This included companies like MASS Design and D-Rev, which have both come up with creative design solutions to improve the health of the poor. MASS Design collaborated with Dr. Paul Farmer to build community and reduce in hospital transmission of disease through architecture. The Butaro Hospital in Rwanda included views of the outdoors, group rooms, and hallways in the open air which were essential in reducing transmission of disease as well as improving health outcomes through the creation of a space of healing and dignity. Their projects not only tap into local materials but result in economic empowerment of communities through the creation of jobs as well as infrastructure (clinics, schools, etc) essential to improving human capital. D-Rev, on the other hand, is a non-profit which creates medical equipment for people living on less than $4 per day. Their high performance high quality ReMotion knee has been fitted to over 6,200 amputees, 75% of whom still use the product. MASS design and D-Rev’s solutions and designs didn’t compromise quality for affordability but found creative ways to make the two symbiotic by leveraging the communities strengths and understanding it’s capacity.
After listening to the 3rd or 4th example of the motivating work of innovators, it was easy to forget (yet essential to remember) that the speech began by stating that we’ve been culprits of bad design for years. This was until we neared the end, when Lynelle Cameron wrapped up the talk by adding the hopeful caveat that we have the “possibility to use the power of design to get it right this time”.
Reflecting on that speech and on TechCon, I’d like to think that our break-out sessions were a part of what it means to create “good design”, be it technologies or programs. They were interdisciplinary and inter-sectoral conversations about where our failures have been, and what we should be looking out for to ensure that we do justice to our innovation and aid policies. In one panel our discussion about strategies for integrating gender and development ranged from presentations about the successes and failures of gender working groups in Afghanistan to pigeon pea commercialization and agriculture in places such as Rwanda. In another session, we discussed the importance of integrating ethics into student curriculum surrounding entrepreneurship and teaching students to understand that innovation doesn’t only occur at an individual and household level but that of communities and states as well.
These break-out sessions also presented a more nuanced picture of what addressing suitability, scalability, and sustainability (all essential in “good design) looks like on the field from the conception of an idea to it’s follow-through. One of the panel discussions about the necessity of feedback mechanisms to improve uptake of new technologies hit home for the importance of suitability and context when designing products. Usage of a solar powered autoclave increased by simply changing a “progress bar” indicator, which locals found confusing, to a voice interface. This ensured that surgical materials were now being properly sterilized and saving lives in the process.
We may not have all the answers but this gathering of academics, entrepreneurs, students, investors, and development experts is a hopeful reminder that we haven’t stopped looking for the answers and that if there’s something that isn’t being done right we have an obligation to change it. For years we’ve been designing products that didn’t keep in mind accessibility and affordability to the populations they intend to serve dramatically reducing their impact, but now we’re sharing knowledge on how to reverse that trend. Yes, we have failed for years, but we’ve failed smart.