Daniel Altman, professor of Economics at NYU’s Stern School of Business, has started a new global development initiative called Emerging Design Centers (EDCs), that brings design to the bottom of the pyramid. And by this, they don’t mean bringing well-designed, affordable products and services to the poorest populations, which has been the main strategy of global development programs so far, but rather bringing the tools of design and putting cutting-edge technologies for design and production in the hands of the people so they can create the best solutions for themselves. Altman writes,
EDCs will put cutting-edge technology at the service of the base of the pyramid, so that people can design and produce a much wider range of innovations for their peers. With equipment and expertise provided by outside investors, people in poor communities will have a chance to follow through on their best ideas, sharing in the profits that come from serving the markets they know well. These markets are large but not necessarily contiguous; the same product that may be useful to a farmer in Cambodia may also be useful to a farmer in Bangladesh.
The EDCs themselves will constitute a network of design professionals, sharing ideas and techniques to promote a culture of continuous improvement. In the beginning, investors and hired professionals will guide the design process, control the supply chains, and create the distribution channels. But as local design talent becomes professionalized and supply chains switch to local resources, management and ownership of the EDCs will increasingly revert to the communities where they are based.
As the so-called development sector is increasingly realizing, design solutions created externally tend to be far less successful than those created in collaboration with the targeted beneficiaries. This is being reflected in social sector organizations as well private and government run ones, as they turn to more user-centered design and even co-creation models in their work. However, this next step of teaching the people at the ‘bottom of the pyramid’ the processes, and giving them access to the necessary tools and technologies is one we haven’t seen yet, and I look forward to seeing what comes out of the EDCs, as they may turn out to be an excellent model for future work in emerging economies.