’design for social impact’ was mainstream since ’big money’ didn’t tend to invest in the fringe”.

While INDEX evaluates all kind of products that improve life, not just those meant for the BoP – one of 2009’s winners is while another is the Freeplay Fetal Heartrate Monitor – what does this mainstreaming of design as a force for strategic change, to frame it broadly, mean for both the field of design as well as the BoP?

I’ll begin the answer with a quote attributed to Ted London from the almost concurrent BoP conference held in Michigan: “In 20 years, not much has changed,” London said. “The U.N. says deep poverty remains a stubborn and intractable problem across much of the world.”

The report goes on to frame, what I believe is the essential challenge, quite succinctly:

“But the base of the pyramid has its own, unique dynamics,” London said. “It’s an informal economy, and the same business processes that work in developed markets don’t necessarily apply there. And selling a cheaper or simpler version of an existing product isn’t necessarily the appropriate course of action. […] Most important, poverty alleviation groups need a set of guiding business principles, and businesses need a better understanding of the base of the pyramid.” As London put it: “I think we need a more perfect union.”

There is a gap in knowledge, it seems, particular to each side of the table. And the solutions and presentations that demonstrated success seem to be those that have effectively married the two areas – an indepth understanding of their “customer” or “client” i.e. those at the BoP as well as tools, methods and processes that would form a “set of guiding business principles”. Here is where I believe that design can and does have significant impact, in fact, an important role to play if we consider the designer’s toolkit as a starting point to help us bridge this gap in knowledge.

We need to increase our understanding of the challenges at the BoP in order to better design business models or processes appropriate and relevant to local conditions, per London’s remarks quoted above. In fact, I am far more confident about the power of design thinking after attempting to understand how those at the base of the pyramid manage on irregular incomes using exploratory user research as well other methods to conclude our insights. The findings were not novel per se but they certainly validate the methodology of the user centered design process and the research has been accepted as a paper for the upcoming Impact of BoP Ventures conference in TUDelft.

The mainstreaming of “design for social impact” or “design to improve life” can only benefit those of us who seek to serve the BoP better, regardless of whether we are designers, social entreprenuers, NGOs or cocreating communities of empowered users.