Designing for the developing world

 On a table in an Amsterdam café lies a little black box no larger than a pack of cigarettes. It looks like an MP3 player; it has a wire connected to two earbuds. Fernando de Oliveira Gil, a 31-year-old computer engineering student from São Paulo, holds the device up to a blue Brazilian banknote. When he presses one of the two buttons on the box, the earbuds proclaim dois reais, Portuguese for the note’s monetary value. Then Gil holds the box against the wooden table: marrom, brown. Against the sleeve of his sweater: preto, black.

These announcements may seem pointless, but the device is a lifesaver for someone who’s blind. Only blind people realize how many products have the same shape and differ only in color, says Gil, who ­designed and built the prototype for his color identifier last year. Color identifiers for the blind are not new. This model is unique in that it also reads ­banknotes. ­Brazilian banknotes are all the same size, and the raised symbols the blind use to identify them wear off after a few months in circulation. But even more striking is that the device costs about $100, compared to $500 for color identifiers ­currently on the market in Brazil. According to Gil, there are 45 million blind people in the world, and most of them can’t shell out that kind of money for a color identifier. “My goal is to increase autonomy and quality of life with affordable technology.” Auire, Gil’s company, recently started production of the device.

 This design methodology is an example of a flourishing trend called “frugal innovation.” Limitations lead to creative, out-of-the-box solutions engineers could not have imagined if they had gone to work in a wide-open field. Western developers would never have created such an inexpensive color identifier, for the simple reason that they are not confronted with a poverty-stricken consumer market. If you want to reach billions of potential customers in developing countries, frugal innovation offers an enormous opportunity for inventors and companies—and the poor will be the ­greatest beneficiaries.

In times of crisis, frugal innovation can do even more: In addition to aiding development and creating jobs, these innovations can be sold to the West. That’s a radical departure from the usual model, in which multinationals make products for Western countries and then try to sell them to the middle and upper classes in developing nations. Frugal innovation can also boost self-confidence in the poorer segments of the global population.

The term “frugal innovation” gained traction through innovation guru Vijay Govindarajan, who compiles VG’s Innovation Quarterly. He believes this new approach affords developing countries greater independence because they create their own jobs rather than filling the Western demand. “Historically, the focus was, How we can make a car for America using cheap labor in India?” Govindarajan says. “Now, Indians are ­saying, ‘How can we solve India’s problems by innovating here?’” Those innovations have global potential and can drive growth in developing economies.

Frugal innovation also saves resources and energy—a global necessity, if only because it reduces carbon emissions. For example, Godisa Technologies, a company in Botswana, developed the Solar Aid, an affordable hearing aid powered by solar panels rather than batteries.

After getting his degree, Gil could have gone to work for a color identifier manufacturer. Perhaps his first assignment would have been to reduce costs. He might have succeeded in a 20 percent to 30 percent reduction. He would have been the company hero, for the lower price would have brought in new customers, a double boon for the bottom line. But still, the color identifier would  be unaffordable for many. Would Gil have been satisfied? “I’m an engineer, and I want to develop affordable technology,” he says. “I like to see people use my stuff.”

The consumer price wasn’t the only limitation placed on Gil’s color identifier. He also wanted the device to be user-friendly—hence just two buttons; the box was born as a garage door opener. Gil says he’s never heard the term “frugal innovation”—“I just do it”—but it’s clear he would not have been satisfied with a “somewhat” lower sales price. He insisted on ­radical innovation to help as many people as possible.

Of course, Gil isn’t the first person to design a product for a low-income target group. The 1960s and 70s gave rise to the movement touting designs for “the other 90 percent,” that part of the global population without access to things taken for granted by Westerners, such as safe drinking water and electricity. Consider the LifeStraw from Swiss company Vestergaard Frandsen: a tube filled with carbon, which filters water for safe drinking and prevents diseases, including typhus, cholera and diarrhea. Or the Personal Internet Communicator designed by M3 in America: a gray-and-green computer the size of a breadbox, with Internet access and basic software.

“If you have more constraints, you have to be more creative.”

Fernando de Oliveira Gil, engineering student 

There’s also nothing new about companies that adapt their products to the desires and pocketbooks of consumers in developing nations. McDonald’s sells a McRice in ­Indonesia at a price the average Indonesian can pay. For women in Islamic countries, Nike makes sports clothing that covers the entire body.

What’s new is the starting point: Rather than stripping the bells and whistles from existing products, designers begin with an empty drawing board and consider the ­desires of potential customers in developing countries. As a result, their inventions are not only inexpensive but also robust, ­portable and easy to use. They don’t depend on electrical sockets or complicated user manuals.

The West can also profit from the ­rigorous reduction in cost. Take the Nano, the Indian car that costs $3,000. Its ­restricted comfort and safety will keep the Nano from ­penetrating the Western market, but the ­engineers who set up the assembly line for these cars may well make their way into it. Their experience will allow them to help Western car manufacturers organize their assembly lines more ­­efficiently.

