Design for the Real Mass Market

A new exhibition turns the spotlight on innovative products that improve the lives of the underprivileged and often stimulate local economies

On an enclosed grass lawn just steps away from Manhattan's pristine Fifth Avenue, six construction workers are installing equipment seen more often in Nairobi than New York. One adjusts a pot-in-pot cooler, designed to preserve crops in the African sun. Another tests a bamboo treadle pump—the same tool that irrigates more than 1,000 fields in Bangladesh.

Surrounded by these tools, a colorful sign proclaims, "The majority of the world's designers focus all their efforts on…the richest 10% of the world's customers." The pot-in-pot, the pump, and the rest of the devices on display, in contrast, are designed for the other 5,934,269,874 people on the planet.

These devices and more are part of "Design for the Other 90%," a thought-provoking exhibition running through Sept. 23 at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City. A few of its highlights will be familiar: The Katrina Furniture Project and the computer developed by One Laptop Per Child, for instance, have both received generous media attention (see, 3/1/07, "The Face of the $100 Laptop"). But most show entries will surprise visitors.

Untapped Resource

In featuring more than 30 innovative tools—each of which addresses issues such as safe drinking water, shelter, health and sanitation, education, and transportation—curator Cynthia Smith hopes to illuminate the critical need for humanitarian design. "It's a call to action," says Smith, who has worked for the Lee Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership and studied at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "We're trying to show that design can change lives."

"Nairobi, Kenya, Tanzania, they're huge markets," says Kate Stohr, co-founder of Architecture for Humanity (see, 10/14/05, "From the Rubble, Foundations of Hope") and co-author of Design Like You Give a Damn (Metropolis Books and Thames & Hudson). But for Westerners, those markets have been out of sight and mostly out of mind. Globalization, says Stohr, has changed that and awakened innovators around the world who want to improve life in developing nations. "Now that we can see and talk to [their citizens], we can try to meet their demands."

While these consumers face many issues—poor shelter, limited medical care, and substandard school systems—developing appropriate solutions is easier said than done. To craft low-cost, high-impact remedies, like the ones featured in "Design for the Other 90%," Smith says innovators must "get creative." "There's more than one way to fix the world's problems," she explains, adding that roughly 2.8 billion people live on less than $2 a day. "We're trying to showcase a variety of solutions."

Agents of Change

Another challenge innovators face is understanding their target clientele. "A friend once told me, 'If you're going to design for the poor, don't even start unless you've talked to 25 poor people,'" says Martin Fisher, who founded KickStart, a non-profit that develops humanitarian technologies. "When you truly understand [a group's plight]—that's when you make the biggest impact."

Fisher has spent more than 17 years in Africa, and knows its realities well. In his effort to promote smart, appropriate design for the developing world, he shares his experiences during frequent lectures at U.S. college campuses. "If we want to effect change," he says, "we need to raise awareness."

KickStart is responsible for three designers featured in "Design for the Other 90%." One, the $350 MoneyMaker Block Press, gives African entrepreneurs an opportunity to produce durable bricks made of concrete and soil. The others, a $34 MoneyMaker Hip Pump and an $88 Super MoneyMaker Pump, can provide year-round irrigation, allowing subsistence farmers to start small-scale commercial operations. These KickStart devices are sold at more than 500 retailers and have actually helped raise Kenya's GDP by .06%.

The Bottom Line

Yet for all its potential impact, humanitarian design is a risky business proposition. The challenge of selling to low-income customers is just one of many. In many underdeveloped regions, there might not be a suitable manufacturing facility, distribution can be a logistical nightmare, and where will you find an educated sales team? Such challenges make it tough—but not impossible—for a for-profit to thrive. To succeed takes patience and sometimes a non-profit approach to building a for-profit.

Launched 13 years ago to sell cheap alternative power in India, the Solar Electric Light Company (SELCO) didn't break even until 2000. "We struggled at the beginning," says co-founder Harish Hande. "It's hard to launch a new service [in a developing nation]."

Today, however, SELCO is a roaring success. Thanks in part to grants from charitable organizations such as The Lemelson Foundation, which has also pledged more than $1 million to KickStart, SELCO boasts 142 employees and roughly 80,000 clients. In 2006, its revenues reached $4.5 million. "Every year, because of us, almost 8,000 people get their first source of reliable electricity," says Hande, whose Solar Home Lighting System scored a spot in the exhibition. "It's incredibly humbling."

Fisher agrees. "We want to get to the stage where we can prove [innovation] is a highly effective way to cure poverty," he says. "This exhibition is a great way to make an impact."

Click here to view a slide show of innovative products.

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