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Designing for the Rest of the Global Market PUBLIC ACCESS

How do you design a product that meets a basic need for people living in some of the world's poorest regions? We asked nine designers who have taken on that job and found the inspiration and the insight to meet the challenges.

[+] Author Notes

Amos Winter is the founder and director of the MIT Mobility Lab and will join the faculty in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2012.

Mechanical Engineering 133(09), 30-37 (Sep 01, 2011) (8 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2011-SEP-1


This article discusses how some engineers are now trying to design products for people living in some of the world’s poorest regions. Engineers have begun to focus more and more on creating and implementing technologies for developing countries. Some of this attention is the result of a number of worthwhile initiatives. The Gates and Clinton Foundations, for example, have given away millions of dollars to spur and support innovative new products to help people at the bottom of the pyramid. Engineers Without Borders has also inspired thousands of students to effect positive change in the world with their technical skills. ASME has added Engineering for Change, an online repository for development technologies and a hub for connecting innovators with stakeholders. The problems of the developing world are expected to gain even greater prominence in the engineering community over the next 20 years. Technical challenges in developing countries will also motivate engineering students, researchers, and professionals, and have a specific attraction to students from demographics typically underrepresented in engineering.


Amos Winter, the founder of the MIT Mobility Lab, kicks off the discussion on the next page by talking about designing for the rest of the global market.

Engineering's New Frontier

Engineers have begun to focus more and more on creating and implementing technologies for developing countries. Some of this attention is the result of a number of worthwhile initiatives. The Gates and Clinton Foundations, for instance, have given away millions of dollars to spur and support innovative new products to help people at the bottom of the pyramid. Engineers Without Borders has inspired thousands of students to effect positive change in the world with their technical skills. And ASME has added Engineering for Change, an online repository for development technologies and a hub for connecting innovators with stake-holders, as well as expanded Engineering for Global Development, an initiative to engage the breadth of ASME membership in development technology research, education, innovation, and dissemination. But in spite of this recent burst of interest, I believe the problems of the developing world will gain even greater prominence in the engineering community over the next 20 years. One reason is that we now have the opportunity to explore and solve technical challenges in developing countries that affect millions if not billions of people, often with levels of impact that mean life or death. Problems related to sanitation, cooking, clean water, disease prevention—these are difficult technical challenges that can be solved with rigorous engineering.

People have an intimate knowledge of their own environment and their needs as consumers

Such challenges can motivate engineering students, researchers, and professionals, and have a specific attraction to students from demographics typically underrepresented in engineering. At MIT, for instance, the majority of the more than 300 students in the D-Lab international development program are women. Development engineering may well become a new research frontier: There is no reason why applied engineering science will not transfer to developing world contexts.

Another factor is the belated recognition that the people living in developing countries and emerging markets are not simply cheap labor, but vast populations with a combined purchasing power large enough to potentially revitalize U.S. industry, if we can tap it. By 2030, the economies of Brazil, Russia, India, and China are expected to account for 41 percent of the world's market capitalization, up from just 18 percent today. As a result, there will be around a billion new middle class consumers demanding products to meet their specific needs.

In addition, there are another billion or so who make less than three dollars per day and who require innovative technologies to rise out of poverty. The engineering community needs to redefine “appropriate technology” since these markets have myriad socioeconomic classes capable of purchasing a vast array of products, from $1 corn shellers to $2,000 Tata Nano cars. Technology is affordable for the people who buy it; we need to design and make the technology that they want.

Many people ask me, “How is the process of designing technologies for developing countries different from designing for Western markets?” The surprising answer is: It's not. That's why engineers have a role to play in international development, because we know how to design, test, and make new technologies. But to do it successfully requires a knowledge base that extends far beyond nuts and bolts and number crunching. Most Western engineers are experienced in designing for themselves, but how do you design for a client who is extraordinarily different from you culturally, geographically, and socioeconomically?

The key, I think, is designing technologies with— not for—developing-country stakeholders. People have an intimate knowledge of their own environment and their needs as consumers, and the challenge for us is how to connect with them. Looking at pictures on the Internet or spending half a day in a Nairobi slum doesn’t cut it. Engineers have to be sure they understand the problem before they find the solution.

Stakeholders must know how much their knowledge is valued, and how critical they are to the design process. We need to connect with them in their own cultural context in order to generate honest, face-to-face exchanges of ideas and create technological solutions together.

When engineering is done this way, it has the power to change the world. The entire world.

Samuel Sia ♦ mChip

mChip is a portable blood testing device.

Sia is an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Columbia University in New York.

