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In Response To A Bill Gates Challenge, Frog Design Creates A Kit To Save Infant Lives

The design isn’t a whizz-bang new product or one-off technology. Rather, it’s a system of small interventions that aims to tackle the everyday challenges that lead to high infant mortality.

In places like Sierra Leone and Mozambique, one in 10 babies won’t survive. Many die before they’re even a day old. The terrible problem of infant mortality has inspired dozens of design solutions, from a suitcase that turns into makeshift solar lighting for maternity wards to off-the-grid incubators that look like tiny sleeping bags. Still, despite many efforts, and despite the fact that the infant mortality rate has dropped by almost half since 1990, around 3 million newborns die in the developing world every year.

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Now a new kit from Frog Design–created in response to a challenge from Bill Gates in this month’s issue of Wired–aims to take a different approach to the problem by bringing disparate solutions together.

Tom Rohrer

“There are already a lot of good one-off solutions out there that address specific problems, but what we heard from people both at UNICEF and the Gates Foundation is that it’s not the individual things that contribute to the poor survival rate, it’s the sum of them,” says Jonas Damon, Frog Design’s creative director.

The answer, the team thought, might be creating a system rather than another product.

The kit includes a roll of vitamins and supplements for each trimester, with a new phone number for the mother to call each week for information. At the end of the trimester, she has to go to a community health worker for a fresh supply. It’s an incentive, the designers say, to get the mother to go for a health checkup she might not otherwise attend. As an added reward, each checkup includes a little gift for the baby, like a hat to help prevent hypothermia.

Tom Rohrer

The last kit includes a ticket to get to the clinic for the birth, and all of the supplies for a safe home birth if the mother isn’t able to make the trip. It also includes supplies for care after the birth, like a linen wrap to hold the baby next to the mother–a technique the designers say works better than any form of incubator. The kit itself can unroll into a clean cloth for the baby to sleep on, and a set of CycleBeads, with 28 beads and a sliding marker, help the mother keep track of family planning for the future.

It’s not a flashy solution, and none of the individual parts are new by themselves, but the team thinks it can be effective. “The idea of having a one-off product–especially in this day and age, if you can have a gadget that fixes it all–is a nice sound byte, and something that’s cool to think about, but the reality is that’s a problem,” Damon says. “The one-off thing isn’t going to help.”

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Though it’s still a conceptual design, the team wants to take it forward, and is starting to talk with the various designers and NGOs making the individual parts. “The challenge in bringing this to fruition is getting all of these individual suppliers to work together,” Damon says, “And somehow turn it into a single experience that’s easily taught and communicated and implemented in the developing world.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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