Take the Challenge: Design for the Other 90 Percent

PHOTO: Jim Patell
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How do you design a simple, elegant solution that can change the world?

Not easily, says Dr. Jim Patell, the professor whose graduate course "Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability" inspired students to create the Embrace Infant Warmer featured in "Be the Change: Save a Life."

Patell is teaching a new generation of entrepreneurs at Stanford Business School how to design and sell innovative, affordable products for the world's poor that can not only save lives but make money -- for the inventors as well as their partners in the developing world.

Ninety percent of the world's products and resources are designed for 10 percent of the world's population, but Patell works with his classes to turn these numbers on their head, designing innovative products that help solve common problems for people in the developing world.

This story is part of ABC News' "Be the Change: Save a Life" initiative, a year-long series of broadcast and digital coverage focusing on global health issues. For complete coverage and information on how you can personally make a difference, go to SaveOne.net.

Do you have an idea that you think can change the world? CLICK HERE to submit an idea to "Be the Change: Save a Life."

The Duct Tape Theory

"Most people start with technology and try to find a problem," says Patell. "We start with a problem and then try to find technology that can fix it."

Working out of Stanford's Institute of Design, Patell has developed several fundamental building blocks for success, among them:

International Partners: Every year, Patell identifies several international partners, such as hospitals, nongovernmental organizations or start-ups in the developing world. In the past seven years, students have conducted 60 projects with 15 partner organizations in 10 countries on projects that range from irrigation systems to solar-rechargeable lights to incubators for low- birth-weight infants. Many of the projects they develop are turned over to the partners.

Teamwork: The students are assigned to teams, with two teams for every partner. Each team spends time with the partner -- traveling to the country, gaining understanding of their needs and frustrations, and collaboratively trying to develop product prototypes and implementation plans that fit the specific culture, its aspirations and constraints.

Empathy: "We start from need, from empathy," says Patell. In the course description he writes: "We believe in listening to the needs the poor tell us about, not assuming we know best. We believe in products and services designed for specific cultural contexts, not just Western hand-me-downs. And we believe that careful attention to design can create innovative -- and extremely affordable -- solutions to the problems of the other 90 percent." In other words: treat the poor as customers, not charity recipients.

The Duct Tape Theory: If you see someone using duct tape and string and paperclips as a "work around" -- that signals an opportunity to make a difference. Patell tells his students: "Ask them: what frustrates you? What are you using duct tape for?" "Often people have gotten so used to the duct tape they don't even remember that it is fixing a problem," he says.

Trial and Error: The student teams then develop designs and business models through a rapid sequence of prototypes, user tests and design reviews. Patell writes: "Each of these products arises from a design process that is rich in stories involving empathy for the ultimate users together with a long series of prototypes that fail in ways great and small but which ultimately lead to the 'aha' moment -- the 'creative accident' that reveals important aspects of a big idea. We believe that design thinking is more about doing than it is about thinking. ... In one way or another, these behaviors involve getting your hands dirty, making and remaking prototypes while working with the real customer, the user of your product."

At the end of the course, which Patell teaches with three colleagues (mechanical engineer Dave Beach, design fellow Erica Estrada and former software entrepreneur Stuart Coulson), students have developed a prototype framed in a comprehensive implementation plan, including a business model, technical innovations, cultural rationale and the appropriate next steps. For more information, visit http://extreme.stanford.edu or listen to Patell talk about the course and design challenges.

Success Stories

To date, "Extreme Affordability" has sparked several successful solutions – both profit and nonprofit. Among them:

Driptech: A for-profit drip-irrigation company based on a new manufacturing technology that makes clean, consistent holes in super-low-cost plastic tubing. The result: extremely affordable, water efficient irrigation solutions for small-plot farmers in developing nations. Driptech won the 2009 Tech Award Laureate by the Tech Museum.

D.Light Design: D. Light makes affordable solar-powered lanterns to replace kerosene and diesel lamps in households without reliable electricity in the developing world. Since launching in 2008, this for-profit social enterprise has sold hundreds of thousands of solar lanterns to off-grid households in more than 40 countries.

Nuru International: In Kenya, Nuru acts as a general contractor, identifying the most-effective methods of fighting extreme poverty one community at a time. Founded by former Marine Jake Harriman, Nuru trains the poor to solve their own problems in five areas of development: agriculture, water and sanitation, health care, education and community economic development.

D-Rev: This nonprofit technology incubator uses design-oriented, groundbreaking technology and market-driven approaches to develop and deliver products that will improve the health and increase incomes of people living on less than $2 a day. One example: Brilliance, a high-intensity light that when shined on a baby's skin provides low-cost treatment for neonatal jaundice, which can cause permanent brain damage or death.

The "Be the Change: Save a Life" initiative is supported in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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