Designing for the World’s Poor

The Q Drum

Recently BusinessWeek released their annual issue focused on the Most Innovative Companies which celebrates the 50 most innovative companies in the World.

Now wait, before you click on that link, think about what innovation means to you, consider what you might perceive to be a true product or service innovation.  OK, now what companies deliver that kind of innovation?  Who do you think are the hottest innovators out there?  I don’t even have to be Carnac the Magnificent with the envelope to my head in order to tell you exactly what company and product first came to mind.

What is it?

Wait for it…the Apple iPod.

Ok, so maybe I was wrong on my first guess, but I guarantee with 88.5% certainty if you’re younger than 50 that if it wasn’t the iPod then it was Google.

How do I know this?  Because those are the top 2 companies according to BusinessWeek’s survey (whose results were determined by asking senior management at the 1,500 largest global corporations based on market capitalization, an online panel of BusinessWeek readers, and subscribers to the Knowledge@Wharton email newsletter).  But I could have told you that without even asking such an august group because every time I ask potential K&A job candidates or clients to name an innovative product, I have to start off with the disclaimer that I do not want to hear the knee jerk answer of Apple.  The marketing slogan for Apple may have once upon a time been “Think Different” but these days, everyone seems to think like Apple.

But what does this have to do with the price of tomatoes and the title of this post, Alain?  And it’s a good thing you asked because I was just coming to that point.

What exactly is innovation?  Look, everyone has an answer to that question.  And all of them essentially say that it is about delivering something new at a minimum and those who really think about it expand this to developing a culture or attitude focused on delivering the products and services that dynamically anticipate the future and precisely solve the problems faced by the target end user.  The overused sports analogy is a quote from the Great One himself, Wayne Gretzky, when he said, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.”

Well, in my mind, BusinessWeek’s list certainly identifies companies that a statistically valid group of bright individuals believe represent innovation.  But of course every single company they identified is in the Fortune 500 – I haven’t verified that fact but let’s at least say that I would be surprised if there was a company on the list you don’t know because every one of them is a constant part of current business conversation and all are regular subjects of Wall Street Journal articles.  What am I saying?  Well, you go ask Senior Managers at the top companies in the World who they think are the most innovative companies and of course they’re going to identify their peers – the companies they either wish they worked for or find themselves regularly frustrated with because they are a competitor.

But what if you went and asked the world’s poorest – who do you think they would identify?  Ah, yes you say, now Alain is finally getting to the point.  Yes, I do sometimes take a winding path before getting to the crux of my thoughts – remember it’s the journey not the destination that makes life so enjoyable.

Well, the NY Times has a fantastic article discussing Design that Solves Problems for the World’s Poor.  The focus is on Dr. Paul Polak, the founder and CEO of International Development Enterprises and an exhibit being held by the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City that honors the inventors dedicated to serving “the other 90 percent.”  That 90 percent number has reference to Dr. Polak’s statment that the world’s cleverest designers spend their energy catering to the world’s richest 10 percent creating items like wine labels, couture, and Maseratis.  Dr. Polak calls for a revolution to reverse that silly ratio.

So it would seem, this would mean that true innovation is something that significantly improves the quality of people’s lives.  Or as Jebediah Springfield (Simpsons reference here) said, “A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man.”

The prime example and one that is so simple yet so elegant it should simply be the picture next to the Webster’s Dictionary entry for innovation, is the 20-gallon rolling drum for transporting water.  That’s the picture you see at the top of this post.  As the article says, millions of women and girls spend many hours doing each year — fetching water. Balancing heavy jerry cans on the head may lead to elegant posture, but it is backbreaking work and sometimes causes crippling injuries. The Q-Drum, a circular jerry can, holds 20 gallons, and it rolls smoothly enough for a child to tow it on a rope.

How amazing is that?  How simple is that?  The article and the attached video go on to discuss other efforts that designers are taking in order to help the impoverished improve their quality of life and make a profit while doing so.

To me, these are the real heroes, the real innovators and the ones who deserve celebrating.