Examples of frugal innovation are already being used outside the original target market. Marc Grad, a German cardiologist, uses the V-scan, a simple, small, battery-powered ultrasound device that costs a ­fraction of the price of ultrasound machines that run on AC current and sport dozens of buttons. ­According to Grad, the V-scan, complete with probe cable, “can help revolutionize medicine at point-of-care.” Grad has already used the device to view the hearts of ­hundreds of his patients. “The fact that ­V-scan is pocket-sized and user-friendly makes it easy to use throughout the day and enables us to see things we have not been able to see previously in the office.”

The V-scan has many applications. In ­developing countries—for which the device is intended—prenatal ultrasounds are uncommon; the machines often cost ­hundreds of thousands of dollars, and hospitals are often rare outside cities. The V-scan not only enables midwives to determine a baby’s position quickly, but many c
ommon ­medical questions find a rapid answer. Since their introduction, a few hundred V-scans have been sold, including 25 to a hospital in Nigeria for less than $9,000. The V-scan demonstrates that even a Western company like GE is capable of implementing frugal innovation.

GE also sees opportunities for the Western market. A third of patients referred by a doctor to a hospital for detailed examination with a large ultrasound or imaging device turn out not to need this expensive exam. “The device will help reduce waiting lists and the costs of health care,” says Mario Lois, GE’s primary care manager for Africa and the Middle East. Lois, who hopes doctors carrying V-scans will be commonplace in 10 years, says, “We estimate the market to be more than a billion dollars. Millions of doctors will be interested.”

Govindarajan also believes this kind of medical technology has potential in rich countries. He says quality health care is based on low costs, good access and high quality. “Guess what? Those are the same anchors on which the health-care industry is going to be created in India and China.” Now that the U.S. in particular is reaching the limit in terms of health-care expenditures, frugal innovation can provide a solution, says Govindarajan. “Problems of potential customers turn into out-of-the-box solutions.”

Listen to Fernando Gil describe the design of his color identifier and his search for inexpensive components that fit into an existing garage door opener case, and you can draw only one conclusion: Frugal innovation unleashes enormous creativity. “If you have more constraints,” Gil says, paraphrasing 19th-century philosopher Søren ­Kierkegaard, “you have to be more creative.” 

Photo: flickr.com/Badri Seshadri

Solution News Source

Designing for the developing world

 On a table in an Amsterdam café lies a little black box no larger than a pack of cigarettes. It looks like an MP3 player; it has a wire connected to two earbuds. Fernando de Oliveira Gil, a 31-year-old computer engineering student from São Paulo, holds the device up to a blue Brazilian banknote. When he presses one of the two buttons on the box, the earbuds proclaim dois reais, Portuguese for the note’s monetary value. Then Gil holds the box against the wooden table: marrom, brown. Against the sleeve of his sweater: preto, black.

These announcements may seem pointless, but the device is a lifesaver for someone who’s blind. Only blind people realize how many products have the same shape and differ only in color, says Gil, who ­designed and built the prototype for his color identifier last year. Color identifiers for the blind are not new. This model is unique in that it also reads ­banknotes. ­Brazilian banknotes are all the same size, and the raised symbols the blind use to identify them wear off after a few months in circulation. But even more striking is that the device costs about $100, compared to $500 for color identifiers ­currently on the market in Brazil. According to Gil, there are 45 million blind people in the world, and most of them can’t shell out that kind of money for a color identifier. “My goal is to increase autonomy and quality of life with affordable technology.” Auire, Gil’s company, recently started production of the device.

 This design methodology is an example of a flourishing trend called “frugal innovation.” Limitations lead to creative, out-of-the-box solutions engineers could not have imagined if they had gone to work in a wide-open field. Western developers would never have created such an inexpensive color identifier, for the simple reason that they are not confronted with a poverty-stricken consumer market. If you want to reach billions of potential customers in developing countries, frugal innovation offers an enormous opportunity for inventors and companies—and the poor will be the ­greatest beneficiaries.

In times of crisis, frugal innovation can do even more: In addition to aiding development and creating jobs, these innovations can be sold to the West. That’s a radical departure from the usual model, in which multinationals make products for Western countries and then try to sell them to the middle and upper classes in developing nations. Frugal innovation can also boost self-confidence in the poorer segments of the global population.

The term “frugal innovation” gained traction through innovation guru Vijay Govindarajan, who compiles VG’s Innovation Quarterly. He believes this new approach affords developing countries greater independence because they create their own jobs rather than filling the Western demand. “Historically, the focus was, How we can make a car for America using cheap labor in India?” Govindarajan says. “Now, Indians are ­saying, ‘How can we solve India’s problems by innovating here?’” Those innovations have global potential and can drive growth in developing economies.

