Technological development seems to be increasingly focused on designing for the base of the economic pyramid. The goal is to reach the poorest of the poor. To design for the other 90%. To work closely with communities to design appropriately for the local culture, and to keep everything (materials, manufacturing, maintenance, etc.) as local as possible.

The approach is a bottom up approach. Start at the base of the pyramid, and work your way up.

That was how I was initially introduced to this field. I learned that designs that are pushed from the top down often don’t reach the base of the pyramid, and designs that are generated in the bottom are the way to have a real impact.

Susan Murcott of MIT describes this approach to design as co-evolutionary design for development (full PDF here). She explains in her article why she supports and practices this approach to design, and gives an example of a household water filter to remove arsenic that was designed using this method in Nepal. In 2006 (when the article was published), 4,700 filters were in use.

4,700 filters. Out of 150 million arsenic-affected people in the world. That’s not a lot.

I have yet to encounter a bottom up approach to design that has really scaled, and has really had the desired impact. Maybe it’s because co-evolutionary design focuses on local materials and labor which is not conducive to scaling up or quality control. Maybe it’s because technologies designed for the bottom are not perceived well by potential users. I don’t know.

But I do know that cell phones, which were designed for the top and demanded by the bottom, have had a far greater reach than any other bottom up design I’ve encountered thus far.

(Photo from stock.xchng)