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Designers for Development


So-called “design for development” toes the line between humanitarianism and paternalism, as tends to happen in any situation where there is a significant power/wealth disparity. The problems of economic disparity on a geopolitical scale are larger and more complex than can be solved in a single human lifetime, and as such, seem overwhelming and irresolvable, as do the environmental crisis and nearly every domestic question that appears repeatedly in the New York Times. Last week, Despina argued that though such problems (she was referring specifically to the environmental crisis) are in a sense unsolvable—at least by us—it becomes our responsibility to change attitudes and model appropriate behaviors to ensure that the following generation is not hampered by the political resistance that hogtied us. What does that mean in terms of design?

At least based on this week’s readings, it seems like no one is too sure. Drawing on Amartya Sen’s formulation of welfare economics, Martha Nussbaum lays out a philosophical framework for thinking about people’s basic needs separately from any cultural considerations. She identifies ten different basic “capabilities” as prerequisites for a full and dignified life. Designers and development professionals wax equally enthusiastic about the capabilities model’s applicability in developing world contexts—especially as an alternative to more value-laden functional and economic approaches that lead to many children with one laptop but no food. The universal applicability of this particular approach, however, comes at the cost of vagueness. Economic and functional models are prescriptive: make a bicycle generator to save on electricity costs; build a water pump to cut the time spent collecting water from 5 hours a day to just 2. Makes perfect sense. Justifying the same technology in terms of its user’s dignity is a little trickier.

In the case of the water pump for instance, who’s to say that our hypothetical user doesn’t enjoy the five hours spent collecting water, that those five hours provide him/her with a great sense of accomplishment through physical exertion and communal collaboration that the pump, which landed in the community like the Coke bottle in The Gods Must Be Crazy, an alien artifact that disrupts years of harmonious if hardscrabble living? To someone living in the West, it makes intuitive sense that something that is hard to do and takes five hours is less desirable than an alternative approach that accomplishes the same result with less effort in two hours. Increased productivity! More time to do more things!

But is or should productivity be a universal goal? It was the search for increased productivity and decreased effort that led to mercantilism, colonialism, and most of the developing world’s problems to begin with. Well-intentioned and empathetic professionals devote themselves to the arduous and often thankless task of “developing” their less fortunate brethren only to then fantasize in writing and in film about a return to an Edenic state of nature. Avatar is just the latest in a long tradition of white man’s guilt stories in which a nature-worshiping indigenous race collides with an advanced techno-capitalistic race that threatens to obliterate it until one of its more enlightened members switches sides and fights to save it or at least delay its destruction. But this is the same sort of hubris that I objected to in environmental discourse last week: the market can’t fix what the market caused.

Design is not inherently capitalistic. We have been inventors for our entire history. People use and make objects and tools in every culture. Making tools that work well and objects that are beautiful (whatever the local definitions of good and beauty) is a natural species-wide compulsion. The reasons for doing so, however, are culturally (or economically or politically or socially) determined and have changed—placating angry Gods, saving time, increasing market share, sounding luxury cues. As many of the readings we looked at this week noted, the world’s wealthiest countries are the principal consumers of contemporary design, so design educations are tailored to addressing their needs. The market reduces design to applied aesthetics on the low end and conceptual misanthropy on the high end (talk to any MIT student who’s lived in Steven Holl’s Simmons Hall).

That kind of design does not work in the Chinese countryside or in a remote Bolivian town or in an African village for the same reason that democracy will never work in Afghanistan. That doesn’t mean that designers shouldn’t work to improve people in developing nations’ capabilities any more than it means that statesmen should abandon seeking peaceful relations between nations. It does mean, however, that both should be more sensitive to the problems they are seeking to solve from the point of view of the people who ultimately will be living with their solutions.


Design for development. I readily admit that each assignment has caused me mild insomnia and that the constant thought stymied my ability to make anything until the day or two before its due date, but never as badly as this week. I lived in the developing world for nearly seven years, several of which I spent creating products for developing markets, but I couldn’t think of a single need I might address in a manner consonant with all my grandstanding above. I thought about creating passive solar heaters for the parts of China where Mao’s enlightened policies dictated there be no central heating, but then I remembered that southern Chinese think it’s unhealthy to be warm when it’s cold outside. I thought about anti-corruption devices of different kinds, but realized that no sane Chinese person would ever believe that a whistle-blowing device was not part of an elaborate entrapment ploy. Nussbaum’s capabilities were little help generating other ideas.

