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A Day at the International Development Design Summit
Robert Katz, 25 Jul 08

I'm hungry, and it's getting late; I'm worried about missing my train. The potluck table full of food isn't helping my growling stomach, especially as more and more dishes arrive. A fellow bystander casually offers play-by-play commentary: "India's represented. Now Ireland. Ghana's here; so is Peru. Where are the Hondurans? And the Zambians! They always hold things up…"

This scene took place yesterday, in the courtyard of a 1970s-era dorm at MIT, outside of Boston. Along with 60 others, I was waiting for the Hondurans and Zambians so we could begin the International Development Design Summit's (IDDS) around the world potluck dinner. IDDS is a two week workshop/seminar/collaboratorium organized by MIT's appropriate design guru, Amy Smith. A MacArthur Genius Award winner, Smith is renowned for her passionate, down-to-earth approach to design for base of the pyramid markets. (Ethan wrote about her back in 2006.)

According to the IDDS web site, the goal of the program is to develop simple, inexpensive devices that can be produced locally and make a real difference for people and communities. This year's participants hail from 23 countries and include mechanics, social workers, doctors, carpenters, farmers, students, faculty and professors.

IDDS is no frills and free of pretension – a direct reflection of its founder's personality. The entire cohort (Amy Smith included) lives in the MIT dorms for a month; when Paul Polak came to address the group last week, he stayed in the dorm, too.

The roll up your sleeves and get things done ethos was in full effect yesterday – but not in an engineering sense. Instead of working in a lab, IDDS participants convened in the Stata Center for a day of business planning led by Paul Hudnut. WorldChanging regulars will know Paul for a variety of reasons: his work with Envirofit International; the Global Social & Sustainable Enterprise program at Colorado State University, which he directs; and/or his fantastic blog, What's a BOPreneur? Any one of those would make him a favorite of mine on its own – that he does all of them just cements his status as a BoP leader.

Paul came to IDDS on a mission – help the early stage companies think through their business plan from the get go. Too often, scientists and engineers think about the business side of things late in the game, haphazardly bolting it on to the finished product, so to speak. Paul's mission: bake the business stuff into the product now, at IDDS.

He used this cartoon to make his point – you can't count on miracles happening.



During his presentation, Paul suggested that "dissemination is the difference between invention and innovation – between creativity and making a difference." I can't help but agree. He and I share a frustration with the proliferation of solar lamp projects out there. Sure, it's a great project for a group of undergraduate engineers to design a functioning solar lamp – from the engineering perspective, at least. But the world doesn’t need another solar lamp design (and the solar lamp is just an example – we don't really need another redesigned pot-in-pot refrigerator, or biomass generator, or treadle pump – you get the idea.)

Paul suggests – and I agree – that what we need are business models and business thinking, designed into the product, that help these appropriate technologies grow into viable companies. In the case of Envirofit's 2-stroke engine retrofit kit, the buyer begins to make money the day it is installed. Treadle pumps work similarly – the buyer understands that, with improved irrigation, he can grow more crops and generate more income.

Case in point for the technology-to-business transition may be Suprio Das, whom I met yesterday at IDDS. Suprio lives in Calcutta, where he and his wife own and operate a small cybercafé. The business generates enough income for his family to live on, so Suprio has begun to focus on his passion – bringing electricity to bottom of the pyramid households.

Suprio works with cycle rickshaw drivers in the peri-urban districts of Calcutta. Most of the drivers are very poor, and don’t have access to electricity. Suprio's innovation is deceptively simple: he attaches a generator to the rickshaw's gearshaft, which pumps current into an on-board battery pack as the driver pedals around town. At the end of the day, the driver returns home and plugs the batteries into a LED light – sourced from China, of course – giving the driver's family two to three hours of electricity they would not otherwise have.

His is a simple, appropriate design with a lot of potential. But Suprio had not thought about his innovation in business terms – until yesterday. We discussed his costs – if purchased in bulk, he thinks the components could cost as little as 300 rupees (about $7). His next step is to think about market demand, competition, price point, maintenance, marketing – essentially, he needs to write a business plan.

If my back-of-a-napkin business plan conversation with Suprio is any indication, these IDDS projects are still a ways away from commercial operation. That's not to say they’re not doing great work, however. The collaborative environment fostered by Amy – featuring guest speakers like Paul Hudnut, Paul Polak, SELCO's Harish Hande and others – is a fertile ground for the design, development and dissemination of world changing ideas.

As for last night's dinner, it was worth the wait. The Hondurans edged the Zambians, scrambling downstairs with a steaming pot full of fragrant sopa marinada. Of course, the Zambians' fish, chicken and vegetables were delicious as well – a complement to the 21 other kinds of food jostling for space on the crowded picnic table. By the time I settled into my seat on the train, I was full – of delicious food, of business ideas and of optimism for our world. A day with Amy Smith, Paul Hudnut and the IDDS will have that effect on you…

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Comments

Who made money off of the Internet? Off of the Kalashnikov? Off of penicillin?

Trying to profit off of the world's poor is disgusting, as is this warped redefinition of what innovation and invention are.


Posted by: B.Dewhirst on 25 Jul 08

am not convinced that this article is talking about 'trying to profit off the worlds poor'. what it does point to is that the lack of effective business planning around ANY invention is what typically results in limited take-up of the idea.

perhaps to limit offense to left-wing sensibilities we should use the words 'economics' or 'economic metrics' in place of the word 'business'.

the thing that grabs me most about the previous comment is that the solutions are being partly generated by people in the third world. funding of such projects can always be done through micro-financing, providing a genuine pathway out of poverty [as opposed to the typically patronising and demeaning western approach to just keep throwing donations at people in need inestead of providing them with real opportunities]


Posted by: cameron burgess on 25 Jul 08

Such business plans are a vital component in helping the world's poor themselves make a profit.

Those two or three hours of extra electricity for a poor family will give that family new opportunities that they hadn't had before - more time for at-home work, more time for homework for the children if they visit school, and so on. Heck, the rickshaw drivers could just sell the electricity they generate to other people if they want, and thus make some extra money.

Modern western civilization is built on technology. Anything that improves the access of poor people in the rest of the world to technology is laudable. And if the producers of this technology make some money from this as well, then so what? Everyone benefits here.

And criticizing inventors and businessmen who produce useful items for the poor people of the world because they make money from their sales is deeply cynical. What would you have them do - continue to live in desperate poverty?


Posted by: Jürgen Hubert on 2 Aug 08

How else does the poor benefit from such innovations unless someone makes the stuff and sells it to them? 'Profit' and 'business' are not dirty words. Whoever makes the stuff and sells it has to make some profit to keep the project ongoing.
What is the alternative?


Posted by: Suprio on 13 Aug 08



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