25 April 2008

The "other 90%" opportunity

There is an increasing focus on the role of design for development, both at an awareness building level and at the level of products designed to address a specific need, such as the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative. This is a relatively new phenomenon and one has to ask how important is design to development and what kind of contribution can it make?

The recent Cooper Hewitt exhibit "Design for the other 90%" raised the overall awareness of the role that design and innovation can play in addressing challenges particular to developing countries. The design museum noted that:

Of the world’s total population of 6.5 billion, 5.8 billion people, or 90%, have little or no access to most of the products and services many of us take for granted; in fact, nearly half do not have regular access to food, clean water, or shelter. Design for the Other 90% explores a growing movement among designers to design low-cost solutions for this “other 90%.”

The suggestion that there is an opportunity, and rationale, for designers to spend more time focusing on the other 90% is supported by the findings of the World Resources Institute report on The Next 4 Billion. This report is one example of a growing body of work and practice to better understand the "Bottom of the Pyramid" economic opportunity that the "other 90%" represent:

Four billion low-income consumers, a majority of the world’s population, constitute the base of the economic pyramid (BOP). New empirical measures of their aggregate purchasing power and behavior as consumers suggest significant opportunities for market-based approaches to better meet their needs, increase their productivity and incomes, and empower their entry into the formal economy.

There has been some debate over the extent and nature of the actual Bottom of the Pyramid opportunity, but there is a general recognition that new, innovative ways of working with communities, business and governments, particularly in the area of sustainable development, could help change the fundamental economic dynamic among the poor in developing countries. Visionary practitioners such as Paul Polak and top-tier academic programs such as the Johnson School Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise at Cornell are, while approaching the issue from very different perspectives, working to better understand and leverage this opportunity for improving the welfare of vast number of human beings.

So where does design fit in? What is clear is that the "other 90%" opportunity will grow according to the degree to which the fundamentals of life such as shelter, water, health, education, etc., are improved. The Cooper Hewitt exhibit has shown that simple and effective design can being about change for the better in the welfare of the poor. This puts design right in the middle of the development equation, as an enabler of economic development and a contributor to the growing opportunity that the "other 90%" represent. Addressing the fundamental challenges faced by developing countries and thereby contributing to bettering human welfare and economic opportunity is just good design sense.

17 April 2008

George Lois and Esquire magazine

Metropolis magazine is carrying a piece on some of George Lois's work for Esquire:

"For anyone who works in magazines, George Lois’s Esquire covers from the 1960s are both an inspiration and a rebuke. The art of the magazine cover—especially the mainstream version—has been in decline for the better part of 20 years. Everyone talks about doing “George Lois–type covers,” but no one really does them. Recently, the Museum of Modern Art installed the iconic designs into its permanent collection."

Metropolis features a number of the covers. They are striking, exuding artistic intelligence and news-sense - and best of all you get Lois's commentary alongside.

For more on the man visit here.

15 April 2008

Design and global priorities

Three design principles will increasingly underpin design strategy and design generally in the future: sustainable design, inclusive design and transformation design. Why are these three principles so important? They broadly correlate (from a design perspective) with a range of critical issues related to energy, resources, the individual and society that are the focus of considerable debate both today and for the foreseeable future.

Simply (and crudely) put, sustainable design ensures that a product or a service's environmental impact is minimized through the use of "innovative design and industrial practices"; inclusive design ensures that "goods, services and environments are accessible to more people" through understanding and meeting user needs; and, transformation design looks at the application of design skills and processes to bring about change in systems and organizations (even segments or structures of society).

Issues related to the environment, the individual and organization/society are at the nexus of many of the increasingly complex pressing global priorities we face, whether global warming, resource depletion, population growth, etc. In the past design has been perceived as largely unconcerned with global issues but this is changing, led by some impressive exponents such as Architecture for Humanity, and through the design of increasingly relevant products and services and the application of design processes to key problem areas.

The challenge, however, is that none of these considerations - environmental, individual or societal - can be addressed in isolation: the linkages between them are becoming more acute. Any single strand in this interwoven world is hard to isolate: a design success or failure may be a catalyst of change, negative or positive, unimagined by the designer. We now recognize that the impact of an energy inefficient design goes far beyond the product or service itself and has a bearing on issues such as climate change and economic welfare and therefore on the individual and society.

Which leads us to an obvious but important statement: no product or service (even the most trivial) should be designed without taking into account resources and materials involved, its impact on the local environment, its accessibility for users and the impact it may have on society from its use, etc. To design in a vacuum is to be singularly out of touch with societal, environmental and economic trends and is to ignore the increasingly interrelated nature of our planet.

