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Design for the Other 90%

The vast majority of designers put their talent to where the money is: crafting products and services that aim to beguile the richest 10% of the world's population. Nothing wrong with making a living. But could the tens of thousands of designers who fashion things that appeal to people's desires—rather than fulfilling their needs—be missing an opportunity to break into a much, much bigger market? Paul Polak certainly thinks so.

Polak, the maverick, septuagenarian founder of International Development Enterprises, argues that it's more than a little ironic that most designers, by creating extravagancies for the (comparatively) wealthy elite, have failed to tap into "the other 90%," the 4 billion people who live in relative poverty—and have a combined purchasing power that amounts to $5 trillion, according to the World Resources Institute. He has spent the past few years rallying the design community to apply its problem-solving skills to create tools that build markets for people living in or near poverty—and thereby transform them into tomorrow's entrepreneurs.

Polak argues that large-scale government aid programs are "doomed to failure" because they treat the poor as victims; the only way out of the poverty trap is to increase the wealth of those like the 1.1 billion subsistence farmers living on quarter-acre plots. And that, he says, is a design problem.

Working with design schools at MIT and Stanford University and veteran designers who are concerned about the state of the disadvantaged majority, Polak and his IDE staffers have developed and marketed low cost, low-tech tools (such as drip-irrigation kits and alternative-power generators) that aim to help needy farmers raise profits from their small pots. All IDE products are sold (nothing is given) to farmers, and farmers must be able to recover the cost of the device within one season.

"Designing for the poor is all about the ruthless pursuit of affordability," says Polak. That's an acid test that a growing number of designers are zealously confronting, based on the evidence from a new exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York.

The exhibit, titled "Design for the Other 90%," spotlights 30 projects that present "ruthlessly affordable"—and innovative—design solutions in the areas of shelter, health, water, education, energy, and transport. The show, which runs through September 23rd, features IDE's bamboo treadle pump (among other products), which enables small-plot farmers to draw precious groundwater during the dry season—and has generated $1.4 billion in net farmer income in Bangladesh alone. "90%" also billboards ingenious solutions from other individual designers and organizations, such as Ferrara Design's Global Village Shelter—low-cost emergency shelters made from biodegradable material—and WorldBike's Big Boda bicycle, which enables bicycle-taxi operators in Uganda and Kenya to pedal two passengers or hundreds of pounds of cargo.

Paul Polak has long argued that "Nothing less than a design revolution is needed to reach the other 90%." It is said that designers like to take on wickedly difficult problems. How many more, then, will answer the Cooper-Hewitt's call to action?

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  • Wendy Johnson

    Good article. It is fantastic to see the "ruthless pursuit of affordability." The poor, just like you and I, value what they invest in and take pride in their ability to care for their families. Breaking the cycle of poverty starts by providing hope through sustainable alternatives. We are looking into the Global Village Shelters as housing for our short-term workers in Mexico.

  • Matthew Shubitz

    Several old adages leapt to mind as I read this article...You make your profit either on volume or higher price markup...or the more appropriate to this discussion - You can build for the rich and live like the masses or you can build for the masses and live like the rich.

  • Rob Katz

    There's an interesting dichotomy at play here: poor as producer vs. poor as consumer. Or is there? Indeed, this exhibit demonstrates that the poor are both consumers (purchasing drip-irrigation kits, BiggaBoda bikes, etc) and producers (using treadle pumps to increase productivity and income). Kudos to the Cooper-Hewitt curators for resolving this false dichotomy often seen in the development community.

    One discrepancy - 90 percent might be too high. "The Next 4 Billion: Market Size and Business Strategy at the Base of the Pyramid" shows the $5 trillion market to account for about 72 percent of measured world population. Still large - but not 90%.

  • Sherrie Graham

    This article is great. We have so many people who need clothing, devices, and products developed for them. There is profit in developing products and services for those who have a low-to-moderate income, and they can become longevity consumers for companies. Keep up the good work.

  • Charles Radhamohan

    Great Article. If more of this type articles are included in Fast Co, that will raise the consciousness of milllions of Engineers and Technocrats. Thanks for a wonderful article I am an East Indian living in USA for the past 39 years.

    Charles Radhamohan