Acumen Blog

Social Capital Markets: Design for the Developing World

Editor’s note: Jocelyn Wyatt leads the Design for Social Impact initiative at IDEO (a global design consultancy). Prior to IDEO, Jocelyn worked as an Acumen Fund fellow in Kenya and served as Interim Country Director for VisionSpring in India. Jocelyn has an MBA from Thunderbird and a BA in Anthropology from Grinnell College. She blogs (periodically) on

By Jocelyn Wyatt

Fully admitting my bias here, I did think the Design in the Developing World panel was an especially interesting conversation between a top-notch set of designers and practitioners. Caroline Balerin launched the panel with the question "What would it look like to design for the other 90%?" I fully expected the panelists, who have traditionally designed products, to respond with something about appropriately designed technologies. I was pleasantly surprised to hear each of them respond with the need to design not only the products, but the systems around them.

Paul Polak noted that the design of tools is trivial compared to designing how to mass market them. Tim Brown followed up with the need for us to design the distribution channels, supply chains and marketing strategies to ensure they get to market and scale. "Breakthrough innovation in the developing world is happening by designing systems." Kristen Peterson built on this with a story about how Inveneo started by designing hardware, but realizing that wasn’t enough, has moved to building partnerships with local entrepreneurs who can distribute the IT services.

The second point, which was made by Paul Hudnut, was the importance of empathy and the need to speak to your customers in a way that makes sense to them. In his example, the fuel efficient motorcycles that Environfit designed are appealing to its customers because they are faster and cheaper to run, not because they have lower emissions.

A major point of Paul Polak’s during the panel and in his book, Out of Poverty, was that design for the other 90% needs to be about the "ruthless pursuit of affordability." If we can design for people who make less than $1/day, the tools will scale. It’s not enough to cosmetically change existing technologies, rather, they must be designed for the needs of the customers. Tim Brown talked about the need for rapid "just enough" prototyping and close collaboration with customers to ensure that designs are appropriate and useful.

A point which echoed what I had heard throughout the conference was the need to take a business approach to designing for the poor. By showing that profits are possible, big business will be encouraged to enter the market and will start designing for the other 90%. Paul Hudnut emphasized this and mentioned that he’s most proud of the large factory in China that is manufacturing Environfit’s clean burning stoves, which is making it possible for them to be priced affordably enough to sell 10,000/month. Tim Brown added that "all progress has happened because of profit drivers." Philanthropy doesn’t have the potential to make systemic change or scale happen, but business does.

Finally, the panelists all emphasized the need to build local capacity. Kristen Peterson mentioned that designing a local delivery channel for installation and repair of IT solutions will allow for scale. Paul Polak and Tim Brown both emphasized the need to teach innovation and design thinking at universities worldwide. Paul’s plan is to create 100 Stanford and MIT-like design courses at universities, 50 of them in the developing world and Tim hopes to see the creation of design schools in India and Africa.

"Scale" was a frequently-used buzzword at the conference and the question of how to get good ideas to scale is one that remains on the table. We are now seeing how design can address issues of scale. Whether it’s by designing appropriate products or services for the other 90%, by designing the systems around these products or services, or by teaching the design thinking approach to social entrepreneurs and students, design certainly has a contribution to make to this sector and truly has the potential to help good ideas scale and create deep and lasting impact.


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