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Early diagnosis and treatment of HIV and sexually transmitted infections are important, especially for pregnant women so that infections are not passed to their children. There is a big clinical need for fast and accurate point-of-care tests for those infections. We wanted to make a diagnostic instrument that could be used by healthcare workers with minimal laboratory training in low-resource settings.

Biomedical engineers like us are good at solving technical problems of importance to human health, and we have worked years on developing this technology for infectious disease as well as cancer. We realized that for this test to be implemented in the developing world, we would need to start developing a simple and elegant instrument that would be attractive to use by virtually anyone.

That meant miniaturizing the functions of liquid handling, signal detection, and results communication all in a handheld instrument, which was a challenge. There simply are not many examples of instruments that integrate multiple laboratory procedures in a handheld device—and that have been tested in a low-resource setting such as Rwanda. Typically those functions are performed by benchtop instruments in a laboratory. Also, we had to make sure that the device had a way to communicate its results; the mChip has multiple modes of mobile communication to allow secure data synchronization to electronic databases storing health records. That way, a positive diagnosis can lead to swift treatment.

Seth Herr ♦ Digital Drum

Digital Drum is a rugged, self-contained electronic library terminal.

Herr is an engineer working for the United Nations Children's Fund in Kampala, Uganda.

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Children in Uganda are promised free primary education, but the reality doesn’t always match the promise in many rural areas, so there is a critical need to provide information and skills development training to these communities. The problem is any communications technology needs to be ruggedized—able to withstand an environment far harsher than most computers were designed for—and yet be affordable.

Unicef Uganda was interested in pursuing rural computer systems that could take a piece of the Internet and put it in villages so that people could access it. But the cost of importing a ruggedized system from South Africa was prohibitive. So Unicef brought in Grant Cambridge and Jean-Marc Lefébure and together they worked with Ugandans—including a local auto repair shop—to develop a prototype that could be made locally. The head of IT for Unicef Uganda had the idea of using an oil drum for the body of the device, and together they designed a system that would fit in that form. Since then, I’ve been involved in refining the design to make sure it can be made out of readily available materials using relatively primitive tools and at a reduced cost.

We made the prototypes out of discarded laptops, but as the work progressed, it started to get more complex. We integrated some monitoring systems and power management and were using higher-end equipment, but we discovered in the end that none of that brought much benefit. So we’re back to using old laptops and relatively inexpensive external keyboards—you can buy a standard USB keyboard in downtown Kampala for about $5. We try to protect the computers themselves by putting the screens behind Plexiglas and isolating them from mains power by making them completely solar powered.

But the most important consideration is to keep it simple—complexity is bad in this context.

Daniel Frauchiger ♦ LifeStraw Family

LifeStraw Family is a home water filtration system.

Frauchiger is a product performance evaluation manager for Vestergaard Frandsen SA in Geneva.


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LifeStraw evolved from another Vestergaard Frandsen product developed in 1994 in collaboration with the Carter Center: a PVC pipe designed to reduce Guinea worm disease, which is transmitted by drinking water contaminated with larvae. After witnessing the impact of the pipe product, we conducted extensive research to develop a more advanced product, one that could filter out virtually all of the bacteria and parasites that make water unsafe to drink. We introduced the LifeStraw personal water filter in 2005.

We then gathered scientists, engineers, product designers, mechanical engineers, and created a variety of designs that were able to purify a large volume of water. We knew the product has to work without electricity, batteries, and replacement parts, and it had to be tough enough to work for at least three years in extreme physical environments.

The filtration technology is called hollow-fiber membrane technology and it's essentially the same technology used in the municipal water treatment facilities of wealthy countries. A pre-filter removes coarse particles larger than 80 micrometers in diameter, then gravity pushes the water through an ultrafiltration, hollow-fiber membrane with pores that stop particles larger than 20 nanometers, including virtually all microbes—protozoan parasites, bacteria and viruses. This membrane can be cleaned by squeezing water through in the opposite direction; the trapped particles are lifted by backpressure and flushed away.

We tested the product in Africa and refined the design based on user input. This spring, Vestergaard Frandsen launched a program to donate 900,000 LifeStraw Family filters. The filters will provide 4 million residents of the Western Province of Kenya with safe drinking water.

Josh Silver ♦ Self-adjustable Eyewear

Adspecs are glasses with lenses that can be adjusted by adding or removing water from the space between two membranes. Silver is a professor of physics at the University of Oxford.

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Out of curiosity, I began working on simple, fluid-filled membrane lenses that could change their power. I made some prototypes on my kitchen table back in May 1985, and one of them was of very high optical quality. I held it to my eye, changed the focus, and found that I could correct my myopia with very good accuracy. It got me to thinking that if I could correct my myopia with a simple lens I made myself, could others do the same?