But I easily came up with a handful of products almost certain to fly off the shelves in Chinese supermarkets. Why? Because I spent years talking to Chinese consumers, working to understand their needs, no matter how bizarre they seemed to me. Nabisco, for instance, was not selling nearly enough Oreos to meet its targets. The reason, it turns out, was simple. The Chinese have never eaten cookies. There is simply no occasion in which to eat them. They’re too sweet and fatty to eat for breakfast, too heavy to snack on, and too cheap to serve to guests for dessert. Once they realized this, Nabisco created a snack-sized Oreo wafer that was less sweet and much more familiar in form to Chinese snackers. It was an instant hit.

Everyone seems to agree that economic development is the road to, if not salvation, then at least improvement, for former colonial countries. I’m not sure that in the long run encouraging local entrepreneurship through micro-finance and other community-based economic schemes is anything more than a way to polarize communities and delegate the problems of doing business in developing economies to local lieutenants, especially in resource-rich countries we will need to plunder in the future. But I do know that the tools of capitalism—of marketing in particular—are the most efficient way of uncovering people’s “unmet needs” and tapping into their desire to own and use things.

My question then shifted from how can I possibly design for development when I have no idea what problems I’m trying to solve to how can anybody? The answer most of the time is that NGOers solve problems they take as givens and those solutions aren’t adopted. Mosquito nets get used on parents’ beds or put away and saved because according to local lore children don’t need them. What if instead of tackling solutions, designers focused on using their critical thinking to uncover the problems?

Rather than a specific product or design to solve a problem established a priori, I am proposing using marketing principles to design a process that uncovers problems with a likelihood of successful solution, guarantees community involvement and investment in the outcome, and can be carried out by design teams with minimal local experience in relatively short (six- to ten-week) timeframes.

A couple of important pointers:
– Small multi-functional groups work better both on your side and the “client” side;
– Momentum is crucial. Work as hard as you can as fast as you can;
– This process will be trying and tiring. It’s a Navy Seals approach to local innovation;


Be them, with them, about them

Be them, with them, about them is the credo of consumer insight. It basically boils down to “do your research” but proves especially useful in developing world contexts. Talk to people who have some perspective on your challenge. If you’re trying to help African farmers, don’t just talk to experts on small-scale African farming—if you talk to the same people as everyone else, you’re going to have the same ideas as everyone else. Learn about farming and growing things. Talk to farmers of all scales in different climates and conditions, to African urbanites who’ve never farmed, to agronomists, to the ladies at a garden club, to Africa scholars, to grizzly Africa hands, to meteorologists, to entomologists, to local food wholesalers, to children and their grandparents. Visit greenhouses and farms and markets and irrigation projects.

Once you’ve got some idea of the context of these farmers, learn to see the world as they do. Spend time farming in a variety of settings. Plant a garden. Use the tools they use. Live with them and shadow them until they stop paying attention to you. Try to sleep as they sleep, work as they work, bathe as they bathe, eat as they eat, and drink as they drink, and, holiest of holies, think how they think. Ask questions constantly. Don’t assume anything. Laugh at your own ignorance. This sort of research, if conducted with an open mind and a genuine desire to experience another’s world, leads to a volume of insight that’s simply not available to people who go home to their air conditioned tents at night. It also lays the groundwork and relationships for the next step.


Having spent the bulk of your time being, shadowing, and talking about your target “consumers,” you should have a good idea of the things they consider troublesome or problematic. You should also have identified the people within the community that will make good brainstormers and thoughtful discussers, as well as the stakeholders whose buy-in will be necessary to ensure any sort of lasting solution.

When you’re ready, make a bit of a spectacle when they’re around, signal that something out of the ordinary is happening, and recount observations of your troubles living with them (long hours, back-breaking lifting, not enough coffee), soliciting input and encouraging them to discuss how to solve your problems. Since you are an outsider, they will consider all sorts of solutions they wouldn’t normally for your problems and more often than not start bringing their own experiences to bear. It’s at this point that the addressable problem you’re looking for should boil to the surface.


Now comes the familiar iterative design process. Try to use locally available materials and techniques that are within reach of the community in which you’re working. Enlist local helpers. Credit them with all progress and good ideas. Try out your design and get them to try it out. What don’t they like about it? What could be better? Iterate. Repeat.

Once a working solution is in place, see if you can get your community to show it off to another nearby community. Once they do, the idea has become theirs and you can leave, knowing that knowledge has been transferred and that you’ve earned a hot shower.


  1. alex | March 11th, 2010 | 2:58 pm

    Apparently I’m not the only one who thinks that user-centered design is a potentially fruitful approach to developing-world problem solving. IDEO, has created a sexily designed series of “guides” for human-centered design for NGOs and social enterprise. Which is great if you have experienced facilitators and insight folks working on the ground, but overlooks the central problem of any sort of creative qualitative consumer research/development: you can only learn it by doing it with someone who knows how to do it. No amount of reading will teach you how to lead a brainstorm or negotiate local (or organizational) politics.