Design for the Real World 2017-12-14T16:55:51+00:00

Design for the Real World! (categories-social invention, social entrepreneurship)

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%.” Through partnerships both local and global, individuals and organizations are finding unique ways to address the basic challenges of survival and progress faced by the world’s poor and marginalized.

Designers, engineers, students and professors, architects, and social entrepreneurs from all over the globe are devising cost-effective ways to increase access to food and water, energy, education, healthcare, revenue-generating activities, and affordable transportation for those who most need them. And an increasing number of initiatives are providing solutions for underserved populations in developed countries such as the United States.

This movement has its roots in the 1960s and 1970s, when economists and designers looked to find simple, low-cost solutions to combat poverty. More recently, designers are working directly with end users of their products, emphasizing co-creation to respond to their needs. Many of these projects employ market principles for income generation as a way out of poverty. Poor rural farmers become micro-entrepreneurs, while cottage industries emerge in more urban areas. Some designs are patented to control the quality of their important breakthroughs, while others are open source in nature to allow for easier dissemination and adaptation, locally and internationally.

Encompassing a broad set of modern social and economic concerns, these design innovations often support responsible, sustainable economic policy. They help, rather than exploit, poorer economies; minimize environmental impact; increase social inclusion; improve healthcare at all levels; and advance the quality and accessibility of education. These designers’ voices are passionate, and their points of view range widely on how best to address these important issues. Each object on display tells a story, and provides a window through which we can observe this expanding field. Design for the Other 90%, an exhibit developed by the Cooper-Hewitt national design museum in New York, demonstrates how design can be a dynamic force in saving and transforming lives, at home and around the world.


Water is essential to all forms of life, and supplying it in sufficient quality as well as quantity for drinking, domestic use, and farming is necessary to our survival. More than one billion people are deprived of water that meets these minimum criteria. Women in developing countries are particularly affected, as they bear most of the burden of hauling water from the source, often many kilometers away, to their homes—which deprives them of time for education, healthcare, and livelihood activities that can alleviate entrenched poverty.

Of the world’s poor, roughly 70% live in rural areas,and depend on agriculture as their main source of income. Designers have devised a variety of extremely low-cost micro-irrigation tools to extend the growing season for these small-scale farmers. The resulting increases in crop yield and income have proven to be one of the fastest and most effective ways for the rural poor to emerge from poverty. The simple human-powered treadle pump has had the most significant impact in the developing world: over two million treadle pumps installed worldwide have been cheaply manufactured and maintained.

Innovators and leaders in this emerging field work directly with the farmers, listening to their needs and conducting extensive field tests to better understand what they require. Since a rural farmer’s plot in the developing world is an acre or smaller, technology is miniaturized to fit the land and designed to be easily expandable as their income grows and they purchase more farmland. Updating older and outmoded inventions with new materials can yield highly affordable irrigation technologies. Farmers growing high-value crops ready for market transform into micro-enterprises.

These projects are prime examples of interventions which act locally to create life-changing opportunities and break cycles of poverty that have endured for hundreds of years.


Disease and disabilities are preventing billions of people from leading productive lives. Poverty in some parts of the world means living without access to clean water and sanitation, or suffering from easily preventable and treatable diseases. Each day, more than 12,000 children die from malaria, respiratory illness, or unsafe drinking water and hygienic conditions.

Designers, craftspeople, engineers, entrepreneurs, manufacturers, scientists are applying their experience and knowledge to develop low-cost solutions to these heath problems. Responding to a global health initiative, many are designing methods to disseminate healthcare and medicines on a large scale, while others train local workshops to produce and sell the products to their communities. Some share nonproprietary manufacturing information worldwide; others are working toward making medicines more affordable in developing countries.

For instance, in India, local craftspeople are being trained to make affordable prostheses out of low-cost materials, while doctors in the United States are diagnosing illnesses using information sent via satellite from rural Cambodia. These and other projects presented here are only a sampling of the kinds of interventions being made around the world, each contributing in its own way to the much-needed effort to improve and save lives around the globe.
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