Design for the other 90%

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“The majority of the world’s designers focus all their efforts on developing products and services exclusively for the richest 10% of the world’s customers. Nothing less than a revolution in design is needed to reach the other 90%.”
Dr. Paul Polak, International Development Enterprises

One of the developments I find most compelling among poverty reduction efforts are the many new product ideas which address the needs of the „other 90%“of humanity. Last year the Hewitt Cooper National Design Museum in New York put on an exhibition of the same title, accompanied by a worthwhile catalogue. In a similar vain, Design Like You Give Damn, a book published by Architecture for Humanity offeres many inspiring product innovations for markets, thus far neglected due to the small buying power of its costumers.  

But – in the age of the long tail, where a large number of small-budget buyers can bring more profit then a few big spenders – this is changing.  A number of innovations depend on self-generated energy. Thus wind-up radios – belittled in the 1990s, when they were first marketed, have proved to be a very successful in regions where batteries are too expensive and electricity is non-existent.  

One of the fields in which a lot is happening concerns lighting- and solar-applications. The Freeplay Foundation has just developed lanterns which can provide up to two hours of light from just one minute of winding. The LEDs used are rated for 100,000 hours, whereas a filament bulb might burn out after 16 hours. For African populations which are estimated to spent between 10-15% of their monthly income on kerosine, candles and fire wood, these lanterns could make a real difference, enableing people to spent more time on studying after dark, be better equipped for medical emergencies and run their shops later into the evening. The lanterns, promoted by Freeplay Ambassador Tom Hanks, will be tested over the course of the next few months in Kenya and South Africa.  

Efforts to improve self-generated energy were the topic of  a recent Science article, picked up by the Economist last week: They presented the “Eneregy Harvester”, an instrument which looks like an orthopaedic knee-brace.”It tucks behind its wearer’s knee and has extensions that strap around the front of his calf and his thigh. When the wearer walks, the knee’s motion drives a set of gears which turn a small generator”. The energy generated by the harvester could, for example, be used to charge up batteries.

Many of the new Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP) products are sold via special financing models adaped to the needs of customers living below the poverty line. Harish Hande, from the Indian company SELCO Solar Lights has developed a special credit system for its poor, rural customers. For his innovative and sustainable approach to poverty reduction the Schwab Foundation has rewarded Hande with the Social Entrepreneur Award 2007. Moreover, the new companies try to really get to know their customers. Whereas many of the older product designs targeting the “other 90%” originated in the Design Departments of Western corporations, without in-depth knowledge of the living conditions of their target groups, the new generation of BoD Entrepreneurs explicitly makes a point of taking their customers point of view and analysing their needs and lived reality.Canadian company Environfit sends market researchers in rural areas in developing nations in order to devise a new health – and environmentally friendly cooking stove. Toxic indoor-smoke is a serious health problems: The WHO estimates that 1.6 million people die of it annually. As half of the world’s population and 80% of rural inhabitants cook on traditional stoves which emit carbon-monoxide, Environfit (in cooperation with the Shell Foundation) saw a new market niche for new, clean ceramic stoves.In order to develop suitable models, the market reserachers analysed the cooking- and living conditions of various populations. How do they cook – while sitting, squatting or standing? Which are the preferred colours? How many cooking pots need to be handled simultaneously? The final results – to be tested in the Indian market – cost between 10 and 200 US$.

4 Responses to “Design for the other 90%”


  1. 1 Architectural Design Services March 5, 2008 at 11:10 am

    It is as difficult to make a layman understand this , as it is to make them understand how architecture can be manipulated for a purpose.
    The likes of Laurie Baker have implemented their best efforts in this field and still we dont have enough movement in this area.

  2. 2 Deepa Chaudhary March 19, 2008 at 8:53 am

    It’s great to know others thoughts on Design and its importance as we share the same. At World Toilet Organization we aim to build sanitation market infrastructure for bottom of the pyramid segment. We want to drive demand for toilets by emotionally connecting to 2.6 billion toilet-less. We want to stylize toilets to make it an object of desire and status symbol so that people at the BOP are motivated to invest in one. We are in discussion with few design schools. More leads are welcome


  1. 1 betterplace and social design « betterplace.org Trackback on April 22, 2008 at 3:59 pm
  2. 2 Topblog » Blog Archive » To Remodel a Kitchen - Should You Do it Yourself Or Get the … Trackback on February 9, 2010 at 4:56 pm

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