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?