If, as many suggest, design is going to contribute to addressing global challenges - whether related to resource management, population accommodation or key societal concerns such as more effective education, more innovative public services - then it needs to reflect the underlying principles embodied in sustainable, inclusive and transformation design. In many ways this boils down to a set of simple questions that every designer should be asking: how is my design - whether for a new utensil, new low-income housing, or a new public service - going to impact the individual, society and the environment?

A more holistic approach embodying sustainable, inclusive and transformation design needs to be adopted in this increasingly challenging design environment. There is an incredible opportunity for design - through innovation, new technologies and processes - to help address some of the critical global priorities we face today, from water and housing shortages to overflowing landfills. But for this to occur there has to be a commitment to these three underlying design principles and to their holistic application: considerations related to the individual, society and the environment must underpin all design, no matter how trivial or inconsequential it is perceived to be.

11 April 2008

Don't stay home without it

This rechargeable/wind-up Freeplay Indigo lantern is a marvelous example of simple and effective design.

The Indigo is small, lightweight, powerful and best of all it can be totally human-powered. It is user friendly, with a well placed dial and button, a crank arm that is easy to use and intuitive (and folds away easily), and a powerful light for its size (through more efficient LEDs).

Its grand on a camping trip, but no matter the torches/flashlights you may have in your house this is also a great emergency lighting solution. Run out of charge and crank up the light. Brilliant. The Consumer Electronics Show thinks likewise.

Here's the site for more details. Buy one, or two.

09 April 2008

The "bio-foolish"

Time Magazine's April 14 European issue has a wonderful article on "The Clean Energy Myth" in which it notes that the USG "props up the biofuels industry to the tune of $7 billion a year". Not sure whether this piece is being carried in the US edition but it certainly should be. Worth a read! And, the article confirmed a point made in an earlier post - that investment in energy research and university led innovation in the sciences would be a far greater contribution to the energy future of any nation. $7 billion would go a long way!

07 April 2008

Subsidize research and education not biofuels

The IHT has a useful piece on the need to get beyond caps on green house emissions and to enable technology, and specifically energy related technology and innovation, to flourish and substantially contribute to alleviating global warming. Now clearly technology and innovation alone won't be enough - major changes in the way we source and consume energy, and manage our energy dependencies are needed - but creating an innovation drive in the area of energy tech is the right thing to do.

Innovation in this space is already underway but not nearly to the degree that is necessary, which of course will require funds. Governments are spending vast amounts to find alternatives to oil, but the value of that investment is questionable: subsidizing biofuels only diverts crops from food production to energy production, and causes significant increases in food raw materials costs. Instead, we should be using these subsidies to encourage academic research into extracting better energy efficiencies from oil, coal, etc., AND, more importantly, better ways of harnessing energy resources that have gone untapped so far - solar, wind, bio-mass, etc. The benefits would be many fold: monies for additional research and researchers, a renewed focus on the sciences in basic curricula, and the further strengthening of the education infrastructure of the nation.

A no-brainer right? Particularly as many innovations in this field are coming from universities! So how come policies so far are merely further disadvantaging the individual by increasing costs of food on top of already exorbitant prices for fuel? Where's the logic in that? Lets make a real investment in our energy future by building our educational institutions and getting more kids into college studying the sciences!

03 April 2008

Things of great beauty

Pictures taken during a classic motorboat event in Mystic. A number were Chris-Craft, pristine examples of classic run-about motorboat design.

There is a completeness about the design of these craft. It is the same with similar makes, such as Riva. There is a balance of elements between the mahogany hull and the water, between the solid and the fluid, between something shaped by man and something shaped by nature. In retrospect, these craft are marvelous examples of aesthetic design, where (according to Wikipedia) qualities include:

"smoothness, shininess/reflectivity, texture, pattern, curviness, color, simplicity, usability, velocity, symmetry, naturalness, and modernism."

A couple of great sites for wooden motorboat window shopping here and here. And for aficionados, there is the Chris-Craft club.

The owners of Chris-Craft also revived the Indian Motorcycle - see this.

Environmental security - the (not so) new national security

Perhaps this is not obvious, but it should be - a nation's security is undermined by its dependencies on energy resources from other nations. This is not new: in 2006 the Council of Foreign Relations published a report on the "National Security Consequences of U.S. Oil Dependency" that should be read and re-read by policy-makers because it has become all the more relevant as fuel prices soar and the political stability and "friendliness" of those nations that have been gifted energy reserves become increasingly questionable.

