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)


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)

I recently stumbled upon the 10 commandments of good design, as given by Dieter Rams. Despite being written in the early 1980s, these principles are very much applicable today. Good design doesn’t change.

Dieter Ram’s 10 commandments:
1. Good design is innovative
2. Good design makes a product useful
3. Good design is aesthetic
4. Good design makes a product understandable
5. Good design is unobtrusive
6. Good design is honest
7. Good design is long-lasting
8. Good design is thorough, down to the last detail
9. Good design is environmentally-friendly
10. Good design is as little design as possible

For details explanations of each principle and pictures, check out here.

(Photo chosen because Apple’s ability follow most of these principles is undeniable.)

Yesterday Andy Hargadon, a professor at UC Davis, presented at IDDS on innovation. He made 4 major points:

#1  Innovation is about connecting, not inventing

#2  Your creativity depends on your network

#3  The network is the innovation

#4 “The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed”  — William Gibson

Let’s look at Henry Ford and the Model T as an example. Ford didn’t actually do anything new – the car technology already existed, he had already attempted to start 3 other car companies, the meat packing industry already used the assembly line (as revealed by Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle). What was innovative about the Model T was how Ford leveraged his network to combine existing things in new ways.

I’ve always said that while my background is in engineering, my strength is really in networking. It always sounded like a fluffy skill set compared to other engineers. It’s nice to hear that I may have some useful skills after all.

This solar light from Greenlight Planet is made in China for US$9.50 (when you order more than 7500 pieces). Can’t you tell from the packaging?

When designing for the bottom of the pyramid market, people want low costs, but they also know the difference between cheap commodities and quality designs.

This is the story of almost every project. Click to enlarge.

IMG_2820 (2)

Once a bike. Now a chair.

Now, all we need to do is access the market for products like this.