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Can 3-D Printing Help Teach The Business Skills To Lift People Out Of Poverty?

Unleashing creativity in business whether in a South Asian slum or a U.S. inner city, all with a little on-demand manufacturing ingenuity.

Madhu Viswanathan devises ways to teach the world’s poorest about business. Through workshops and presentations, he looks to improve “marketplace literacy”–that is, people’s understanding of the commercial trading system and their own place in it. The idea to get people thinking outside their everyday concerns (eating, having somewhere to sleep) and conceiving of new opportunities.

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Viswanathan, a professor at the University of Illinois, has introduced his program to communities in India and Tanzania. But he’s not stopping there. More recently, he’s reimported the ideas to the U.S. and added a twist: 3-D printing. Viswanathan’s colleagues in the university’s extension program are now teaching 3-D-themed marketplace literacy in classrooms around Illinois.

West Side Chicago

“The fact that it was prototyped in India and Africa means there are more opportunities in those places. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t people here who are analogues,” says Ron Duncan, one of the teachers involved. “These crippling elements that stop people unleashing their creativity are present here as they are in any third-world country.”

Duncan is a big fan of 3-D printing because he says it allows students to immediately see their ideas whole. It’s not like making a prototype out of clay. It’s actually creating a product there and then. “They can see their idea made and it’s incredibly powerful for unlocking their creativity,” he says.

Duncan’s classes, which are aimed at the young and disadvantaged, have four phases. He starts by asking students about something they value–their phone, say. Then, he asks what they buy and where, and why as consumers they visit those stores. Then, he poses questions from a retailer’s standpoint, like “how do you treat customers?” Then finally, he asks “what product would you want to create?” and how much they would charge for it.

This might sound like Business 101, and it is. But Duncan says picturing commercial relationships from all angles helps the students see the bigger picture. “It’s miraculous to see how starting at a consumer level first, not product ideation, is really fascinating for this particular audience,” he says. “It’s the concrete reality of having that good in your hand that makes the whole thing link back.”

Urban South India

So far, Duncan and a colleague have taught about 250 students. It’s early days. But he sees the idea growing because the students are excited about learning this way. Their product ideas have included customized license plate holders, and a clip you place on a car seat-belt, so you can release yourself in an emergency.

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Duncan doesn’t see anything strange about bringing an international development strategy to the middle of the U.S. (which is perhaps a reflection of real poverty here, and how we concentrate on foreign places at the expense of people closer to home). Rather, he sees a universal need to fire up imaginations.

“It’s a human nature kind of thing. When people have a lot of economic stress, their capacity to think is greatly hindered. That’s the same in a lot of places. This project addresses that,” he says.

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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