Environmental security is an area of study that has been largely focused on the impact of natural disasters, and the mis-use of the environment and natural resources. It should become an increasingly relevant area of study: a nation's environmental security is directly threatened by excessive dependencies on external energy sources, no matter the nature of the relationship between the nation and the resource provider.

And if the impact of global warming is such that the physical nature of a nation is threatened - changes in climate resulting in significantly reduced arable land, coastal destruction and other dramatic alterations to our physical space that will cause massive human misery and economic loss - then Environmental security becomes even more relevant. The CFR report notes that reducing both energy dependencies AND energy consumption are critical to a nation's security. Until these are addressed we are knowingly contributing to actual or potential (depending on your political/scientific leanings) systems weaknesses that could prove disastrous to the nation state in the medium to longer term.

Environmental security is, and should be, an integral component of the security considerations of any country. "Save the planet to save ourselves" takes on a whole other meaning!

(Oh and subsidies for bio-fuels? Guess what, they increase a nation's external dependencies for the basic raw materials for food!)

6 point fonts and digital divides

New digital divides are opening up driven by mobility, complexity and miniaturisation. The world is moving to an untethered networked world, in which our personal networks interface with a seamless networked environment so that we are always on, available and "here". But this (somewhat frightening) environment depends on greater processing complexity and miniaturisation, both of which work against the increasing percentage of the population that is aging and can no longer see 6-8 point fonts on their mobiles, or use buttons that were made for a child violinist's fingers.

This brave new untethered world will create all manner of new divides - not just in mobile communications. What are tech companies doing to address these issues? Not much. Slick, fashion driven, "6 month from cool to uncool" mobiles are the trend. Will all this networked mobility merely further socially marginalise those that cannot find the ON button on their phones because of its size (and location)? Much more needs to be done to engineer and design devices that are guided by inclusive (and sustainable) design principles - otherwise an increasingly important part of society will be continually disadvantaged and an increasingly important market opportunity will remain un-addressed.

Empowerment: what is notional and what is real?

I spoke at a conference in Hong Kong on the issue of new roles and rules in the digital age. During the talk I raised the issue of empowerment and wondered what it meant to youth in the age of the Internet, and whether technology was changing the empowerment dynamic. In the past empowerment for youth was time-bound and based upon some very traditional "coming of age" and "assumption of identity" related events such as being of age to vote, to drink, to drive, etc. I asked whether "traditional empowerment" was becoming merely notional in today's technology-driven world where the mobile phone, the Internet, social networking, etc., are giving youth a new sense of identity and purpose in an unprecedented way.

This is not to say that the traditional notions of empowerment are not important, but are they as important as they once were? My hunch is that they are not. Impediments of the past to building identity through social activity such as distance, cost of communications, etc., are no more. Today identity (and therefore empowerment) is real and virtual, built through videos on the web, online gaming guilds, instant messaging, and a myriad of other communications media that allow youth today to have a voice like never before. The young now have society shaping physical tools, such as the mobile phone, that can bring and have brought about social and political change long before the users had the traditionally empowering "right" to vote.

This is a fundamentally new dynamic in societal structure that will have implications for education, social interaction and other forms of community engagement and integration. For example with traditional empowerment came the instilling of responsibility (you have to learn the rules of the road before you can drive); where is that all important factor in this world of "new" empowerment? Is it still relevant or is it also changing? The ways in which coming of age, identity and empowerment are occurring is radically different than in the past - this is not a bad thing but it raises many questions in terms of how this empowerment is used, how it is managed responsibly, and, more than anything else, how it will shape society in the future.

01 April 2008

How poor rear light design can ruin a Euro 150K Italian GT

So the Maserati GranTurismo is here - a fabulous looking GT that will propel Maserati to even greater things, building on the success of the well-received Quattroporto. But there is design failing that mars the looks of this car. The front and sides of the Maserati are beautifully sculpted but the rear is let down by cheap and garish looking lights. And not only that but you have seen a better looking version elsewhere, on a family car that sells, well, for at least 100K less:

Maserati lights:

Ford Mondeo lights:

Oh dear, oh dear - the Maserati has upside-down Ford Mondeo rear lights! No this isn't an April Fools... The GranTurismo follows in the footsteps of the old Maserati GTs (Mexico, Sebring...) and it is nice to see the classic GT return. But hopefully this will be rectified in the next iteration.

See here for similar comments about the lights.