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Design for the Base of the Pyramid
Sarah Rich, 4 Apr 06

rio.jpg It's no secret that the population explosion in the developing world holds enormous potential for forward-thinking businesses. A great many people have suddenly entered an urban context where needs are changing drastically, and demands escalating rapidly. Many corporations are trying to tap the "bottom of the pyramid," but most do not consider their market carefully. True innovation will come not simply through targeting this booming market, but through paying careful attention to context, and reaching out consumers in accordance with their circumstances.

But beyond global companies targeting megacity markets, another opportunity exists, which is the chance to empower citizens of the developing world grow their own businesses and improve their own conditions based upon local needs and resources. We wrote recently about Architecture for Humanity's new book Design Like You Give A Damn - an exemplary illustration of design principles that acknowledge and involve the people on the ground where rapid innovation is taking place.

Another such effort is Design for the Base of the Pyramid (DBOP) from the Illinois Institute of Technology's Institute of Design. Initiated in 2003, this project explores "human-centered design strategies and concepts for new products, services and businesses capable of generating sustainable economic improvement in the lives of people living in the vast base of the global economic pyramid."

By taking the time to research and understand the social interaction, economic activity and physical conditions of the areas they aimed to serve, the DOBP teams were able to identify preexisting enterprises, and opportunities to help local businesses innovate. They developed a concept system that ties together services, skill training, and digital networking for exchange of goods and access to resources, working "together to improve not only living conditions, but the health and sustainability of local economies."

via: Timbuktu Chronicles via NextBillion

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see Stewart Brand's article on human population movement. The population explosion is over with!

"Get ready for cosmopolitan slums with thriving markets, aging residents, and the most creative economies in history.

“In the village, all there is for a woman is to obeyher husband and family elders, pound grain, and sing. If she moves to town, she can get a job, start a business, and get education for her children.” I heard this remark, made by a global community activist, in 2000 at a Fortune magazine conference in Aspen, Colo. It was enough to explode my Gandhi-esque romantic notions about the superiority of village life..."

from stragety+business magazine>

Posted by: mi shi on 5 Apr 06

Thanks for a great post, Sarah. This is vital work, and heartening, but we have to keep it in perspective. "Design" by itself cannot solve all the ills of poverty. It's hard to design justice - but not injustice. All over the world, people are living in wretched conditions, and it's not an accident. It's the result of an intentional design. Tinkering with it, modifying it a bit, is not World Changing. Neither, of course, is some half-baked theory of anarchist utopia or any other "ism". But we have to clearly see and diagnose the systems in which we're embedded, overthrow our idols and chimeras, and Design. What. Really. Works. Many of us can start by disentangling from arrangements that bring us comfort through someone else's misery.

Posted by: David Foley on 5 Apr 06

I'd want to point out the recent report by the New Economics Foundation which shows that this Anglosaxon, neoliberal hallucination of thinking that turning the poor into entrepreneurs or that treating them as consumers to be conquered will better their fate, is actually very bad for these people. It is, in fact, the worst development strategy of all.

The study produced quite a shock in the dev world. Please find it here: "Growth isn’t working: the uneven distribution of benefits and costs from economic growth".

Posted by: Lorenzo on 5 Apr 06

Lorenzo - I can see how the phrasing I chose in the start of this piece may not have served my point, which I believe is something rather similar to what you are saying here -- that in fact it does not do a service to those at the "base of the pyramid" to consider them a target market for businesses to capture and exploit, nor does it necessarily serve anyone to be pushed into an entrepreneurial endeavor set up for them by outsiders. But from my understanding, the DBOP program is somewhat more conceptual, in that what it brings is "solution concepts" that do not sell a particular product or establish a business, but examine the framework for making systems that serve people's needs in a more efficient and systematically integrated way. Of course, as has been pointed out before, these kind of good and non-invasive intentions can go awry. I think DBOP is still in research, though. Their site still projects future feasibility studies, etc.

Posted by: Sarah on 5 Apr 06

I've spent the last few days travelling in rural India. In one of the villages I visited the head of the village was a woman, an MA who lived the village life and showed no signs of moving to the city to escape Brands characterisation of “In the village, all there is for a woman is to obeyher husband and family elders, pound grain, and sing. If she moves to town, she can get a job, start a business, and get education for her children.”

I also visited other villages where there are many women that form part of the village panchayat. While I don't doubt there are villages where Brand's story hold true, it is extremely reductionist to suggest that this may be true in general.

Posted by: Zaid Hassan on 7 Apr 06



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