I’ve investigated this question and published six research papers on it. And yes, people without any technical training can make their own eyewear with rather good accuracy. You don’t need a technician and you don’t need to have the lenses made to order in a factory. Now, this technology won’t correct astigmatism, but for about 80 percent of the people who need vision correction, correcting the sphere can get you to the point where you can pass a driving test. And if your aim is to make a technology that is globally useful, would you prevent most people from having reasonable vision in order to wait for them all to have slightly better vision?

I went through several generations of lenses and devices—the first generation worked nicely optically, but were not really wearable. Even the first field tests in 1996 didn’t have glasses that were wearable over the long term. But by 2004, we had a version, the Adspecs, that would work as a commercial product. There are about 40,000 Adspecs in use today. The aim is to get a couple of billion people to get the eyeglasses they need in as short a time as possible, maybe ten years, with a price point of a dollar or so. We’ve still a long way to go to get to that.

There are many people who have worked on this concept in the past—the first patent on this dates to 1879. Dr. Martin Wright created fluid-filled eyeglasses in the 1960s and 1970s. The design was different from mine and the intended application was different and he only made twelve pairs. One of his pairs is in the British Science Museum; next to it is the very first pair of my glasses that was worn in Africa.

Larry Barrow ♦ fabHAUS

fabHAUS is an architecture firm in Pensacola Beach, Fla., concentrating on affordable urban housing. Larry Barrow is the founder and CEO.


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Early in my career, I had the dream of a sustainable built environment and living conditions for all people. Until a few years ago, our work pursued specific materials, panel shapes, and techniques with hopes of bringing them to the mass market. However, as we networked in different parts of the world and engaged in specific scenarios, we realized we needed to move from a classic fixed, static research lab to more of an “anthropologist” method of work, where we must be in the local and regional context in order to be relevant and appropriate with our design-fabrication work.

Early on, we focused on single-story, individually fabricated housing units. But as the research evolved, we realized the huge housing problem is in the city centers of developing countries, so we shifted to a focus on multi-story buildings. Further evolution of the concept emerged as we began to include holistic thinkers, and such green concepts as food production.

The key element to our housing design concept is the use of repetitive modules and sub-modules and the separation of the structure into primary, secondary, and tertiary systems. That enables the building components to be fabricated using mass production, customization, and assemblage techniques. The approach is the result of constructing buildings as a practicing architect, as a builder, and as a developer simultaneously. In our earliest efforts, we pursued materials and shape studies in a computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing process that sought to maximize automated construction techniques. However, with further investigation, with a focus on developing countries, we now see a need to consider the local societal context. Instead of pure automation, we consider more handcraft techniques and use local materials.

Abul Hussam ♦ Sono Water Filter

Sono Water Filter removes arsenic and other toxins from well water.

Hussam is a professor of chemistry at George Mason University.


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About 50 million people in Bangladesh drink water contaminated with high levels of naturally occurring arsenic. I know about this first-hand: when we tested the tube wells in my home in Kushtia, Bangladesh, in 1998, we found high levels of arsenic. From that point, I realized that someone needed to find a way to inexpensively filter that toxin from the groundwater, since the alternative sources of water—ponds, rivers, and hand-dug wells—are either contaminated or vanishing altogether.

It was known that arsenic could be removed from water by absorbing it in rust—hydrous ferric oxide. We tested this idea in the lab and found that it worked, and published the results in a journal. We then started to adapt it for home use. The initial design was a simple three-pitcher system that we installed in my home in Kushtia.

At first, we had an issue with uncontrolled clogging, which shortened the life of the filters. We discovered a new, porous material called composite iron matrix to act as the active media for removing the arsenic and other toxic metals from the water. Thanks to this, and a robust design that eased manufacture and distribution, there are now about 225,000 Sono filters in use in Bangladesh and Nepal, each with an expected life of two to eight years.

This was a challenge, but it is rewarding to use my knowledge to solve my home water problem—and that of a million others. There is no alternative to clean water.

Jim Archer ♦ Community Cooker

Community Cooker is a system that incinerates trash to provide heat for a communal kitchen.

Archer is chairman of Planning System Services, LLC, an architecture firm in Nairobi.


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I saw that no one was motivated to collect and responsibly dispose of rubbish in Nairobi, where I was born, and elsewhere in the developing world. It's a big problem, leading to a general degradation of the natural environment. I kept asking myself, “How could one turn common domestic refuse into a commercially attractive product?”

