Product Design that Solves Global Problems (Or: Why Didn’t I Think of That?)

For specific markets and applications, product design often addresses issues that are much larger than looking cool, being different or feeling good. In developing countries, product designers are frequently tending to basic needs that are not being met on a community-wide scale. Coming up with ideas to solve rudimentary life problems in developing countries requires an ability to do more with (a lot) less. Cost, distribution and usage instructions are all extreme challenges a designer must deal with in order to solve problems that are keeping entire populations from thriving.

Product Design: Education

Product design for pennies (Image from Business Insider, May 2014)

Ingenious product design for pennies (Image from Business Insider, May 2014)

The HelpDesk is one such product that has changed the trajectory for rural school children in Maharashtra, India, where the kids typically don’t have desks to write on throughout the school day. Sitting with hunched backs, children have to make do by working with books and papers spread out on the floor.

Mumbai-based non-profit Aarambh decided to tackle this problem with a pervasive material that was also cheap—recycled cardboard. Collecting boxes from local business, the organization constructed miniature desks at the astounding cost of 20 cents each. An added bonus? At the end of the day, children can convert their desks into backpacks so they can carry their books home.

Product Design: Light

Ingenious product design: Moser Lamp (Image from 8/2013

Ingenious product design: Moser Lamp (Image from JAY DIRECTO/AFP/Getty Images)

In a eureka moment, Alfredo Moser of Uberaba, Brazil, figured out that an ordinary soda bottle could provide a cost- effective way to light up a room. Filling an old soda bottle with a liter of water and a few drops of bleach, Moser affixed the bottle upside down on the ceiling and voila! The bottle instantly became a 40-60 watt ‘light bulb.’ By cutting a hole in the roof so that the neck of the bottle is exposed to the outside, residents with unreliable—or no—electricity can use this ‘Moser Lamp’ to brighten the insides of their homes during the day.

Product Design: Water

Ingenious product design—drinking from a river Copyright 2011 The New York Times Company

Ingenious product design—drinking from a river (Copyright 2011 The New York Times Company)

Accessibility to potable water is an unending challenge in many areas of the developing world. Enter, Lifestraw. Lifestraw is a portable water filter that works like an ordinary drinking straw. Apparently, the straw removes up to 99.99999 percent of waterborne bacteria, 99.9 percent of waterborne protozoan cysts and reduces turbidity by filtering particles of approximately 0.2 microns.

In other words, this amazing straw allows people to drink directly from a dirty river. That’s a tall claim, but thousands of people with limited access to clean water are using it to good effect.

Product Design: Making the World a Better Place

While product design often requires deep expertise in engineering, design and/or business process, it doesn’t have to. Who among us hasn’t identified a gap and dreamed up a solution? And how often have we seen someone beat us to it? Many ‘gaps’ are universal, and by identifying a problem, collective minds will often come up with a workable solution.

And sometimes, the simplest idea is a winner.

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