Decoding Design

How to design scalable and sustainable humanitarian products

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Are there specific tips for designing products (and services) that are socially responsible, green, and likely to appeal to wide audiences around the world? A panel of experts on design for humanity offered suggestions at the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting.

NEW YORK-We all know design is often a key factor in creating appealing consumer goods, from sleek iPads to gleaming BMW sedans. But what role does design play in terms of successful humanitarian products and services? How can design contribute to sustainable initiatives that are "scalable," or easily adapted by large audiences--including the poor--around the world?

A panel discussion titled "Form and Function: Designing for Humanity," held on September 21 at the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting, attempted to address these questions--and offered specific tips.

The group of experts assembled represented varied disciplines, ranging from biomimicry (Janine Benyus, president of The Biomimicry Institute) to industrial design and branding (Yves Behar, founder and chief designer of fuseproject) to South Asian politics (Mohammed Waheed, the vice president of the Republic of the Maldives). Start-up culture was represented by Jessica O. Matthews, co-founder and CEO of Uncharted Play, which has invented a toy called the Soccket, a soccer ball that harnesses enough energy when kicked around to keep an LED light lit for 24 hours or to charge a cell phone.

Jessica O. Matthews demonstrates a soccer ball that harnesses energy when kicked

And Debbie Aung Din Taylor, co-founder of Proximity Designs,  which creates water pumps for people who are resource-challenged in Burma, represented the so-called "bottom of the pyramid" sector.

Jocelyn Wyatt, co-lead and executive director of IDEO.org, moderated the panel, prompting each participant to address both theoretical and real design challenges, from imagining how to achieve the Maldives' goal of becoming a carbon-neutral nation by 2020, to how to decide what durability trade-offs must be made to achieve low-cost products.

Here's a list of design strategies offered by the panelists, which could prove insightful for corporations, entrepreneurs, government agencies, NGOs, and designers alike:

  • When designing for the poor, treat them "as customers and not charity or aid recipients," said Taylor. "This is important for affirming [their] dignity. Don't decide what people need or want. They decide through marketplace...[you will] get direct signals."
  • When introducing new sustainable, humanitarian products to communities, it's "important to understand how to integrate them into cultures--will it be through schools, parents, community centers?" said Matthews. Try to use or refer to designs that people will already be familiar with, and use technology that already exists for faster production. "We thought, people know how to use a ball," she said, explaining why she and her colleagues decided to harness energy via a soccer ball, and why they added a standard cell phone jack to its design to help people figure out how to use it as a charger.
  • Use rewards or awards to generate interest. The Maldives are "providing government incentives, tax reductions, and financing to introduce solar panels...and also providing environmental awards to [tourist] resorts that pay attention to sustainability," said Waheed.
  • Consider how a socially responsible product will achieve the most widespread, large-scale audience possible as you start creating it--in other words, add scalability into the design. "Thinking about scale from the very beginning is key," said Behar, rather than later struggling over manufacturing, logistics, or distribution issues.
  • Ask whether it's more appropriate for a product to be designed as durable than as ephemeral. "In the natural world, there is timed degradation. We dont have this--we use a [plastic] fork for 10 minutes and then it winds up in a landfill for 10 years," said Benyus. "Sustainability is something that can be built in--it can be repaired, can self-heal, like life."

Images: Todd France/CGI/Flickr

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Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure