Putting the Power of Design in the Hands of the Poor
No global development program is as sustainable as a new product that generates income for workers and benefits for consumers year after year. This simple fact has put product design at the center of the fight against poverty around the world. New products that even the poorest populations can and want to buy are by definition a sustainable way of raising living standards. But so far, the world has yet to take the next logical step: putting cutting-edge technologies for design and production in the hands of poor people.
In recent years, several kinds of products have had success reaching markets at the base of the pyramid. Many companies in rich countries have redesigned their existing products—scooters, televisions, tools—to make them more affordable for poor people. In addition, entirely new products have been designed in rich countries explicitly for poor people. Some of these have been ingenious but fairly rudimentary (such as the Polak treadle pump that draws up groundwater for farming), and others have been higher-tech (such as SMS-driven printers that deliver results of medical tests). Of course, people in poor countries have also designed their own products, such as the Jaipur prosthetic foot. These products made by and for the base of the pyramid typically use basic, easily accessible technology, but they are still undeniably brilliant.
This last category of products proves that people at the base of the pyramid have no less talent for design than people in rich countries. What they often lack, however, is up-to-date technology for design and production: computer-aided design software, three-dimensional printers, advanced materials, and the like. A new initiative called Emerging Design Centers (EDCs) aims to change that.
EDCs will put cutting-edge technology at the service of the base of the pyramid, so that people can design and produce a much wider range of innovations for their peers. With equipment and expertise provided by outside investors, people in poor communities will have a chance to follow through on their best ideas, sharing in the profits that come from serving the markets they know well. These markets are large but not necessarily contiguous; the same product that may be useful to a farmer in Cambodia may also be useful to a farmer in Bangladesh.
The EDCs themselves will constitute a network of design professionals, sharing ideas and techniques to promote a culture of continuous improvement. In the beginning, investors and hired professionals will guide the design process, control the supply chains, and create the distribution channels. But as local design talent becomes professionalized and supply chains switch to local resources, management and ownership of the EDCs will increasingly revert to the communities where they are based.
Though EDCs could be launched as nonprofit organizations with initial resources provided via grants or low-interest loans, a for-profit model may offer them the greatest chance of success. Donors and lenders typically require their beneficiaries to follow a preset business plan and achieve preset milestones, which could curtail the flexibility that EDCs will need to do business in product markets. The EDCs will learn and evolve as they grow, and each one is likely to end up looking different from the others. Their ability to achieve the kinds of ex-ante objectives set by a traditional development program will matter much less than their profitability—the sole reliable signal that their products are generating income and making consumers' lives better.
To begin operating, EDCs will need farsighted investors who expect a strong return, design professionals with a willingness to pass on knowledge and expertise, and communities that are willing to try a new way of raising living standards. The goal will always be to help these communities to help themselves. The ideas will be their own—and so will a big share of the profits.
Does it matter who designs products for markets at the base of the pyramid? How should companies from rich countries share their profits when they sell products designed by people from poor communities abroad? Should profits go only to one person or be shared throughout the community? How can investors and designers protect the intellectual property of products created in countries with flawed legal systems? Should they?