A Capabilities Approach to Design

A couple of weeks ago in Delft, I met with Annemarrie Mink, a PhD student at Industrial Design Engineering, Technical University, Delft, who over the last few years has been involved in designing for the bottom of the pyramid. For her graduation project, Annemarrie worked with Professional Assistance for Development Action (PRADAN), an NGO that improves the livelihoods of India’s rural poor by promoting Self-Help Groups, developing locally suitable economic activities and mobilizing finances. In 1987, Pradan began the Tasar Silk Project to enhance the incomes of tribal people, especially women who rear, produce or process Tasar silk, by introducing new technologies, modern production techniques, and by opening up new markets. For example, Pradan introduced a ‘Tasar reeling-cum-twisting’ machine and the re-reeling machine, to replace rudimentary types of Tasar yarn reeling. But after recognizing problems with the machine by talking to reelers, reeling centre managers, PRADAN experts and silk experts, PRADAN felt a real need for betterment of the machine, and that is where Annemarrie stepped in, to

Re-design the current reeling-cum-twisting machine with improvements on productivity and yarn quality, ergonomics, costs, energy use and safety. Build a prototype and optimize this prototype until a machine design is ready that can be taken into serial production in India.’

Annemarrie went on to design a new machine that apart from addressing ergonomic and technical challenges, was also compact and portable for use within the house itself. What happened as a result of this was that many women who would previously leave their homes to reel yarn at local centers were now being confined to their homes, a latent effect that seemingly went against the purposes of designing for the empowerment of women at the BoP. Examples such as these are the subject of Annemarrie’s PhD research, a reflection on designing for the BoP by applying the capability approach of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum to technology, engineering and design.

The Capability Approach to development puts at its center human capabilities or “what people are effectively able to do and be,” or the (positive) freedom that people have “to enjoy ‘valuable beings and doings’. Proponents of the use for capability approach to engineering, technology and design believe that technology, if nothing else, is a means of improving human capabilities. According to Ilse Oosterlaken, Department of Philosophy, Delft University of Technology/3TU, “What responsible innovation for the benefit of the global poor requires, one may say, is “capability sensitive design” of technologies for developing countries.

In as such, capability theorists place capabilities over utility or resources, the reason for which is what they refer to as “adaptive preferences”.

Our desires and pleasure-taking abilities adjust to circumstances; especially to make life bearable in adverse situations. The utility calculus can be deeply unfair to those who are persistently deprived.… The deprived people tend to come to terms with their deprivation because of the sheer necessity of survival; and they may, as a result, lack the courage to demand any radical change, and may even adjust their desires and expectations to what they unambitiously see as feasible

Annemarrie’s preoccupations on designing for the bottom of the pyramid, it seemed to me, had much to do with working around and with adaptive preferences, an idea that certainly has weight and meaning for anyone designing for development in countries such as India, where ones life is often believed to be a function of fate. What it made me think of is these little ceramic shelters that I once made with friend and Design Ecologist, Gabriel Harp, who was attempting to make square silk worm cocoons, to which Annemarrie responded “The square cocoons look strange, but nice 🙂 – it is an odd thing that the worms adjust so much to their surroundings!“. So perhaps adaptive preferences go beyond human preferences. How much harder does that make the role of design as well as the designer?

About Namrata Mehta

Namrata Mehta or @littlenemrut, is Director of Innovation at the Center for Knowledge Societies, New Delhi. She has an undergraduate degree in Sociology from Delhi University, and a postgraduate diploma in Experimental Media Arts, from Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology, Bangalore.
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