The "other 90%" opportunity ~ Abaster

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.