Humanitarian design, or how creativity loves constraints

I was reminded of much of what I heard during the recent award of the Curry Stone Design Prize during the IdeaFestival when I happened on this applied anthropology blog, which commented favorably on the potential for anthropologists and technologists to work on engineering projects in the developing world.

As it turns out, the blog linked to Ethan Zuckerman, who had recently been asked to describe the process of innovation - as opposed to innovative outcomes - at a conference in Barcelona, Spain.

Here is what Ethan pinpointed when it comes to humanitarian design:

  • innovation (often) comes from constraint (If you’ve got very few resources, you’re forced to be very creative in using and reusing them.)
  • don’t fight culture (If people cook by stirring their stews, they’re not going to use a solar oven, no matter what you do to market it. Make them a better stove instead.)
  • embrace market mechanisms (Giving stuff away rarely works as well as selling it.)
  • innovate on existing platforms (We’ve got bicycles and mobile phones in Africa, plus lots of metal to weld. Innovate using that stuff, rather than bringing in completely new tech.)
  • problems are not always obvious from afar (You really have to live for a while in a society where no one has currency larger than a $1 bill to understand the importance of money via mobile phones.)
  • infrastructure can beget infrastructure (By building mobile phone infrastructure, we may be building power infrastructure for Africa - see my writings on incremental infrastructure.)