The following is a guest post from a friend of mine, Alex D’Amour. He wrote a script for a commercial (SNL style) to humorously point out some of the fundamental logical flaws in how we think about design for development, followed by a manifesto to go with it. Check it out.

—- ShakeWeight (TM) for Developing Countries: Commercial Script —-

Now, from the inventors of the PlayPump and the sOccket, a new invention that will help the developing world pull itself into the 21st century while getting itself into SHAPE! It’s the ShakeWeight (TM), for the developing world!

The ShakeWeight (TM) has revolutionized working out across America by harnessing the power of Dynamic Inertia (TM) to induce a fat-busting workout that forces muscles to contract up to 240 times per minute! But now, this 6-minute workout is about to transform more than just bodies — it’s going to make over countries too! It’s the ShakeWeight for Developing Countries (TM)!

This ShakeWeight for Developing Countries (TM) includes the same muscle-toning action as the original ShakeWeight, but includes a small magnet that bounces through a coil of wire, producing electricity as the user works out! One 6-minute workout with ShakeWeight for Developing Countries (TM) can produce enough electricity to power a single LED bulb for up to one hour, giving children a chance to read at night, which is correlated with literacy, which is correlated with per capita GDP growth!

Toned arms, rock hard pecs, and the end of poverty? It’s a win-win!

—- Manifesto —-

There’s no doubt that new technologies have a large role to play in development, and the recent focus on devices targetted at the developing world is encouraging. We could go so far as to say that engineers probably have more to contribute than economists do to this endeavor. But it seems that a number of these devices that are getting the most hype have skewed design priorities, perhaps precisely because they were designed to generate hype.

I’m not terribly familiar with the jargon in this area, but I haven’t come across a particular word for the class of inventions I’m talking about. These inventions take a particular task (e.g. carrying water or generating electricity) and attempt to find a way to accomplish this task incidentally (e.g. through children’s play). On its face this combination seems to imply a free lunch — we can alleviate poverty through no additional work since this work is being accomplished automatically. It makes for a sexy pitch, and one that design firms have been happy to do stylish pro-bono work for to show to eager philanthropists. In terms of generating buzz, these devices have certainly been a success.

Unfortunately, as we’ve seen with PlayPumps, factoring philanthropic fundability into the design goals of these devices can seriously hurt their effectiveness in the field. One problem with the PlayPump is that when kids don’t want to play with it, it’s much less efficient at pumping water than a dedicated hand pump. From a child’s standpoint, it probably isn’t the most “efficient” toy either — if kids really found it fun, there would probably already be merry-go-rounds all over the place to begin with. The simple fact is that when you try to optimize a design to push two goals — in this case a fun toy and efficient water pumping — you are guaranteed to end up with a design that is sub-optimal at accomplishing either goal. You end up with a device that’s pretty fun to play with for a pump, and that’s really good at pumping water for a merry-go-round, but is ultimately pretty mediocre at either in an absolute sense.

Ultimately, I think that our focus on Incidental Work Inventions (TM) points to a larger flaw in our development logic. We keep hyping and funding inventions that are mediocre at accomplishing daily tasks for free, when what’s really needed are devices that are very good at accomplishing these tasks for less.

If you think about it, engineers trying to satisfy clients in the developing world have a pretty low bar to clear. For somebody who is used to carrying water from a local well or river for 8 hours a day, a pump that requires only 30 minutes to an hour of work operating a lever is a breakthrough technology. You could say the same for electricity production: for somebody who has to light, refill, and monitor kerosene lamps at night to see, operating a hand crank or pump (or ShakeWeight (TM)) that uses an inductive coil or electric motor for 10 minutes to power some LED’s or charge a cell phone battery would be a boon, even if those 10 minutes required the user’s full attention. These are robust, efficient solutions with simple mechanisms that could probably even be repaired locally rather than relying on external aid if they broke.

So why do we keep funding and hyping these device like they’re the newest piece of made-for-TV workout or weight-loss equipment? Why are we funding and designing more complex inventions that are worse at satisfying the client? It seems to me that we’re focusing on the wrong client. Many of these inventors (not entirely through fault of their own) aren’t focusing on end users as much as they are on their investors. And their investors are more often than not acting in some philanthropic capacity. These philanthropists want to fund new, publicity-friendly ideas, and they’re thinking charitably, which is to say they want the benefits to the end user to be free. (This is, I think, the fundamental nature of the social enterprise economy. What distinguishes it from enterprise (without a modifier) is that it is driven by investor rather than end users.)

These intentions aren’t necessarily bad, but aren’t terribly well aligned with the goal of creating sustainable growth. An economy can’t sustain itself on obtaining necessities for free, a lesson that we’re slowly learning when it comes to macro-economic initiatives like aid funding. The same can be said for these micro-level engineering initiatives. People in the developing world are already putting in backbreaking labor to perform the tasks that these development-centric devices are trying to make easier. There’s no reason to assume that they expect to be able to pump water or generate electricity for free. If it were me, a reliable, efficient device that requires some amount of less backbreaking work to operate would be much better appreciated than a finnicky device that only works when you feel like playing with it. Honestly, the latter feels quite condescending.

In the end, the devices that work are probably not the sexy devices that are the best at attracting charity dollars or social enterprise investors. And that’s probably for the best. If we want to help create wealth in the develping world, it’s going to have to start with devices that not only accomplish daily tasks, but also drive local enterprise over social enterprise.

But seriously, I think my ShakeWeight for Developing Countries (TM) is a winner.

(Guest blogger: Alex D’Amour)