Google, Yahoo and the bottom of the pyramid.

Bruce Nussbaum

We all go to conferences and most are pretty good but the IDSA/HP Design About on BOP--the bottom of the pyramid--was especially intense and productive. Thanks to Sam Lucente, director, Brand Design and Experience for HP and Kristina Goodrich who runs the IDSA, and the folks from Jump, especially Udaya Patnaik who MC'd the two days and all the breakouts, we had nearly 48 hours of great talk and thought. There were about 60-70 participants and that number seems optimum for maximizing discussion, networking and ideation.

And the really biggest idea to come out of the talk was CK Prahald's Co-Creation. Funny, because it was CK's book on the Bottom of the Pyramid that was the initial glue holding the conference together. But it became clear early on in the discussions that corporations cannot simply walk into villages in India and elsewhere and sell off-the-shelf computers and shampoo to people making $2 a day or less (and who are probably very suspicious of outsiders). The solution? Provide the capability of designing products and services together with the people on the ground. Craig Vogel, who heads up innovation at the University of Cincinnati, called it "our capability and your need."

Now stop a moment and think about all this. Are we not speaking about the very same thing when we talk about Are we not talking about the great shift of power to consumers from producers and in fact, the rise of consumers AS producers? And are we not talking about the process of social networking, collaborative intelligence, mass cooperation and all the Google, Yahoo and web stuff?

The answer is yes. Odd as it sounds, at a conference on poverty and the Third World, in a discussion of marketing to people so poor they make $1 to $2 a day, we conclude that only through collaboration can we best create the things people want. Gary Elliot, the really smart vice president of brand marketing for HP, talked about "Me-ism" in the US, the idea that form follows me today, that "me" is the center of the universe and companies have to work within that cultural context to success. Companies therefore have to partner with millions of "me-customers" to co-create products and services.

But the conference showed that companies must do the same thing in the "we-cultures" of India and the bottom of the pyramid countries. For political, economic and cultural reasons, they have to partner up with their customers to generate new products and services to sell to and with them. In fact, Patrick Whitney of the Institute of Design discussed how in Indian villages, consumers are invariably producers, that every household is invariably an entrepreneur, how consumer goods are used to produce things for sale. Sound like American teenagers using computers and mixing and remixing video and music, creating their own blogs, sharing them?

Folks, I haven't connected all the dots, but we may have a new, singular model of capitalism developing here. At the very least, a new business model. Perhaps a new economic model as well. The high tech world of the web and the low-tech world of the village are somehow coming together to offer up a new vision for innovation, design and society in general. Whew, what a conference! More on specific ideas for innovation and design later.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.