December 1, 2010

How To Design for the Developing World Without Being a Jerk. ~ Ben Leduc-Mills

(Or, Learning To Make Your Own Pizza)

Let’s suppose we can agree that, as often as possible, we should avoid being jerks. Dramatically swooping in to help grandma cross the street is great (especially if you have a colorful cape). So, when does helping people out cross into ‘jerk’ territory? One answer, though certainly not the only one, is to give someone something they can’t use–and it’s a common pitfall when designing for developing countries.

What good is a laptop without electricity? A phone without reception? Or a book if you can’t read? It sounds obvious, but this kind of thing happens all the time (I’m looking at you, 1 Million T-Shirts guy), and it’s sad to see good intentions put to waste. Object-focused design is symptomatic of a conception of social justice that sees fairness as access to an equal share of primary goods. In plain english,it’s all about stuff. The main problem with this view, as described by Amartya Sen (philosopher and Nobel laureate), is that it’s not the goods that are important, but what they allow us to do and to become.

It’s about increasing human capability. Giving people the tools and knowledge to permanently better their lives. Technology, at its core, is all about increasing human capability. So the difficult question becomes how we shift the paradigm from giving people things they can’t use (and being jerks), to truly helping people by increasing their human capabilities.

It’s all about context, people. Clearly, in some situations, giving out laptops might really make a difference. It’s just not the right answer all the time (see the various successes and failures of the One Laptop Per Child project). One problem is that typically, design for the third world has been done by people in the first world–so it’s not surprising that the objects they design often lack proper perspective or insight. It’s like making a pizza for someone without asking what toppings they like (or even if they like pizza)–you might get it right, but it’s not that likely. Fortunately, organizations are increasingly designing with local populations instead of for them; letting them pick their own toppings, as it were. Placing boots on the ground not only gives designers proper context, it allows the exchange of ideas from the people who know their situation the best.

This is all well and good, yet wouldn’t it be better if instead of ‘letting’ them pick their own toppings, we taught them how to make pizza and open their own restaurant? Isn’t that what Sen means by increasing human capability? The whole ‘give a man a fish, feed him for a day / teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime’ thing. In practice, it’s the notion that in addition to putting boots on the ground, you need to keep the boots there long enough to pass on some useful knowledge. It is a model that an increasing number of projects are adopting with overwhelmingly positive results.

Projects like the Barefoot College in India, the Map Kibera project in Nairobi, and Question Box in India and Kenya are examples of programs systematically enriching the lives of those who participate. Founded by Bunker Roy in 1972, the Barefoot College accepts mostly illiterate or semiliterate women from rural villages and offers training in a number of fields including solar engineering, water pump mechanics, architecture, education, health care, and wasteland development.

©2010 http://barefootcollege.org

The Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya is generally considered to be the largest slum in Africa, but the fact that it was a blank spot on the map made it impossible to have an informed discussion about how to improve the lives of its residents. Through the Map Kibera project, local residents have been working alongside volunteers to create the first complete, free, and open map of the area, all the while learning about OpenStreetMap, GPS mapping, and digitizing satellite imagery. Map Kibera has formed a sustainable group of local mappers to keep the map up to date and the project alive, thereby giving Kibera a face and a voice in how to manage its geography and resources.

Question Box, a project by Open Mind a design nonprofit based in California and India), is a great simple concept that lets users ask any question they want to a live, locally trained operator, who looks up the answer on the internet and gives the answer back to the user, all through a simple, intercom-like interface. The software is free and open-source, the Question Box itself is solar-powered, optionally portable, and designed to be user-friendly to non-literate, non technical populations. The bottom line is that these boxes provide some people with the closest access they’ll ever have to the internet, and their presence empowers people to seek out their own information and answer their own questions.

©2010 http://questionbox.org

The emphasis of these projects is on trusting local wisdom, incorporating technology only when it can be used effectively by the local population, and providing career opportunities that did not exist before–and that’s why they’re so successful, because they’re not being jerks.

For a list of further resources about design for development, similar projects, and organizations working in the area, check here.

Donations: You can donate to Question Box here. I was unable to find donation avenues for Barefoot College or Map Kibera, but if you know of one, leave a comment, and hopefully we can amend the article.

Ben Leduc-Mills is a PhD candidate in Computer Science in the Craft Technology Lab at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He researches and builds tools to help democratize the engineering process, making technology more accessible for as many people as possible. He also experiments with drawing machines, wearable computing, intuitive modeling systems, and other geeky stuff. You can check out his latest work on his blog.

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