In a few weeks, Timothy Prestero will join a host of key players from the design industry at the National Design Awards in New York City. His nonprofit social design company, Design That Matters, won the Corporate & Institutional Achievement category for 2012, and as its founder and CEO, Prestero is no stranger to such accolades. The company’s infant phototherapy device won a Spark: Concept Gold Award; its infant incubator was named one of the 50 best innovations of 2010 by Time magazine; and Prestero himself won the 2009 World Technology Award for Social Entrepreneurship.
But Prestero insists his work isn’t about awards. “I just want the world to be fair,” he says. “Design That Matters came from a frustration with wanting to make the world a better place but not knowing how.”
With that not-so-simple goal, the company teams up with organizations that serve the poor in developing countries, then designs and implements new products and services to make those organizations more effective. “Really, we’re focusing on solving their toughest problems,” Prestero says. Aided by more than 850 volunteer collaborators, Design That Matters has developed a number of concepts and designs over the years, including Project Firefly, the NeoNurture car parts incubator and the Kinkajou Microfilm Projector.
Prestero spoke with us about the biggest challenges in bettering the world through design.
What prompted you to start Design That Matters?
I was in a Ph.D. program at MIT. One of the frustrations of grad school was that we were being asked to solve problems for which the world wasn’t waiting for the answer. Some friends and I thought maybe we could organize a class for ourselves where nobody had the answers. That’s where the design studio came from. When we started it in 2001, it was taught by students for students. The goal was to apply student smarts to unsolved problems — specifically problems in the developing world. I quit my Ph.D. program in 2002 to do Design That Matters full time. We incorporated in 2003.
How has your mission evolved over the last decade?
Initially we spent a lot of time recruiting students to work on coming up with clever ideas. It turns out that coming up with clever ways to solve a problem is much, much less difficult than finding clever ways to implement solutions. Framed that way it became a lot easier to figure out where to focus. Now we focus on designing products and services that really reach the poor in developing countries. The volunteer program is still an incredibly important part of how we solve problems, but it’s really a means to that end.
Who are your volunteers?
We recruit volunteers from design firms like IDEO, engineering firms, universities. We’re taking advantage of what’s called white space — paid but unbillable hours. We’re helping companies turn that into an HR investment. And once we’ve identified the problem we want to solve and begin our design iterations, students are fantastic. They’re willing to take really crazy bets. For every one of our products, the initial concept came from students. We’ve developed an expertise in framing these problems so students get a good grade, faculty are happy with student engagement and we’re getting great ideas for cheap.
What are the greatest challenges in the design work you do?
Getting it out there. In the beginning, we thought it was going to be really hard to find volunteers. It turns out finding volunteers is one of the easiest parts. So many people want to work on ‘design that matters’ and instead they wind up working on golf bags, snack crackers, that kind of stuff. Manufacturing, licensing, distribution — those are the real challenges. You have to think about who will select this device, who will actually use the device and who’s going to pay for it. There’s this whole constellation of people who are involved in a product’s success. No individual saying yes means you’re done, but any one of them saying no means you’re sunk.
What stipulations are automatically in place when you’re designing products for disadvantaged people in developing countries?
With our recent Firefly project, the challenge was to figure out how to make a device that’s easy to use the right way and hard to use wrong. That’s been our whole focus with that product, and often is the focus with many of the products we develop: How do we take a product or service that works well here and adapt it for the very different context you’d find overseas? International social entrepreneurs are almost always using tools that weren’t designed for their context. As a consequence, they’re doing all these crazy workarounds. They can’t get products or services designed for their needs, so they change their expectations or behaviors to suit what they can find. Part of the reason they have to do this is because design is expensive. We’re trying to build a company that — by leveraging volunteers — can offer design at 10 cents on the dollar. Our goal is to really allow these great organizations to work with tools that are designed specifically for them.
How have you seen social design change over the last decade?
We’re seeing more and more big companies, more and more design firms, catching on to this opportunity. Think about companies like Johnson & Johnson or Unilever. Where are their next 4 million customers going to come from? It’s not the U.S. Originally the base of the pyramid was just a dumping ground for junk. I think that now the world is catching on to the idea that making the world a better place isn’t just a good social policy, it can also be a sound business strategy. We’ve gone from working almost exclusively with other social enterprises to starting to work with business who are there because helping the poor is good business. That’s exciting.
There’s an interesting quote that cheap has a floor but better has no ceiling. The exciting thing for me is seeing companies catch on to the whole idea that making products better for the poor isn’t just about making them cheap. A poor hospital in Vietnam does not need a cheap version of an American product. They have different needs. You need to make a better product for them. And then there’s an enormous market. That, to me, is exciting.
Your website mentions a goal of one million beneficiaries by 2012. How close are you to that?
We have two devices that have been in a clinical evaluation for a few months now and they’ve reached 100 kids. To reach a million kids, you need thousands of projects out in the world. I think we have some great prospects with Firefly. We’re finding that this is maybe the world’s most effective phototherapy device. Give us a couple years and I think we’ll hit a million kids.