The majority of rubbish is combustible, but when roadside rubbish heaps are burned they emit toxic gases due to the low temperature of combustion. If I could increase the burning temperature considerably, so that the heat produced could be used to do things like cook food, the rubbish could be used as an affordable fuel. In 2008, Mumo Musuva, Amos Wachira, and I completed the prototype of the Community Cooker. It was a challenge to get the proper airflow through the cooker and achieve the desired heat production. In the first design, the temperature inside the firebox reached only 250 °C to 350 °C. After hitting a number of dead ends, we met a jua-kali artisan, which is a type of local metalworker. He suggested using minute drops of discarded sump oil and water to boost the temperature. After developing a means to drip oil and water onto a superheated steel plate close to the firebox, we were able to achieve flue temperatures over 850 °C.

The two taps for the oil and water drip feeds are the only moving parts on the cooker. I thought it was critical to find the simplest possible solutions in the design. If it can’t be fixed with a length of string, a bit of wire, or a dab of a welding torch, I don’t want to know about it.

Russell McMahon ♦ BOGO light

BOGO light is a solar-powered light that produces six hours of illumination from an all-day charge.

McMahon owns Applied Technology Ltd., an electronic design consultancy in Auckland, New Zealand.


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The Rockefeller Foundation funded a challenge to develop an upgrade to an existing solar-powered light. The product had to efficiently collect, store and utilize solar energy, to be able to survive years of all-day, everyday outdoor exposure and to survive substantial physical abuse— and all at an acceptable price. And the solution had to at least equal kerosene lantern levels of lighting.

First, I needed to understand the many attributes of the kerosene lantern, and the existing information was contradictory and incomplete. So I built a blackout shield around a “hut-sized” area that contained a table, a lantern suspension system, and lux meters. Measurements showed what could be expected from a lantern in terms of lux levels, light distribution, the effects of glass blackening, and more. Few people appreciate how poor a job kerosene lanterns do at providing light for reading. There is a large central dead spot due to the base and dimmer areas caused by the frame. The best way to read is to face away from the light.

The solution I came up with features six narrowbeam LEDs for a task light and three higher wattage wide-beam LEDs for a room light, either of which can be adjusted for brightness. The room light is equal or better than a kerosene lantern and it never needs fuel.

Technologically, the process of designing the light was straightforward, but the challenges were—and are—in the getting what should be a straightforward enough design realized. While my professional expertise is in electronics, I’ve had to deal with sealants and adhesives and encapsulants, plastic moldings and materials, UV light degradation, weathering, and much more. But I realized I had the potential to make a substantial difference in the lives of a very large number of people who really needed help, so stopping did not feel like a viable choice.

Amos Winter ♦ Leveraged Freedom Chair

Leveraged Freedom Chair is a hand-powered wheelchair designed for all-terrain use.

Winter is founder and director of the MIT Mobility Lab in Cambridge, Mass.


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In developing countries, in the place of conventional wheelchairs, you see hand-powered tricycles, which are pedaled like a bicycle with your hands. These devices are very fast and efficient on smooth ground, but they don’t cope well on rough terrain and are much too large to use within the home. It became clear to me that a fundamentally new mobility aid was needed. It had to be fast and efficient on a variety of terrains, kind of like a mountain bike for your arms, but still be small and maneuverable indoors like a conventional wheelchair.

The problem was, I needed a mechanism that would give mountain bike performance without mountain bike cost and complexity. In the fall of 2007, in very much the cliché inventor “ah-ha” moment, I realized that by sliding your hand up and down a lever, varying distance from the pivot, you could change mechanical advantage. Couple that lever to a wheel, you get a variable mechanical advantage drivetrain with very little mechanical complexity—it is the user's body that does the complex motions to change drivetrain geometry, enabling the machine to be made from a simple assembly of bicycle components.

Sliding your hand up and down a lever as you pump your arm is elementary, but packaging the system in a light, robust, ergonomical device was a challenge. When we tested our first prototypes, the consensus was that the chair was horrible! It was hard to get in, it was way too heavy, and it was unstable. But the engineering that described the performance of the lever system was sound, so we felt that we had a good concept. The embodiment needed some work.

We rethought the overall architecture of the chair, and with our partners in East Africa, Guatemala, and Whirlwind Wheelchair International, we devised the design that is pretty close to what we are using today. The current chair fits through doorways easily. The center of gravity is lower, making it much more stable. And we were able to remove enough steel to bring it to within about 5 pounds of competing wheelchairs. In tests, it showed drastic performance advantages over normal wheelchairs over rough terrain.

Copyright © 2011 by ASME
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