Harnessing Design and Innovation to Fight Poverty

Harnessing Design and Innovation to Fight Poverty

A new trend in employing innovative technology and design to improve the lives of the world's poor is gaining much attention—but it's not without its critics.
 Photo Credit: Marcelino Llano/Flickr
Inventions like the Q-Drum cut down the time and strain of carrying water long distances. Photo Credit: Marcelino Llano/Flickr


Imagine a high-tech drinking straw that contained an internal water-purification system so that when you drank through it, water would be instantly purified and made safe to drink. Picture a large plastic rolling drum containing twenty gallons of water being pulled with ease by a rope, easing the burden of daily collection of water from a source. Visualize a water pump being powered by a makeshift Stairmaster, allowing farmers to simply step back and forth on the lever to disperse irrigation to crops. These might not seem like significant advancements to the average individual living in the United States or Europe, but these innovations have made a tremendous difference in the lives of many of the world's poor. The "Life Straw", "Q-Drum", and "treadle pump" are part of a growing trend to use technology and create designs not to maximize profit, but to assuage poverty and environmental degradation.

These innovations are part of a tidal wave of low cost inventions being produced and marketed to would-be consumers in the developing world. "Design for the Other 90%," a recent exhibition held at the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York City showcased such creations designed by architects, engineers, and inventors to benefit the "Other 90%" of the world's population who don't have access to the goods and services many in developed countries take for granted. The designs on display addressed basic needs including shelter, health, water, education, energy, and transport. In contrast to high tech creations such as the iPod or hand-held video game players, "designs for the poor" are intended to help poor families in developing countries improve their livelihoods through better access to clean water, food, energy, healthcare, and shelter.

The designs on display addressed basic needs including shelter, health, water, education, energy, and transport.


"Designs for the poor", however, are not charity. Most of these gadgets are for sale only and are rarely given away. "Four reasons giving things away is bad," explains Martin Fisher from "KickStart," "it's very unfair, how do you decide who gets something and who doesn't? It's unsustainable, where I give you something today and next year you need a spare part. It kills or distorts the local private sector; and it's not being appreciated or used well. It's like being given a gift that ends up in a drawer. It creates dependency, and it's not cheaper. You still have to set up a distribution network."

Critics of this point of view argue that overzealous attempts to market and sell cheap gadgets to the poor can come at the expense of quality. Inferior products that break easily or never work to begin with may cause more harm than good to the poor who have little income to spare on replacements. Some also find it problematic that many of these innovations, which end up in developing countries, start in high-tech, glamorous design studios in New York City, Tokyo, and London. In spite of being "anti-charity", designs that start out in the richest and end up in the poorest countries in the world are perceived as patronizing. This is felt particularly among innovators in developing countries who are limited in their capacity to develop and distribute their own designs because of a lack of capital.

Critics of this point of view argue that overzealous attempts to market and sell cheap gadgets to the poor can come at the expense of quality.


However, despite the criticism, the trend is moving beyond the private sector and finding its way to universities. From MIT to Stanford, universities are offering design and engineering courses specifically about addressing the needs of the poor in developing countries through innovation. Major figures like David Kelley, whose firm designed the Palm V PDA, are teaching courses at Stanford and MIT with course titles like "Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability". These classes are so popular with students that professors often can only accommodate a fraction of those who are interested.

Admittedly "designs for the poor" are not a panacea. Technology can only go so far to resolve poverty and protect the environment on a large scale. However, they do inspire confidence that at least the motivation exists to assuage poverty and environmental damage. Though critics point out that the expense and poor quality of many of these designs can cause more problems for the poor, organizations like KickStart and others are working to overcome these challenges by revising models based on feedback from local markets and investing to support local inventors so that they may create their own devices to improve their livelihoods.




Contributed by Cory McCruden, a freelance writer for Global Envision.

To read another Global Envision article about technology's impact on poverty, see The Case for Open Source Software.



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