Sunday, November 06, 2005

Designing for "the developing world"

MIT's Media Lab is a fascinating organization. From the moment I read Steward Brand's book on the lab I dreamed of being a part of that organization. They seemed to be having so much fun doing really cool and innovative stuff with technology. Media Lab attracted a lot of money from a lot of major corporations, all due to the suave and persuasive ways of its founder, Nicholas Negroponte (who also founded, and was the patron saint of, Wired magazine -- he used to write a tailpiece for the mag entitled, "Being Digital").

Organizations like Media Lab, staffed by very smart people, often feel a need to improve man's lot on the planet, which is typically translated to mean "let's make an impact on some Third World village or nation". The OLPC $100 Laptop is one such initiative. While the design of the laptop is intriguing I wonder about the advisability of "out of context" design: can a group of well-meaning and brilliant designers sitting in futuristic offices in Boston design products for children in a hot, humid and dusty Indian village? In theory, if a person is smart enough he can. But here's a short case study. The "Jaipur foot" is an artificial foot developed by an Indian doctor in the 1960's who had no access to the advanced Western medical research or technologies. Today, the organization behind the foot is the largest provider of prosthetic limbs in the world (nearly 800,000 limbs fitted). The Jaipur foot costs $30 versus $8000 for a similar prosthesis in the US. The main advantage of the Jaipur foot is that is suits the environment context of people not only in India, but in the vast majority of so-called "Third World" nations (the Jaipur foot looks like a normal foot and permits its wearer to squat, unlike the Western version).

I suspect that millions of dollars are being poured into the design of a "$100 laptop" that are unlikely to succeed in contexts completely alien to that of the designers. The Jaipur foot was developed by a doctor who lived among, understood and empathized with the people for whom he created his innovation. Using the language of Christopher Alexander, the MIT design is probably much more the result of "unself-conscious" design than the Jaipur foot which was developed and evolved in context. It would have been far better for the "$100 laptop" design project to have operated out of a remote village in India or Botswana. Design flaws may have become evident much sooner.

As it stands, the OLPC may be one of the last gasps of the Media Lab which seems to be struggling for funding and relevance. I would sad to see it go -- the world needs more dreamers who design more than sheep that count.


Anonymous said...

It's a tough call. Perhaps their design/dev team is a little to tender footed for 3rd world living ;) Though a test group in one of these areas with a lot of influence in the project might be a good compromise.

P.S.-I feel the same way when I read about IDEO, I'd be really excited to work for them.

Murli said...

MIT types tend to be a pampered lot and while you have some of the mightiest minds inhabiting that campus, there is no substitute for contextual knowledge. Yup, I too love the IDEO environment. Maybe you should target them, Brooks.