Designing for the Other 90%- Paul Polak

Hello- I’m Paul Polak, one of the judges of this year’s inaugural Rural Innovation Award at the 2008 Imagine Cup.  I’m thrilled to be attending this year in Paris to examine the technology innovations that this amazing crop of young minds has created to help address the most pressing solutions of rural communities around the world.

There is a design revolution under way.  That revolution can be seen, for example, in the work of the Rural Innovation Award finalists (and the work of Unlimited Potential) to create relevant technology solutions for the estimated five billion people underserved by technology—that’s nearly 90% of the world’s population.


My new organization, D-Rev: Design for the Other 90%, has already started designing products for this huge untapped market represented by poor customers.  For example, we are now working with Cascade Designs, a big outdoor company, on a $300 water purifier that churns out 1,300 gallons of safe water a day. The idea of designing and marketing products to the poor is growing among many multinational corporations, Microsoft notable among them, not only because it’s the socially responsible thing to do, but because innovators are beginning to see poor people as customers in new, mutually beneficial relationships.


I invite you to become part of this design revolution by following these principles:


·          Allow the poor customer to rule the design process.

·          Don’t design it unless you’ve discussed it with at least 25 people, it will pay for itself in one year, or it will sell one million units at an unsubsidized price.

·          Focus on scale: for your customers and for sales.

·          Pursue affordability ruthlessly—affordability: this is the most important consideration.

·          Set a specific cost target.

·          Analyze what the technology does.

·          Identify the key contributors to cost.

·          Design around each of the key contributors to cost by finding acceptable trade-offs.

·          Make a multitude of prototypes.

·          Make changes based on field tests.

·          Adapt a technology if you transplant it in a new place.


Thinking of poor people as customers instead of as recipients of charity radically changes the design process.  Poor people won’t invest in a product or service unless the designer knows enough about their preferences to create something they value. Because of market demand, D-Rev is working with an electronics company to engineer a small, potent power generator.  In countries where the supply of electricity isn’t accessible to all or dependable in general, this resource is invaluable, particular for poor people.  The process of affordable design starts by learning everything there is to learn about the market needs and market forces created by poor people. 


The importance of this principle has clearly been grasped by the students participating here in Paris as well as by Unlimited Potential—creating technology solutions targeted precisely to be accessible and relevant to the specific needs of rural populations.  I’m excited to see these additions to the group of innovators and designers beginning to develop products to improve the lives of poor people around the world.


-Paul Polak


Comments (1)

  1. Anonymous says:

    Paul Polak is a hero of mine. He created a nonprofit organization called International Development Enterprises

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