Tracey Barnett: Top design for the truly needy

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World-class design comes from the drawing boards of Frank Gehry, Philippe Starck or Tom Ford - depending on whether you're assessing architecture, furniture or fashion. But world-changing design is coming from people you have probably never heard of.

In September, nestled in the courtyard of Andrew Carnegie's former mansion in the old moneyed area of Manhattan, the Cooper-Hewitt Museum mounted an exhibit asking, without a hint of irony: Why do the world's cleverest designers cater to the richest 10 per cent when "the other 90 per cent" - a huge worldwide market - desperately need design ideas for those living on $2 a day?

Sure, you may have a few hundred clients interested in the newest couture coat but there are literally tens of millions of customers worldwide clamouring for a $25 water pump.

"A billion customers in the world are waiting for a $2 pair of eyeglasses, a $10 solar lantern and a $100 house," Dr Paul Polak, a former psychiatrist who now runs a organisation that helps poor farmers become entrepreneurs, told the New York Times.

Interestingly, it was the simplest, forehead-thumping solutions in the exhibit that were the most inspiring.

Design problem: Millions of women and children worldwide endure backbreaking labour carrying open, unstable, heavy water containers on their heads for long distances.

The solution: the Q-Drum, invented by brothers Hans and Piet Hendrikse, a South African architect and engineer. Even a child can pull up to 50 litres of water in the doughnut-shaped plastic drum as it rolls along the ground, threaded by a rope through its centre hole, with a screw cap on the side. Whoever said reinventing the wheel didn't make sense?

In a field test, one family of 13 used the drum daily, travelling 12,000km in just over 20 months, providing 120,000 litres of potable water. Not bad for a large donut on a string.

Or consider how much you paid for your last pair of specs. The World Health Organisation estimates over 1 billion people in the developing world who need to see don't have a hope of affording glasses, let alone ever having an opportunity to see an optician.

Dr Joshua Silver of Oxford University has an answer, Adspecs. He has invented silicon fluid-filled lenses that are sandwiched between two polyester sheets. The lens can be self-adjusted by the wearer by simply varying the amount of fluid in each lens with a syringe. They sell for US$10 ($12.70) but Silver's goal is to reduce that price to US$1 as mass production increases.

As hopeful as it is to see designers finding new solutions to problems that confront huge populations, it is the innovation that is sparked from high tech hitting the streets that is moving the fastest.

In Uganda the word "Sente" originally meant money, but today it has come to mean "sending money as airtime" over a mobile phone. Let's say someone in Kampala wants to send funds to a family member in his home village. After purchasing phone minutes, he then texts the authorisation number to a phone kiosk operator in his rural village, who then takes a 10 per cent cut, adds the minutes to the village phone, then gives the family member the specified amount in cash.

Nokia's Jan Chipchase, who has spent years researching street innovation, says that manufacturers would never have figured out this kind of grassroots-generated ingenuity. Ugandans have turned any mobile phone user into an ATM machine, transforming a single village cellphone into an entire banking system.

But there is a huge rip in all this silver lining. Good ideas don't lift off the drawing board without a huge push. Dr Paul Polak says only 20 per cent of the problem is design, but 80 per cent of the challenge is distribution and marketing.

For all its simple ingenuity, the Q-drum has only sold several hundred so far. Its US$50 price tag is a deterrent until a cheaper manufacturing and distribution process can be solved.

By necessity, these products are united by being extremely cheap. Even then, the next hurdle of finding innovative ways to distribute to such huge markets is daunting. That's where solid ideas often hit a solid brick wall. Good design needs to be wedded to motivated capitalism.

Coca Cola has found a way to ingratiate itself into the farthest corners of the world.

Which begs the question: if Philippe Starck, or better yet, Coca Cola, had decided to distribute a Q-drum of its own design with all the power behind the worldwide brand, think how much impact good design could do for that "other 90 per cent" of the world who need it most. Now that would be world class.

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