Frugal innovation also saves resources and energy—a global necessity, if only because it reduces carbon emissions. For example, Godisa Technologies, a company in Botswana, developed the Solar Aid, an affordable hearing aid powered by solar panels rather than batteries.

After getting his degree, Gil could have gone to work for a color identifier manufacturer. Perhaps his first assignment would have been to reduce costs. He might have succeeded in a 20 percent to 30 percent reduction. He would have been the company hero, for the lower price would have brought in new customers, a double boon for the bottom line. But still, the color identifier would  be unaffordable for many. Would Gil have been satisfied? “I’m an engineer, and I want to develop affordable technology,” he says. “I like to see people use my stuff.”

The consumer price wasn’t the only limitation placed on Gil’s color identifier. He also wanted the device to be user-friendly—hence just two buttons; the box was born as a garage door opener. Gil says he’s never heard the term “frugal innovation”—“I just do it”—but it’s clear he would not have been satisfied with a “somewhat” lower sales price. He insisted on ­radical innovation to help as many people as possible.

Of course, Gil isn’t the first person to design a product for a low-income target group. The 1960s and 70s gave rise to the movement touting designs for “the other 90 percent,” that part of the global population without access to things taken for granted by Westerners, such as safe drinking water and electricity. Consider the LifeStraw from Swiss company Vestergaard Frandsen: a tube filled with carbon, which filters water for safe drinking and prevents diseases, including typhus, cholera and diarrhea. Or the Personal Internet Communicator designed by M3 in America: a gray-and-green computer the size of a breadbox, with Internet access and basic software.

“If you have more constraints, you have to be more creative.”

Fernando de Oliveira Gil, engineering student 

There’s also nothing new about companies that adapt their products to the desires and pocketbooks of consumers in developing nations. McDonald’s sells a McRice in ­Indonesia at a price the average Indonesian can pay. For women in Islamic countries, Nike makes sports clothing that covers the entire body.

What’s new is the starting point: Rather than stripping the bells and whistles from existing products, designers begin with an empty drawing board and consider the ­desires of potential customers in developing countries. As a result, their inventions are not only inexpensive but also robust, ­portable and easy to use. They don’t depend on electrical sockets or complicated user manuals.

The West can also profit from the ­rigorous reduction in cost. Take the Nano, the Indian car that costs $3,000. Its ­restricted comfort and safety will keep the Nano from ­penetrating the Western market, but the ­engineers who set up the assembly line for these cars may well make their way into it. Their experience will allow them to help Western car manufacturers organize their assembly lines more ­­efficiently.

Examples of frugal innovation are already being used outside the original target market. Marc Grad, a German cardiologist, uses the V-scan, a simple, small, battery-powered ultrasound device that costs a ­fraction of the price of ultrasound machines that run on AC current and sport dozens of buttons. ­According to Grad, the V-scan, complete with probe cable, “can help revolutionize medicine at point-of-care.” Grad has already used the device to view the hearts of ­hundreds of his patients. “The fact that ­V-scan is pocket-sized and user-friendly makes it easy to use throughout the day and enables us to see things we have not been able to see previously in the office.”

The V-scan has many applications. In ­developing countries—for which the device is intended—prenatal ultrasounds are uncommon; the machines often cost ­hundreds of thousands of dollars, and hospitals are often rare outside cities. The V-scan not only enables midwives to determine a baby’s position quickly, but many c
ommon ­medical questions find a rapid answer. Since their introduction, a few hundred V-scans have been sold, including 25 to a hospital in Nigeria for less than $9,000. The V-scan demonstrates that even a Western company like GE is capable of implementing frugal innovation.

GE also sees opportunities for the Western market. A third of patients referred by a doctor to a hospital for detailed examination with a large ultrasound or imaging device turn out not to need this expensive exam. “The device will help reduce waiting lists and the costs of health care,” says Mario Lois, GE’s primary care manager for Africa and the Middle East. Lois, who hopes doctors carrying V-scans will be commonplace in 10 years, says, “We estimate the market to be more than a billion dollars. Millions of doctors will be interested.”

Govindarajan also believes this kind of medical technology has potential in rich countries. He says quality health care is based on low costs, good access and high quality. “Guess what? Those are the same anchors on which the health-care industry is going to be created in India and China.” Now that the U.S. in particular is reaching the limit in terms of health-care expenditures, frugal innovation can provide a solution, says Govindarajan. “Problems of potential customers turn into out-of-the-box solutions.”

Listen to Fernando Gil describe the design of his color identifier and his search for inexpensive components that fit into an existing garage door opener case, and you can draw only one conclusion: Frugal innovation unleashes enormous creativity. “If you have more constraints,” Gil says, paraphrasing 19th-century philosopher Søren ­Kierkegaard, “you have to be more creative.” 

Photo: flickr.com/Badri Seshadri

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