"Intelligent design" the world actually needs

Scanning today's New York Times, I ran across this article on designing for the world's poor, which isn't really an issue I'd spent much time considering previously. From the article:

"A billion customers in the world," Dr. Paul Polak told a crowd of inventors recently, "are waiting for a $2 pair of eyeglasses, a $10 solar lantern and a $100 house."

The world's cleverest designers, said Dr. Polak, a former psychiatrist who now runs an organization helping poor farmers become entrepreneurs, cater to the globe's richest 10 percent, creating items like wine labels, couture and Maseratis.

"We need a revolution to reverse that silly ratio," he said.

Their creations, on display in the museum garden until Sept. 23, have a sort of forehead-thumping "Why didn't someone think of that before?" quality.

More details after the jump...

You can find out much more about the exhibit on the museum's webpage, where you can browse the inventions by country. Though typically inexpensive and simple in design, the inventions highlighted literally have the power to turn one's life around in the poorest of countries, making water easier to pump, store, and transport (and safer to drink), allowing inexpensive latrines; simple refrigeration; superior bed nets providing light when electricity doesn't reach an area; even providing laptops and internet access to places that perhaps have never seen a working computer previously, these economic designs are being honored for changing the world in "the other 90%".

Image from http://www.spirithouse.com.au/spiritblog/lifestraw_sm.jpg

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I agree this was a nice article. It looks like the exhibit will be at the Cooper-Hewitt museum through September, for those close enough to NYC. I particularly appreciated the cylindrical water transportation device as a nice example of elegant and simple design.

Thanks so much for pointing this out. My daughter and I will be heading out for NYC as soon as school is over, and this exhibit has been added to our 'must see' list.

As a mythic inventor, this is the kind of thing that I would like to do. The inventing part is easy (for me), it is jumping through all the hoops to get it implemented and to market.

One of the biggest problems is HIV. If the spread isn't stopped or slowed quickly, the number of orphans will be staggering.

I am working on microbicides containing autotrophic ammonia oxidizing bacteria which should provide some protection, even if only by suppressing bacterial STDs.

Much of the soil in Africa is incredibly poor. Nothing like the soils we are familiar with in North America. The quality of the soil has a lot to do with how old the soil is. Rain leaches stuff out, phosphorous, trace minerals, potassium. The high temperature oxidizes all of the organic. North American soils are fresh because the glaciers scoured everything off down to bedrock. There is a technique of making synthetic soils, terra preta


Which makes very good soil which can persist for long periods of time, even in tropical regions. A major component is charcoal. I think this provides cationic ion exchange (something tropical soils lack), surface area for bacteria, porosity for aeration, water percolation and easier root growth.

I will post a blog about it in the near future. I suspect that the religious practice of smoldering sacrifices of agricultural surpluses may have been the successful cultural practice that produced it.


It's not a case of either or, both approaches can be implemented at the same time. Low cost goods and enterpreneurships are helpful individually, together they can make life even better than either alone. Goods that can make life better for people, combined with locally produced goods people can sell to buy more goods that can make life better.

We have Dragon Nature, we like to show off our wealth. We do well we like to show others we've done well. Stuff let's us show off our wealth. Producing stuff let's us earn the money we need to get the stuff we need to show off how well we're doing.

Now consider the role of sharing in African tribal culture. You do well, you share with clan and family. Get the family, clan, tribe as a whole to do well, then the family, clan, tribe as a whole will have more to share. More stuff and better stuff to show off, possibly inspiring other families, clans, or tribes to do better.

To make life better for people you use the tools you have.

Mike Davis' book 'Planet of Slums' points out that slum housing is the most profitable investment for middle and upper classes in Third (and not so third) world countries. You can make more money exploiting the helpless with a few putrid tenements than you can developing a Beverly Hills type neighborhood, which is one reason slums proliferate. Could it be that inventing things to improve poor peoples lives would work the same way?

One of the cultural things that works against entrepeneurship in some parts of Africa is the obligation to share wealth. Capital in the sense of capitalism is simply not something that can be accumulated because any excess beyond your "needs" is obligated to be shared. Especially with your relatives, which is why virtually only unrelated people go into business with each other.

One of the few forms of "capital" that can be accumulated is cattle for use to buy wives for sons. A man can always accumulate cattle to buy wives for his sons, even if he has no sons. He may in the future, and accumulating cattle to buy wives for those future sons is a "non-taxable" savings account. As a consequence, there has developed a bogus cattle market, where scrawney and otherwise useless cattle have a value far beyond their utility, solely because they can be used to store wealth.

For another perspective, here is a recent article by a Kenyan author on these "pure products" and his opinion on how they eventually fade from sight/use; a small excerpt and link:

"Biogas. A windup radio. A magic laptop. These pure products are meant to solve everything. They almost always fail, but they satisfy the giver. To the recipients, the things have no context, no relationship to their ideas of themselves or their possibilities."


It is great that this exhibit has been brought to the public and equally important it is necessary to discuss why some of these amazing technologies may never be used to their full potential (infrastructure problems, poor design, politics, etc. etc.).

Interesting. They note on the museum site (and video) that it works best when it's not charity; rather, when the technology is taken to the people, they learn to do it, they pay a few dollars for it. (For example, the bamboo treadle pump and the clay pot "fridge"--the parts for each can be bought for a couple bucks or acquired locally, it takes a little bit of time to show people how to use them, then they're independent and hopefully better off). I agree about the laptop or his radio example--those aren't self-sustaining, have to be doled out by the government or other agencies, etc.